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New age dawns at national galleries

Forget the stern image of Scotland's great art houses; children are welcome. New head of education Maureen Finn tells Julie Morrice about her plans.

The foyer of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street, Edinburgh, is about as welcoming as a morgue. Monumental white marble likenesses of Carlyle, Burns and other Scots stand in frozen poses, while on the window sills crowd the corpseless heads of lesser luminaries. It is a world away from the friendly atmosphere that has become the norm in many hands-on, child-centred attractions. Here, one feels, children should not be heard and probably not even seen.

Friendly and smiling among the statuary stands Maureen Finn, the new education director of the National Galleries of Scotland since January and the woman charged with persuading teachers, children and families that, contrary to first impressions, the galleries are ready to welcome them. In fact, she tells of a time when she rushed to a couple with a yelling baby in the National Gallery to put them at their ease. "You should never be frightened about bringing children into a gallery," she says.

With long experience of working on education projects in Glasgow and London, Ms Finn exudes confidence about her job. "There is a need for tailor-made projects to attract those who don't see the galleries as being of benefit to them," she says.

She has big plans, but then she has a big job. She will need to change mind-sets both within and outwith the galleries. Hitherto, their education programme has centred on a traditional lecture series for adults. Schools have tended to telephone to ask to visit a specific exhibition or explore a particular theme.

Ms Finn wants to change the emphasis. She wants to woo teachers with special evening previews of exhibitions; education packs are being prepared to add to the experience of coming to the gallery; partnerships with local authorities, social inclusion networks and other arts organisations are being explored. "We need to reach the unconverted and to address the idea of public ownership of the galleries."

She now heads a department of seven, including two new outreach officers and two people responsible for school groups. She sees the galleries and their collections as a fantastic resource, but not one to be treated with kid gloves.

"I'm a great believer in using a medium to the best advantage," she says. "We can do maths, science, personal and social development, any aspect of expressive arts I" She is interested in how people learn from art and what they learn. "Looking at paintings in the right way is a way of finding out about yourself and your culture and where you live, just as much as it is a way of finding out about the artist and where it was painted and that culture."

So how is the management at the national galleries responding to these radical plans? "Oh," she says nonchalantly, "I don't know. I'm presenting it to the director tomorrow. But it'll be fine. There is an awareness of the need to be inclusive."

With the background of the Scottish Executive's cultural strategy, she is probably right.

Ms Finn was brought up in Campbeltown, a town without an art gallery. There was, however, a museum featuring "dead lizards and wartime ration books". Her first visit to an art gallery was to Glasgow's awe-inspiring Kelvingrove. She was eight, and on the way to have her tonsils removed. "I probably didn't go again until I was 16."

And what does she remember from that visit? "The revolving door," she says, looking briefly nostalgic. "That's what the job is all about, isn't it. How do you equal the thrill of the revolving door?" With verve and imagination, it seems. One of her first projects will be to distribute 1,000 postcards with a picture of a David Mach sculpture and an invitation to children to write down the question they would most like the artist to answer, and then come along to a live question-and-answer session to hear his response.

Other plans include the link between the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Rembrandt's Women exhibition at the National Gallery on The Mound. Writers as diverse as Edwina Currie, Jenny Eclair and Marina Warner have been invited to choose one painting and come along and talk about it. Both these events introduce a live excitement which is not normally associated with the national galleries.

In the long term, Ms Finn will have to prepare for the Playfair Project which, by 2004, aims to provide new exhibition space capable of accommodating international exhibitions, a 200-seat lecture theatre, a seminar space and an education room, an information and communications technology suite, restaurant and a shop, all in the underground area between the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery. "It has massive implications for education," she says. "It will be an area that visiting groups can call their own."

In the short term, she is keen to establish a regular audience of schools visiting the gallery, start a club for young people aged 16-25 and hold family days at the galleries. The idea is that people can turn up knowing there will be something on for them, whether it be a themed gallery trail, a session led by a working artist or a hands-on workshop. Ultimately, she hopes, people will feel they can visit at any time, without the need for a special event or invitation.

"We need to maintain long-term relationships. If they get a good experience, if they feel they've gone out the door with more than they came in with, then we're half way there."

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