September is back to school month, and so, with our shoes still shiny and our pencils still sharp, I thought I would take the opportunity to explore how museums and galleries can work with schools.

At Towner recently, we have been gearing up for the start of our Annual Schools Exhibition project. In the past, this project has been a very successful way of working with the local schools – last year we had 43 schools, colleges, and academies taking part from across Sussex (see main image of the annual schools exhibition private view back in March).

The work the children produced explored the built heritage of the South Downs national park and it certainly struck a chord with Towner’s visitors, leading to some brilliant comments.  This one really stood out:This is the most interesting and stimulating exhibition I’ve seen at Towner. How lucky for the students to be working with truly outstanding art teachers who deserve great credit for eliciting these responses.”

Responses like this, from the general public, really underline just how much everyone can get out of a project like this, as well as demonstrating that art galleries don’t have to be full of Old Masters or slick contemporary pieces.

Choosing a theme is half the battle: after exploring the Downs, this year we’ll be taking our cue from painter Paul Klee, who said that “Drawing is taking a line for a walk” by exploring lines. We’re hoping to remove as many barriers to participation as possible: anyone can make a line, so even those who might not feel like they’re particularly arty can get involved.

As you might expect, a project like this doesn’t just happen out of nothing. The Learning Team at Towner chooses and researches artwork from the collection to inspire the groups and produce teachers’ notes as well as organising events to help support the project such as a teachers’ launch, which is a great way to answer any questions as well as build up relationships with teachers and hear their initial ideas.

Projects like the Annual Schools Exhibition can also be a great way to encourage school visits as it provides a reason and a context for a class to visit the gallery. Not only do the children explore art and techniques, but at the end of the day their work will be on display for everyone to see. It can also feed into qualifications such as Arts Award.

In terms of audience, projects like this can do wonders for welcoming in those who wouldn’t normally visit – just think, every child involved would have a reason to visit, as would their parents, grandparents, second-cousin-twice-removed … You can see where I’m going with this.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that projects like this can only take place in a gallery setting, like Towner. But, there’s no reason to prevent collaborative installations like this happening in other settings too – The British Museum regularly displays collaborative pieces made by visitors in the Great Court during school holidays as well as pieces made by supplementary schools like the ones mentioned in this blog post (I particularly like ‘The Reimagining of the Palace of Persepolis’).

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