A very modern art gallery

13th November 1998 at 00:00
WORKING WITH MODERN BRITISH ART. Tate Collection at Tate Liverpool. A guide for teachers. edited by Toby Jackson. Liverpool John Moores University and Tate Gallery Liverpool Pounds 14.95

In the past 10 years, the Tate Liverpool education team under Toby Jackson has been an inspiration to many of us working in museums and galleries.

They have reached out to prisons, to suburban shopping centres and to many people who think, (if asked), that contemporary art is a waste of time. Tate Liverpool's track record includes rewarding exhibitions - usually not available afterwards in Millbank - a very useful educational CD-Rom, and publications for teachers.

This one is a welcome collaboration between a gallery and a university: the result is a resource that is inviting and practical. The 16 A4 colour cards have the kind of text on the back that would make successful information panels or sound guide text. The teacher's guide treads the tightrope between - at one extreme - the scrappy minimalism that is sometimes offered to teachers in dealing with modern art, and - at the other end - the Calvinist sledgehammer that so often accompanies "Modern Art as Substitute Religious Experience" in American, and occasionally British, art education.

The choice of artists means that this is not a site-specific publication: it can be used conveniently by primary teachers and above with any collection of modern British art, particularly for its deft historical background. Gardiner, Nevinson, Gertler are here, and Blake, Riley, Bacon, but also Hirst, Milroy, Yass. We can trace the changing role of the artist from heroic modernists to restaurant-owning YBAs like Hirst ("I curate my own works as if I were a group of artists"). All these artists are on display in Liverpool until April 2000 "and possibly for some years after". One of the curators explores in the guide the thinking behind this particular display. On the educational side, there is succinct and practical advice on the visit itself, and on cross-curricular work. Key works are analysed in terms of place (backyard, cinema, street protest), clues (sink, flags, trumpet) and historical context. The emphasis is very much on "working with" - contextualising, questioning, and teasing out. Key works are grouped by themes as in gallery workshops and talks. The text has been carefully honed.

Without the animation of this approach, where mystique is put to one side, and pedestals stored, the result would be like the title of one of Damien Hirst's works illustrated here - "Forms without Life". Instead, what we have (at a very modest price) is a fulfilment of another of his idiosyncratic titles, "Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding".

John Reeve is head of education at the British Museum

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