We define museums today as welcoming spaces devoted to sharing and education. This has not always been the case.
For a long time, museums were intended for private gatherings, reserved for the well-off with advanced degrees.
Over the past few decades, museums have been democratized, opening their doors to a more diverse public. Although today visitors provide a more accurate picture of society, in the Education Department of the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, our focus is on deepening a sense of belonging for visiting groups.
In the spring of 2023, we were fortunate enough to collaborate with Cindy Lebel, an instructor at the alternative school Le Vitrail, and her fabulous class of kindergarten students, for a second edition of the project School at the Museum. The nature of the project is to develop, in students of all ages, a profound sense of belonging to museums, and to show them that schools are not the only place of learning that they have access to. This project is spread out over several weeks and differs from regular school group visits in several ways. Notably, this is done through the repetition of an established routine, which makes it easier to maintain a common thread throughout their visits.
In our preliminary conversations with Cindy Lebel, we decided on and developed the broad outlines of the project’s four sessions. Together, we created an educational plan which addressed the notion of identity through a variety of creative and collaborative activities. Each week, we maintained the established routine while adapting the activities to fit the artworks we were looking at together.
Here is a glimpse of one day in the shoes of one of our youngsters—a day devoted to discovering the installation Freehand Absence (2023) by the Montréal artist of Colombian descent, Helena Martin Franco. This work addresses the themes of identity, bodily movement, and emotions, in which the artist explores the place of her body, as an immigrant woman, on the unceded Indigenous land of Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal.
Glimpse of the day
It was important that we gather and take the time to settle in before beginning the day together. This enabled us to make initial contact with the children before diving into the exhibition.
To prepare for this activity, Cindy told us about how she had explored the world of emotions in class beforehand with her students. She used, among other things, the book The Color Monster: The Story of Emotions (2018) by Anna Llenas. This initial activity familiarized the group with the themes we would take up throughout the day. When naming the emotions described in the book, the pupils made movements associated with different emotions to prepare for the day’s visit. The book enabled us to connect our theme of bodily movements and feelings to the learning activities that the students were already familiar with on the topic of emotions.
This brief break gave us a chance to talk together without pressure and helped establish a familiar routine.
We showed images by the artist to the children and shared her background through the use of storytelling. We also added supplementary images in order to demystify certain more complex terms, such as “diaspora” and “citizenship,” for example.
Freehand Absence, an artwork by artist Helena Martin Franco that inspired the activity Depicting emotions through movement.
Even before beginning a discussion about the artworks, the students freely explored the gallery space where Martin Franco’s work was displayed, and chose parts of the installation that they wished to draw. This was a way for them to make themselves at home in the exhibition space and interpret the works in their own manner.
Next, the children carried out a group description, guided by the educator. Here they had the opportunity to delve deeper into their observations of Martin Franco’s work Freehand Absence (2021-2023), which consists primarily of a projection onto the ground of the artist’s moving body while carrying out a performance. Based on the comments and feelings shared by the students, we emphasized the importance of body language and the emotions conveys through it.
At this stage, the students created their own work of art. This was a way of revisiting the themes explored in the exhibition and encouraging individual engagement by each student. Inspired by the Depicting emotions through movement activity and the work of Martin Franco, the children traced the outlines of their bodies collectively in order to create a colourful mural reflecting the emotions they felt while creating it.
Photo: Marie-Hélène Lemaire
This was a moment for sharing and listening. The children discussed the highlights of their morning before the activity concluded.
After each visit, Cindy took the reins of artistic exploration as part of the school curriculum. By continuing the discussion of the topics addressed during the class visit of the PHI Foundation, she connected the cultural centre and the school. Following our exploration of Helena Martin Franco’s work Freehand Absence, Cindy continued the collaborative drawings in her classroom. In this way, each week started out from ideas and themes taken up in the previous visit in order to develop the students’ understanding of the major themes of the exhibition, in particular that of identity. Our wish was that the students would bring their new artistic knowledge to the rest of their studies.
For another activity session, we invited the artist Shanie Tomassini to design and lead a creative workshop connected to her installation Screen Glimmer under a Moonless Sky (2023). This enabled the students to explore the theme of identity in greater depth, especially in relation to nature and its four elements. The students questioned Tomassini about her life, artistic practice, and inspirations. During the workshop, the children, with the artist, became more familiar with sculpting, working with modelling clay and incorporating natural elements expressive of their collective identity. These principles were also revisited in class with their teacher Cindy after the visit. She led an activity using the same technique, but this time with sculpting clay rather than with modelling clay.
The progress being made in the democratization of museums is becoming increasingly discernible in the art world. Our mission to make the museum accessible lies in intuitive learning, free exploration and collaborative creation. Throughout the course of this second edition of School at the Museum, our team had the opportunity to witness the great bond that exists between Cindy and her students. Her sustained involvement was of great importance to our team. In fact, we share the same values and objectives: to introduce learners from a very early age to cultural experiences, and to let them express confidently and freely their opinions and artistic interpretations. Through projects such as School at the Museum, we commit to creating a healthy educational environment which will give rise, we hope, to more long-term collaborations between schools and the PHI Foundation.
Note: In the fall of 2022, we mounted a pilot project of this initiative with a 5th and 6th grade class at Le Vitrail during the exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work DANCING LIGHTS THAT FLEW UP TO THE UNIVERSE. You can read more on this topic in the article “Jeanne, of course, I remember your name.”
Kim Johnson is an educator at the PHI Foundation. She completed a BA in Art Education at Concordia University in 2016. Kim is involved in the democratization of visual art through her educational and artistic projects in various community centres and cultural institutions in Montréal. As a visual artist, she draws her inspiration from human connections, the feminine and nature.
Prakash Krishnan is a researcher and cultural worker in the fields of digital media, contemporary art, archives, and accessibility. He completed a master’s degree in Media Studies at Concordia University in 2021 and has penned a number of essays, articles, and reviews for international publications. Prakash is an educator at the PHI Foundation and works with various local organizations, artist-run centres, and collectives on cultural mediation programming and accessibility.
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