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Is taking children to art galleries a waste of time?

British artist, Jake Chapman, thinks that taking children to art galleries is, “a total waste of time.” DAD.info’s David Atkinson thinks perhaps the kids should decide…

Olivia (left) and Maya: definitely human | Image: David Atkinson

Earlier this year, celebrated British artist Jake Chapman, nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003, told The Independent that parents were “arrogant” for thinking their children could understand artists. “Children are not human yet,” the father-of-three declared.

Keen to investigate his bold claims, I set out at half term with my own two wannabe Young-British-Artist (YBA) daughters, Maya (eight) and Olivia (four) to visit a series of museums and galleries in Port Sunlight. 

The utopian-styled Wirral village is celebrating the 125th anniversary this year of the first village tenants – workers for the soap magnate William Hesketh Lever, who founded the settlement in 1888. Our first stop was the Port Sunlight Museum, which traces the development of the village from the site for Lever’s fledgling soap works through to its status today as a Designated Conservation Area, with a host of Grade II-listed buildings set in 130 acres of parkland. The village remains infused with Lever’s social goals and romantic ideals in both its architecture and atmosphere. The girls liked the hands-on exhibits, especially using stamps to design a house to reflect the myriad of architectural styles throughout the village.

Afterwards we grabbed copies of the kids’ trail map and took a treasure-hunt stroll, Olivia busily crunching through banks of russet-hued autumn leaves as we skirted the neatly manicured rosebushes. The trail leads via the striking Leverhulme Memorial to the War Memorial, unveiled in 1921 to remember the 4,000 Lever Brothers’ employees who fought in WWI, while events in the village this year have marked the centenary of the Great War.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery, opened in 1922 by Lord Lever to house his personal art collection, remains the cornerstone of the village.  Built by Lever for his workers, the gallery is today considered to hold one of the best fine and decorative arts collections in Europe. It also sets out to challenge the notion that children and culture are mutually exclusive.

Dressing up costume? Check. Imagination? Check. | Image: David Atkinson

“Visiting a gallery is not a tick list. The focus is not on art history. When children look at art, it should be about using their imagination – to be storytellers,” explains Education Project Assistant Angelica Vanasse, who previously ran Big Art sessions for kids at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and visited Glasgow’s award-winning Riverside Museum to inspire her to find new ways of interpreting art for a younger audience as part of Lady Lever’s redevelopment.

The gallery, which recently won a major Heritage Lottery grant to redevelop the South End of the gallery, restoring its original Edwardian architecture, hosts events, tours and workshops to foster an interest in art in children of all ages – including under fives. The redevelopment, due for completion in spring 2016, will bolster exhibition space and activities specifically for children and educational groups.

We explored the galleries, skipping from the Lever the Collector room, bursting with items of his Lordship’s Chinese collection and soap posters used for early advertising, to examples of artworks by Turner and Constable in the room devoted to 19th-century paintings. Olivia was more intrigued by the ‘Do Not Touch’ signs than the displays in the Tudor and Stuart Room, but Maya liked The Annunciation by Edward Coley Burne-Jones, inspired by travels in Italy in the 1870s, which hangs in the Great Hall. The girls also loved paying hopscotch on the marble tiles of the Adam Room amongst neo-classical sculptures of Pandorra and Caligula from the 18th century.

“That’s the beautiful thing about art,” adds Angelica. “There’s so much potential to create your own experience. Besides, capture their interest young and they tend to stay with you.”

But, after all that art appreciation, it was time for a little half-term treat. The new Children’s Afternoon Tea, served at the nearby Leverhulme Hotel, forms part of its family friendly ethos to open up a boutique enclave to culture-hungry kids. The girls tucked into dainty sandwiches (crusts off, ‘natch), bowls of raspberries and strawberries, and side plates of chocolate brownies, all washed down with frothy babyccinos. Meanwhile I soaked up the genteel ambiance over a cafetière of fresh coffee and a couple of fruit scones with jam and clotted cream.

Edible exhibits are always a hit with the kids | Image: David Atkinson

Back at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, finally, we headed downstairs to the Activity Rooms to join in some art-inspired workshops for half term. Lord Lever set the agenda when he announced, on founding the museum in 1922, “Art can be to everyone an inspiration.” Jake Chapman might think culture in lost on kids. But, for my two YBAs, a trip to an art gallery had never been so much fun.

 “I thought it was really interesting and arty. I liked the activities and would definitely go back to Port Sunlight.
I learnt that museums can be lots of fun.” Maya, 8 

Port Sunlight Museum & Garden Village: Adults: £3.50. Children: £2.75. portsunlightvillage.com

Lady Lever Art Gallery: Free entry. liverpoolmuseums.org.uk 

Leverhulme Hotel, Children’s Afternoon Tea: £7 each. leverhulmehotel.co.uk

David Atkinson is a Chester-based travel writer and blogger. He is a single dad half the week and regularly travels with his daughters Maya and Olivia. Read more stories at atkinsondavid.com; follow him on Twitter @atkinsondavid

Discover more great UK museums your kids will love here.  

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