Children curate art, cook and play - all at the local museums

Interactive exhibits (above) at the Singapore Art Museum fascinate both children and adults alike, and Once Upon A Time In Asia: The Animal Race at the Asian Civilisations Museum features five real-life specimens, including a golden monkey (left).
Interactive exhibits (above) at the Singapore Art Museum fascinate both children and adults alike, and Once Upon A Time In Asia: The Animal Race at the Asian Civilisations Museum features five real-life specimens, including a golden monkey.PHOTO: SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM
Interactive exhibits (above) at the Singapore Art Museum fascinate both children and adults alike, and Once Upon A Time In Asia: The Animal Race at the Asian Civilisations Museum features five real-life specimens, including a golden monkey (left).
Interactive exhibits at the Singapore Art Museum fascinate both children and adults alike, and Once Upon A Time In Asia: The Animal Race at the Asian Civilisations Museum features five real-life specimens, including a golden monkey (above).PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Curators are giving more thought to shows that engage the next generation of museumgoers

The job of an art curator can mystify most adults - but what about children?

Come year-end, children visiting the National Gallery Singapore will get a chance to play curator and select artworks for an exhibition, write wall text for the display and conduct tours for their peers.

It is one of the activities on offer at the Children's Museum, part of the new 1,000 sq m Keppel Centre for Art Education, a dedicated space for children in the gallery. The space will recreate an actual artist's studio, complete with his artworks, tools and journals.

"It is not just a play space, that's not what we want. We want parents and kids to be together and for the adults to guide them through the space." 

Ms Christie Chua on the interactive displays at PLAY @ National Museum of Singapore, the museum's first dedicated area for children

Interactions such as these that go beyond the usual child-oriented activities such as colouring seem to be the next wave in how local museums are engaging the young.

"We want children to understand the subtleties behind what they see and what goes on behind an exhibition," says Ms Suenne Megan Tan, director of education and programmes at the National Gallery Singapore, which occupies the refurbished City Hall and former Supreme Court buildings. The gallery will open at the end of this year.

The National Museum of Singapore has a children's playroom, PLAY @ National Museum of Singapore, which has welcomed more than 100,000 visitors since it opened in May last year.

It is the 128-year-old museum's first dedicated area for children and is designed to be fun while teaching kids about Singapore history and culture.

For example, a popular part of the 700 sq m wing is an area for the children to play "masak-masak" or cook local dishes with larger-than-life ingredients moulded out of plastic.

Interactive wall displays allow children to figure out what goes into the making of dishes such as nasi lemak.

Ms Christie Chua, the museum's senior assistant director of audience development and partnerships, says: "It is not just a play space, that's not what we want. We want parents and kids to be together and for adults to guide children through the space."

Engaging the next generation of museumgoers has become high on the priority list of museums in the world's cultural capitals, and museum educators in Singapore say they go on research trips to museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in the United Kingdom and Boston Children's Museum in the United States.

The art- and design-focused Victoria and Albert Museum sees 160,000 people attending its programmes for those aged 24 and below yearly, which revolve around the collection and exhibitions.

For example, a recent storytelling session of Little Red Riding Hood was themed Wild Fashion, reflecting the London museum's ongoing Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition featuring the late designer's outfits.

Ms Sarah Campbell, head of schools, families and young people at Victoria and Albert Museum, tells Life! in an e-mail interview: "We are interested in not just targeting children, but also encouraging children and their parents and carers to discuss what they are looking at and make creative responses together, creating positive shared memories."

The overall trend is for child-targeted spaces in museums to move away from classroom-like settings and towards hands-on learning. Ms Tan says: "We're moving away from exhibits stuck in cabinets. It's a shift that we see happening worldwide."

Parents can now expect a full suite of facilities and programmes for children at museums here. These range from interactive exhibits, workshops and performances - produced by professionals with occasional input from older students and members of the community - to activity sheets downloadable from the museums' websites, all of which are designed to have specific learning objectives and are planned up to a year in advance.

For example, at the National Museum's current Masak Masak exhibition, the installation Hello, Hello? encourages children to match the correct strings in order to communicate with their parents through tin-can telephones.

The artwork was created by students of the School of the Arts. Nur Sabrina Mohamad Suhaimi, 14, one of the creators, says: "We decided to go with this idea as communication is indeed an important building block in a child's growing-up years."

At the Asian Civilisations Museum, an ongoing exhibition titled Once Upon A Time In Asia: The Animal Race revolves around the animals in the Chinese zodiac and is supplemented by five real-life specimens and replicas from the Singapore Science Centre, such as a specimen of a golden monkey and a skeleton of a reticulated python. This collaboration with the Science Centre is a first for the museum.

Ms Lim Chye Hong, the museum's deputy director for audience development, says: "We wanted to inject learning through play."

Referring to a station where fake animal poop is used to teach children about the animals' diets, she says: "We have a 4.8m-long python skeleton juxtaposed against an exhibit of snake poop. It makes the experience come alive for the kids."

The National Museum and Asian Civilisations Museum exhibitions are part of the National Heritage Board's flagship Children's Season, held during the June holiday period and which attracts more than 200,000 visitors yearly.

The eighth edition, which ended on Sunday, offered more than 50 activities at 19 museums.

With such reach, courting the young museumgoer is becoming serious business.

The Keppel Centre for Art Education, which takes up prime space on the ground floor of the National Gallery's City Hall wing, was made possible through a $12 million donation by Keppel Corp.

Once opened, it is expected to serve 250,000 children, youth and families.

The challenge is that there is no shortage of entertainment options for children out there - from shopping centres and live shows to the expansive online world accessible at the touch of an iPad screen.

Ms Anna Salaman, associate director of programming at ArtScience Museum, which is part of Marina Bay Sands, says: "It can be hard work for museums to compete in this crowded market and to persuade parents that their children will have as rewarding a time, in fact more so, visiting a museum than if they went to other attractions."

Two of the museum's ongoing exhibitions - The Deep, about deep sea creatures; and DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition, which charts the creative journey of the animation studio - have child- friendly sections. For example, in The Deep, visitors can create their own sea creatures using recycled materials.

Parents whom Life! spoke to say that these offerings by the museums are much appreciated.

Designer and museum lover Little Ong, 44, heaped particular praise on Imaginarium: A Voyage Of Big Ideas at the Singapore Art Museum, for exhibits that enthralled not only his one-year-old son, Luca, but also him and his wife.

The exhibition, which revolves around the themes of discovery and imagination, is inspired by the crescent moon on the Singapore flag.

Mr Ong says: "It was really artistic in unexpected ways. For example, there was a huge fish puzzle with scales made of graphic shapes. It was not very easy even for adults to find shapes that fit.

"It's great that our museums have thought about creating exhibitions for children. I don't take this for granted."

nabilahs@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline 'Making museums fun for kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe