Scope of project, and summary of findings

The Laing Art Gallery wanted to develop the interpretation of the portrait collection for schools and families linked to the 18th and 19 century collection and Painted Faces exhibition. We currently deliver portrait sessions for schools led by the learning staff. We wanted to research how other museums deliver sessions and also look at self-led resources available to school groups. Another aim was to research learning resources within the gallery spaces available for families to help interpret the collections for visitors.

Summary of objectives
•    Research into methods of encouraging visitor engagement with the paintings
•    Explore innovative and lively interpretation methods for portraiture
•    Develop sustainable resources for schools

The research was based on visits to the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Walker Art Gallery and Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

We found that galleries provide resources in terms of trails and packs, but there was little interpretation for visitors built into the exhibition spaces themselves. Visitors could pick up a trail from reception area to take into the space or download before the visit. The Walker Art Gallery has a dedicated area for children to explore, which has paintings and objects from the collection displayed throughout. We observed sessions at National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. The sessions we watched were gallery-based, the interpreters didn’t use resources, the sessions we observed were discussion-based. Children would sit in front of a painting and the group leader asked open questions which engaged the children in discussion about the main themes of paintings.


Primary school pupil participating in a Portraits Workshop at the Laing Art Gallery. © Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Primary school pupil participating in a Portraits Workshop at the Laing Art Gallery. © Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

We intend to update and enhance the existing interpretation within the gallery spaces. We currently have on display What Are they Like?, an exhibition of illustrations of famous people by famous illustrators, and we have added questions into the text panels as interpretation throughout the exhibition, and also created a trail for visitors.

We are currently working with the curator on the display of the 18th and 19th century gallery. A resource cupboard is being developed which will be located in the gallery space. The cupboard will contain costume, trails, books, and objects linked to the paintings on display.

We have recently developed the under-fives children are at the Laing and took inspiration for some of the new resources in the space from the Walker Art Gallery.

When the new 18th and 19th century display is opened in September 2013 we will host a teacher training event to launch new resources available to schools.

Online resources are still being researched and created. We are piloting sessions in schools relating to paintings by John Martin, which are in the new display opening September 2013. The outcomes of these sessions will feed into the school offer linked to the new display.

Impact on professional development

Being able to visit other venues is so important to ensure that we are reviewing our offer and learning about new ways of working. Observing the sessions at National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery was really inspiring. It is important to allow the children to sit in front of a painting and explore the work on display, and have time to take in their surroundings. By observing sessions it allowed me to reflect on my own teaching style which is something I don’t often get time to do at the gallery.