Anne Cowan visits the new Dean Gallery in Edinburgh and finds it has plenty to interest schools
With such an embarrassment of visual riches, education staff of the National Galleries of Scotland are not short of material with which to work. They now have another source with the opening of the Dean Gallery at the end of last month.
This 19th-century grade A listed building was an orphanage, a nursing college and then the home for Lothian Region's advisory service. In its latest incarnation, it provides amazing space for the Dada and surrealist collections, the Paolozzi Gift and - for the first time - an education room for the National Galleries of Scotland.
The impact of art galleries, the scale of their rooms, is often what impresses children first. The Dean is an imposing building in a parkland setting. The interior springs surprises of colour and form. The faithful re-creation of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi's studio - cluttered, personal and intimate - cannot help but be a hit.
Found objects, toy animals, plaster heads, piano keyboards, old magazines and a rich variety of other material crowd every surface. Fiona Pearson, Paolozzi curator at the new Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, sees the studio as a visual reference to the way an artist thinks. She quotes Magnus Linklater, chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, who said of Paolozzi's workplace: "Welcome to my mind".
There will be deliberate echoes of the studio in the education room. Decorated in primary colours, it is now tidy, but is due to be the scene of an explosion of inspired creative fireworks. Glass cases line the walls, ready to house material from Paolozzi's studio alongside sculptures, tools, gadgets, postcards, photos and, eventually, original works created by visitors to the room.
So what comes first? Do education staff plan by starting with certain exhibits in mind, or are they led by demand from the schools? "Both," says education officer Siobhan Dougherty, who is already preparing to bring in the first school groups to the Dean. "We know the collections inside out, and we use that knowledge when we liaise with teachers. Anyone wanting to bring a class along can talk over their requirements.
"We might concentrate on four or five works, and we will tailor a visit to the needs of a class. It's useful to know what the children are doing, as this helps make the visit as relevant and enjoyable as possible."
When it comes to preparation, though, pupils can have too much of a good thing. Gallery staff prefer the children to come to the works with a fresh eye. "It's better if they haven't seen reproductions, postcards and so on, beforehand," says Siobhan Dougherty. The original works should be the starting point.
"We find that an hour to focus on a selection of paintings or sculptures is about right. The balance between gallery talks and activities in the education room is still being planned, but we want the room to be a natural extension of the gallery spaces, so practical work evolves from looking and discussing."
Siobhan admits that the chance to focus on sculpture is an exciting prospect. "It lets loose the imagination," she says. "For us, the activities we have been planning for the new room will dovetail with the existing schools' programmes across the other national galleries. We're interested in cross-curricular activities, tying up art with writing and drama, for instance, and in developing strategies for looking at and interpreting the collections we have here. We cater for every age from four upwards."
At an advanced level, postgraduate students, researchers and academics will have access to archive material, a library and a study room.
Gallery staff say that comments of the "my baby brother can do better" type are surprisingly rare. More common is a questioning attitude, as in "how much did that cost?" which keeps staff on their toes. Unfailing interest is shown in the donations box, and great is the speculation as to the total of its contents. "But is it art?" might well be an innocent question at the Dean Gallery.
The Dean Gallery, Belford Road, Edinburgh. Education department, National Galleries of Scotland, tel: 0131 624 6200 (same number for all national galleries)