Banging the drum for McManus

5th March 2010 at 00:00
After four years of closure, Dundee's art gallery and museum opens with a flourish - and a new education suite and programme for schools

When the re-opening of the McManus Galleries in Dundee - now called The McManus - was delayed by two years, the news was met with a groan. But for the creative learning team, it turned out to be a boon.

Housed in a splendid Gothic Revival-style building which started out as the Albert Institute for Science, Literature and the Arts in 1867, The McManus is managed by Dundee City Council and holds the city's main collection of archaeology, art, history, natural sciences and world cultures.

When the building closed in October 2005 and the pound;11.4 million refurbishment of the gallery and museum began, it marked the beginning of a new, nomadic existence for the creative learning team.

Starting off in Sidlaw View Primary, where the team was based for over three months, they began a tour of selected schools with outreach work.

"That first project at Sidlaw View was called `what is a museum?'" recalls Christine Millar, the senior creative learning officer. "We took out some of the collection and each class from P1 to P7 got a different theme and a different collection object, from Egyptian artefacts to musical instruments.

"They made their own objects or art and we worked with the family learning group after school as well. At the end, we had an exhibition in the school."

Since then, the team - two members of staff and as many dancers, artists and dramatists as a project demands - has been to Ardler, St Fergus, Claypotts Castle, Craigowl and Glebelands primaries, often spending a term working with pupils, sometimes shorter stints of a day a week for six weeks.

It has been a four-year advertising campaign for the new facility, Ms Millar says. "The level of excitement and interest within the classes is really high. It feels like we've made quite a significant investment by working in this way."

Now the gallery is opening, the team will concentrate on welcoming schools and other visitors in.

The education programme has been revamped. Where previously it dovetailed with visual arts exhibitions at the gallery, now the whole collection will be mobilised to inspire learning, as will all museum staff.

"Learning is not just the responsibility of the learning team now," she explains.

For schools, there are two main programmes - "Local Hero" for primary and "Our City" for secondary - both of which explore the art, heritage, environment and architecture of Dundee.

Outreach, however, will remain part of the creative learning team's work.

"Museums have to work hard to make that connection with communities," explains Ms Millar. "It's really important that the museum is not seen as this place that other people come to - it's there for everybody. McManus is absolutely for the people of Dundee and culturally it should be in their vocabulary."

The longer closure has also meant that the new education programme is being launched just as Curriculum for Excellence is taking off in schools. Had the refurbishment gone to schedule, they might have peaked too early, Ms Millar speculates. Today there is more meat on the bones of the new curriculum; that has helped them shape what they want to offer.

"What we maybe started off thinking was appropriate changed over the years as we've gone towards Curriculum for Excellence," she admits.

The learning spaces for schools within The McManus are "brilliant", she continues.

"We wanted a space that could fold up, a space where you could hide things or bring things out. The most important thing was flexibility, so that we weren't limited to having a learning space aimed at one particular type of learning."

The end result fits that brief perfectly. The main learning space is a large studio with messy area, complete with sinks at one end and computers at the other. However, both these areas can be concealed behind sliding panels, creating a white cube, which can be anything artists working with pupils want it to be, from dance studio to mini-gallery.

Across the corridor from the studio is the study space - "a smaller, more reflective space", says Ms Millar.

"We have IT and books and active whiteboards which will allow us to have presentations and seminars if we want to. We can also take small groups in here and do handling sessions."

The McManus Creative Learning Suite also comes complete with office space, a small kitchen, a cloakroom and toilets.

"It's a self-contained unit," says Ms Millar. "It's great."


Welcome Home

Since last August, the creative learning team has been working with six primary schools in a multi-arts performance project to celebrate the return of collection objects to The McManus.

The Welcome Home Project was delivered in partnership with Dundee Rep Theatre and each school worked with artists, musicians and drama specialists to explore the new gallery. Themes included social history, ceramics, natural history, Victorian art, the history of The McManus, and Dundee and the world. A song was written especially for the project, and the children, wearing costumes to represent some of the artefacts, performed the song and their own presentations on January 21 at the gallery and museum.

Local Hero (Primary)

The primary schools programme invites pupils to explore the role that Dundee's people, buildings and collections play in shaping the way the city sees and defines itself today. It offers a range of arts and heritage activities, including active looking and learning sessions, research visits and creative projects, planned in consultation with participating schools.

Our City (Secondary)

Secondary schools can explore the art, heritage, environment and architecture of Dundee as seen through the eyes of the young people who live there. Tailored to different groups, the programme works with the interests and experiences of young people to encourage creativity and raise awareness of issues of citizenship, community and diversity.

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