Keep pupils in the picture

24th February 2012 at 00:00
Scotland's newly-renovated National Portrait Gallery is stretching the canvas of learning across the curriculum.

A riot of reds, oranges and greens splurged in acrylic across a canvas must surely be the most colourful illustration of one of Scotland's leading scientists and his work. This image of Edinburgh physicist Professor Peter Higgs was inspired by the imagined whirling of the mysterious and undiscovered particles to which he gave his name.

Opposite, three eminent Dundee doctors of medicine peer ghoulishly out of another painting, looking more like harbingers of death than the groundbreaking lifesavers that they are.

Welcome to Pioneers of Science at the renovated Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. It is one of a range of new displays and educational facilities at the city gallery, offering inspiring learning experiences for pupils.

Few visitors to the science display will miss the piece de resistance - the grinning death mask of Dolly the Sheep, placed between Higgs and the medics.

"That's quite freaky!" one young visitor laughs, as she spots the creamy- coloured copy of Scotland's world-famous clone.

The layout of the exhibition adds to the spirit of discovery, with large photographs of Dolly's creators mounted on a wall just around the corner, an image of team leader Ian Wilmut snapped through the open door of his lab.

Beneath one of the large windows letting light into this once-gloomy historic building, visitors are invited to sit at a row of modern desks and leave artistic responses on postcards to questions including "Which animal that is now extinct or endangered would you like to clone?"

Dinosaur and dodo are among today's suggestions. It seems the older generation enjoys interactive exhibits too, as scribbled drawings of visitors' most memorable moments watching TV - invented by the Scot John Logie Baird - include man's historic lunar landing.

Behind the science display is another exhibition: Migration Stories: Pakistan.

Here, a series of family portraits explore the cultural diversity of Scotland, focusing on the largest ethnic community in the country today.

Shaheen Unis, co-founder of the Edinburgh Mela, was a bride of just 16 when she arrived in Britain from Lahore in 1967. Still favouring the colourful costume of her homeland, she is photographed surrounded by grandchildren in a mix of eastern- and western-style clothes.

Among them is Zain Unis, 11, who by chance is here with his classmates from Flora Stevenson Primary in Edinburgh. You can't get much better at bringing art to life than that, and he seems pretty pleased to be a living part of the new gallery.

The two P7 classes from his school are on a self-guided tour with their teachers to help with their current topic looking at influential Scots, the impact of migration and the whole question of what it means to be Scottish today.

Upstairs in the Age of Improvement gallery - dedicated to the Enlightenment - Zain's class looks at weighty portraits of the great and the good, many by leading artist of the time Sir Henry Raeburn.

"I like all the colours and the details. I think that one's the best," Zain says, pointing to a Raeburn oil painting of 18th-century Lord Justice Clerk, Robert Macqueen. Known as the "hanging judge", he sent numerous criminals to the gallows, including the infamous Deacon Brodie.

"He looks like he's going to laugh," adds Zain, who also looks as if he may giggle in his own portrait downstairs.

The most popular figure in the gallery is, unsurprisingly, Mary Queen of Scots. Before the multimillion-pound restoration, her image was squashed in a dark corner near a Jacobite painting which schools also often came to see.

Now the portrait of Scotland's famous queen is illuminated at the front of the new "Reformation to Revolution" gallery, dressed imperiously in a long, black gown with elaborate grey collar, ruff and cuffs.

"She wore a dress like that when she was about to be beheaded! We did a newspaper report on it at school," Erin O'Sullivan says excitedly.

The nine-year-old is one of about 30 pupils from Roseburn Primary in Edinburgh who are on a guided tour. The enthusiastic youngsters have been studying Mary Queen of Scots for weeks and they clearly know a lot already.

Today, they learn a lot more from gallery educator Leanora Olmi, who tells them that, actually, this painting was commissioned after the Queen's death in a bid to restore her reputation.

"There are lots of little clues in these paintings which tell us about the person," she continues, going on to discuss the finery in which the Queen is depicted and the crucifix which signifies her Catholic faith.

The class are here with their art teacher, Gillian Denvir, who is impressed by her first school visit to the revamped gallery.

She says: "It's a fantastic resource to have in the city centre - it's so accessible and the staff here are so welcoming.

"The fact that you can come on a free guided tour is also fantastic. I'm already thinking that we should be writing this into our plan for the whole school, so that every class comes here.

"We've already used the online gallery and pupils have spent weeks drawing and looking at tonal work. Someone said today: `Can we paint them now when we go back to school?', so I'm delighted!"

Although the Roseburn Primary pupils happily nip up and down the stairs, there is a new lift specially designed to accommodate an entire class.

Around the gallery, people of all ages fiddle with the Art Hotspots, where touch screens offer games and information about exhibits, in text, image and audio form.

The education suite, where school workshops are delivered, is also shared with adults. Today, a group are doing creative writing based on portraits they have seen.

Meanwhile, the lunch room is just for schools, and is particularly welcomed by those coming from outside the city.

New options for schools since the gallery re-opened last December include a series of themed trails, which classes can follow independently to give them a specific view of the gallery.

These include a "Secret Nature" trail, originally aimed at families, which is also followed by primary classes, encouraging children to look closely at the detail in the artworks to find objects and suggest what people are doing.

Staff stress that while there is still plenty for primary pupils, the gallery also offers numerous educational opportunities for secondary schools.

Tricia Allerston, head of education, says: "We have very loyal schools that come here, especially primaries, but we also want to broaden it and bring in more secondaries too. The clothing is already attracting more secondaries."

She is referring to the numerous incredible outfits, many of which feature in another new trail targeted at secondary pupils interested in fashion and design.

First stop on the "Catwalk Collection" is Queen Charlotte, sumptuously dressed in coronation robes featuring a distinctive ermine coat.

The trail leads on to the gallery's new Jacobite exhibition, which highlights this colourful period of Scottish history with portraits including Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald in bright tartans.

Back downstairs, a new school group enters the Great Hall, eagerly pointing up at the restored frieze charting Scotland's history from prehistoric times.

Joanna Mawdsley, schools officer, says: "It really has the wow factor. Before, it was always quite dark and quiet in here; it felt more like you were going into a cathedral.

"Schools just love coming into the building now. It's so much more open and accessible, bright and busy."


Making Faces (Early years, 2hrs)

What do facial expressions tell us about people's feelings? Nursery children can create their own artwork inspired by a variety of portraits in the gallery.

Heads and Shoulders (2hrs 30mins)

Pupils sketch a range of sculptures and paintings and produce a 3D bust in clay. Or they can create a self-portrait using various materials and techniques.

Image and Identity - A Portraiture Workshop (2hrs 30mins)

Photography is among the methods pupils can use to explore self-image, using exhibits for inspiration. This is aimed at senior pupils.

In the Frame - The Jacobite Cause (2hrs 30mins)

Drama workshops exploring the stories of people in the light and shadows of portraits. Who were they? What do their appearances and actions mean? This workshop is only available on two more dates, March 9 and March 23.

Workshop costs

Whole class (up to 33 pupils) - pound;95

Half class (up to 16 pupils) - pound;45

Early years (up to 12 pupils) - pound;35

The tours

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes (45mins, for early years)

A fun look at portraits to find out more about the people and places portrayed.

Meet the Jacobites (1hr)

Discover the people determined to return a Stuart monarch to the throne, and encounter their enemies. Come face to face with Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald and investigate what life was like for exiled Scots at the Jacobite court in Rome.

Highlights tour (1hr)

Radicals, rogues, poets and politicians - meet those who have shaped Scotland over the centuries as you visit displays which inspire discussion and activities.

Who are you? (1hr)

A portrait can capture the likeness and character of someone at a specific moment in time. Discover the artists' clues to the personality, interests and beliefs of the person they have painted.

All tours are free. Workshops and tours can be adapted to suit most ages and stages. For more information call the National Galleries on 0131 624 6410, email or visit

Photo credit: Lisa Fleming

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