A Reggio-Emilia-inspired museum

July 16, 2013    art learning environment

A question has been nagging at my mind for a few months. I don’t know when it crept up on me–perhaps after a guided visit with kindergarteners that didn’t go as well as I had hoped–but I found myself questioning whom the art museum is designed for. With its stark, white walls, challenging label text, and lack of multisensory stimulation, it’s certainly an environment that would be alien to many young children. I wonder what they think when they first visit. As a thought experiment, I asked myself, “What would an art museum designed for four-year-old children look like? Six-year-olds? Eight-year-olds?

Perhaps, I thought, it would look like a preschool or primary-grade classroom: cheerful, colorful, cluttered. There might be books to read, toys to play with, touch devices with interactive apps, rugs to curl up on, and all of the other accoutrements of a contemporary early childhood classroom.

But what about the artwork? Picturing the classrooms I have visited recently, I struggled to envision what a work from our collection would look like in those spaces. How could a work of art possibly compete for attention against any of the hundreds of other objects in this sort of environment?

Maybe I was envisioning the wrong kind of classroom. Seeking other ideas, I turned to Reggio Emilia. In an overview of approaches to classroom design in North American and Reggio Emilia primary schools, Patricia Tarr writes,

The typical North American classroom reflects notions of preparation for the future world of work, of an environment that isolates particular aspects of a culture, which simplifies visual forms, and protects children from the outside world. Its visual aesthetic reflects mass marketing and craft-store culture. It does not challenge children aesthetically to respond deeply to the natural world, their cultural heritage, or to their inner worlds.

Bingo! Tarr’s case study articulates an important insight in a way I could not: that a classroom has a distinct aesthetic that may either support or impair learning. “What are children learning,” she asks, “when the goals of art education are at odds with the environment in which they learn?” Though she writes this to an audience of school art teachers, the extension to an exhibit space is natural.

I find the Reggio Emilia aesthetic that Tarr describes to be a particularly appealing staring point. Reflecting the diverse life of the communities in which they are situated, Tarr writes that Reggio educators

include aspects of a home into the school: vases of flowers, real dishes, tablecloths, and plants. There is attention to design and placement of objects to provide a visual and meaningful context. The objects within the space are not simplified, cartoon-like images that are assumed to appeal to children, but are beautiful objects in their own right.

What worries me about the sleek, stark aesthetic that is employed by most art museums is that it is artificially devoid of any connection to the visitor’s community. The contemporary American early childhood classroom heads toward the opposite extreme: it is artificially saturated with objects that bear little connection to the child’s life outside of school.

With all of this in mind, what aspects of the Reggio approach might allow museums to create a space that teaches and reinforces artful thinking as an everyday activity? Let’s consider this list a work in progress:

  • An emergent curriculum
  • A deeply-rooted philosophy of multi-modal, experiential learning
  • Architecture that encourages exploration and facilitates community-building

Next steps

Naturally, I have more questions in my mind than when I started. Here are a few ideas I want to continue to explore:

  • The role of ateliers in the Reggio classroom
  • Studio-based art education and studio experiences within museums
  • Anti-authoritative exhibition design