A project aimed at increasing schools' access to one of Scotland's important art collections has had an enthusiastic welcome, writes Deedee Cuddihy.
About 300 children took part in the launch last month of a pound;100,000 project aimed at encouraging more visitors, especially children, to Glasgow University's Hunterian Art Gallery, which is famed for its collections of James McNeill Whistler and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. During a week of activities, classes from 10 primary and special needs schools attended workshops on the 19th century Scottish artist Sir David Wilkie, who is famous mainly for his genre pictures in the Dutch style.
Although Wilkie's refined etchings, drawings and watercolours seemed an unlikely stimulus for children, Hunterian education officer Monica Callaghan had the kids literally jumping up and down with excitement as she encouraged them to look for the meaning in the pictures.
Working in the gallery, the classes went on to produce their own interpretations of a favourite artwork and then described it in words and sounds, including sniffing and sneezing, shouting and foot stamping.
Ms Callaghan was delighted with the workshops and so, clearly, were the teachers and their pupils, one of whom said: "I didn't like art until now and I really like David's pictures. Can we come here every week?" There was, however, one member of the public who was so disturbed by the sound of children enjoying themselves in the gallery that he wrote complaining: "This new policy, apparently aimed at making children feel at home in galleries, is destroying the purpose of them. I will not be returning to the Hunterian so long as it continues and I would advise others who are seriously interested in art to do likewise."
Mungo Campbell, director of the Hunterian, while sympathising with the disgruntled visitor, does not share his view and has no plans to modify the project, which has attracted Heritage Lottery funding (under the public access scheme).
He says: "Our new education programme hs been designed to attract more people to the gallery, focusing on our graphics collection of 30,000 Old Master prints.
"Prints are a difficult subject, particularly for children who have been brought up on colour and aren't used to black and white images. So we've had to work hard to come up with a programme that will engage new audiences and make prints more palatable and interesting."
He promises schools are not being offered that kind of educational experience which "seem to have more to do with geography than art, where the children are handed clipboards and told to tick a box when they manage to find their way to the model of a dinosaur.
"It is an expensive project and very resource intensive," Mr Campbell admits, "but it's worth it if it helps children to develop the ability to really look at things and get them thinking beyond the straight and narrow of facts in textbooks."
The schools' element of the project will continue over the next two years with an annual week of intensive workshops running at the Hunterian Art Gallery for Glasgow schools and at the Lilley Art Gallery in Milngavie for East Dunbartonshire schools.
"Although no secondary schools wanted to take part in this year's pilot workshops, invitations will still go out to them in the future," says Ms Callaghan.
"The second part of the schools' element is aimed at Advanced Higher art pupils.
"Working in consultation with teachers and Scottish Qualifications Authority officials, we will stage two art exhibitions drawn from our collections and curated entirely by Advanced Higher art pupils. The first will take place at the Lilley Art Gallery with the help of East Dunbartonshire pupils in 2002; the second will be at the Hunterian in 2003 with Glasgow pupils."
As part of the wider education project, a programme of weekend and holiday workshops for school-age children has been launched at the Hunterian.
For further information, contact the education officer, Monica Callaghan, tel 0141 330 2838