When a village found itself with a new gallery, children from a local primary school were invited to 'hang' one of the rooms. Ann Fitzgerald asked them what it was like working in the professional art world.
What does the curator of an art exhibition do? If you ask this question to pupils at Kineton primary school, 32 children will rush to tell you. For they don't just know what a curator does, they've had hands-on experience of the job. It's "exciting" and "difficult", they say, and "it makes you feel important".
Kineton, a picturesque village in the heart of Warwickshire, is not the first place you'd expect to find eight to 11-year-olds rubbing shoulders with the professional art world. But suddenly they had a new art gallery in their midst in the elegant Adam-style, manor house of Compton Verney. After having stood empty for 50 years, the house was purchased by the Compton Verney Trust with help from the Peter Moores Foundation, to house the PMF's collection of Old Masters and modern art, plus new acquisitions (the gallery has a purchasing budget of pound;1.5 million a year) and the British folk art collection.
headteacher, Chris Edmonds says: "I wanted the children to have a high-profile involvement with the new gallery. The house and park (laid out by the 18th-century landscape gardener Capability Brown) have always been an eye-catching feature in the area. Now it's a wonderful, new environment for them."
With the help of the museum's education and outreach officer, Deirdre Butley, and Vikki Holroyd, teachers' consultant for Warwickshire Artists Team, a six-month project was devised. By July over 600 children from Warwickshire primary schools will have participated in workshops with professional artists at the gallery, with follow-up sessions in their schools.
The three rooms housing the British folk art collection were designated for education work, and the first task for 32 pupils from Kineton primary was to "hang" one of these rooms, selecting from the collection 25 pictures and artefacts for "their" gallery.
On a dreary morning while the house was still full of builders' dust, the young curators arrived to spend a day making their selection, grouping the works into themes, and starting to think about titles and signs.
Prior to visiting the gallery, the children had had a briefing at school where they'd practised making these kinds of decisions with laminates of some of the items in the collection. Their teachers also introduced them to the style of the paintings, the 18th and 19th-century worlds they record, and the variety of subjects. But this was a shadow of the experience awaiting them on their first visit to the gallery.
"Walking about among all those pictures on the floor was exciting," said Louis, and Lisa added: "It was nice to hold the pictures, not just look at them on the wall. You could see all the details and little cracks." They admitted that making the selection was difficult - it was eventually decided by vote - and even harder was finding themes and titles.
By the end of the day the children had agreed on four themes, with working titles such as "Animals" and "Leisure Activities". Back at school these had to be refined into striking captions rather than explanatory phrases, which generated a lot of language work, says Chris Edmonds.
The four sections finally became: In the RingOut of the Ring; Before the Cities; Scales and Hair; I Hate to See People Grinning. This last phrase describes a wall full of human encounters, and the children talked eagerly about the feelings the pictures evoked. "That man's a sadist," said Tom severely, of the picture of a dentist extracting a man's tooth with a hefty pull on a piece of string - now titled "Ouch".
Not only titles for the pictures but questions to stimulate interest had to be devised. These have been printed on laminates for visitors to read as they study these extraordinary, quirky works of art, most of them anonymous and untitled.
Then there was a session with two professional picture hangers, Adam Smith and Jude Abbott, in which the children considered concepts of height, spacing and grouping, and how, technically, you keep the pictures on the walls, or display objects, such as a large, cast-iron kettle.
Other classes at Kineton primary made sketches for the folk art poster and the preview evening invitations. The reception year created a large, lively collage in which pink, clay pigs come tumbling out of a shed and rollick all over the picture.
Teachers have benefited from in-service training, and GCSE photography students from Trinity School, Leamington Spa, recorded the different stages of the restoration. Ten primary schools from villages and small towns in the county have sculpture, textiles and poetry workshops to look forward to.
Compton Verney Art Museum,tel: 01926 641777. On July 4 the schools that took part in the project come together to see each others' work, some of which will then tour the county