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Space to enjoy treasures at Somerset House

An Evening with Elton John has lead to the creation of a new dedicated learning centre at Somerset House on The Strand. The charity event raised pound;1 million for the centre in the palatial 18th century mansion which onced housed tax offices and laundries and is now home to a winter ice rink and three spectacular collections from the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Hermitage Rooms and the Gilbert Collection.

The new facilities are situated in the vaulted spaces under the east wing, once used as wash houses and kitchens and include three equipped classrooms, two seminar rooms, an exhibition space, a resource room and cloakroom.

Schools will be able to study the riches of the building itself and the works of art in the galleries. Ghislaine Kenyon, formerly head of education at the National Gallery, is the new the director of the learning. She says the new centre will be a place where schools can really make the most of everything they have to offer. "Somerset House is spectacular and a visit here can be very daunting. Now that we have this fantastic set of rooms we hope that children who visit will feel at home here."

To celebrate the opening, the education department has been working with teachers and pupils from Claremont high school in Harrow, Oaklands school in Iselworth, St Catherine's RC girls' school in Bexley Heath and Windmill Hill primary school in Swindon, to produce the Fresh Visions series of books. These focus on art and sculpture at the Courtauld Institute and the Hermitage Rooms which provide a home-grown replica of the Winter Palace of St Petersburg; the architecture of Somerset House; and the decorative arts from the Gilbert Collection. The three books, which cost pound;9.99 for the set, feature artwork, creative writing, reflections and lesson ideas inspired by numerous visits by the schools to Somerset House.

Some of the pupils' work has also been exhibited in the learning centre centre and it covers various aspects of the curriculum from art to creative writing to design and technology.

Ms Kenyon recommends that school visitors set aside at least a generous half- day, but don't try to attempt too much. She and her staff will discuss requirements in advance with a visiting teacher and suggest a fairly general introduction to begin with, such as "How to Look at Paintings" or "Colour and Form". "Materials" would be a suitable topic in the Gilbert Collection or groups might prefer to do a workshop about the building itself, perhaps learning some of the methods of the archeologist or exploring the changing use of buildings. But whatever they choose, they should also allow time to enjoy the magnificent surroundings, go out on to the river terrace or explore the Fountain Court.

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