Taking Risks: Two Institutions’ Willingness to Collaborate

Brooking Paper on Creativity Honorable Mention (2011)

By Lynn Thomson

For many years, the teachers and students of Lincoln Nursery School would often visit their neighbor, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum of Lincoln, Mass. Walking through the nature trails that lead from their playground to the 35-acre sculpture park, the students would always find something interesting to observe and to talk about.

At the start of the 2009 school year, the Purple Class, ages 4–5, discovered something extraordinary waiting for them at the end of their path. That summer, artist Steven Siegel had installed Big, with rift—a piece designed specifically for deCordova’s sculpture park. Siegel worked with volunteers to stack and nail together 25 cubic yards of newspaper. He then removed plant life from the surrounding grounds and transplanted it to the top of the final sculpture so that his art might reflect the environment in which it is located.

Siegel’s intriguing sculpture quickly aroused the interest and curiosity of these preschoolers and served as stimulation for group discussion as the children wondered about its size, its construction, the source of its materials and its interesting organic “hat.” Lincoln Nursery School is committed to developing programming inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, which encourage children to plan and determine activities based on their individual and collective experiences with their surroundings. The classroom and studio teachers therefore saw the children’s fascination with the Siegel sculpture as an opportunity to teach through exploration. 

After discussing Siegel’s piece at length with the Purple Class, the teachers helped bring to fruition the children’s plan to build their own version of the sculpture. They facilitated the development of the project by putting forward questions that the children subsequently answered. Thus, the entire process was truly collaborative, and the final sculpture more a product of the children’s minds than the adults’.

The extreme success of that project had both the nursery school and the museum thinking about other opportunities to connect visual education, play and the exploration of materials with the development of creativity within the preschool audience. What emerged was an idea to create a dynamic and unique partnership between a contemporary art museum and a preschool that would further enhance the children’s engagement with and relationship to visual art through a pilot class that would be fully embedded on the museum’s grounds.

This bold idea took many months of planning and required gaining support from constituents at both institutions. Teachers and staff at Lincoln Nursery School were used to their current space and worried about the loss of community that could occur by moving only one of several classes to another location. DeCordova, typically a risk-averse institution, had to gain support from all involved, including students and faculty at the deCordova Museum School who were consequently going to lose one of their studio spaces. Leadership at both institutions felt strongly that this daring collaboration was worth the effort and the risk and understood that each was making a commitment to a shared belief in early childhood education and the power of the arts.

Since Sept. 13, 2010, a class of 15 children from Lincoln Nursery School has been housed in a pre-existing studio at deCordova. The studio, once used for adult workshops, was transformed by the teachers from a stone-carving studio to a classroom appropriate and safe for 4–5 year olds. A sign was mounted on the outside of the building to let all who pass by know who is occupying the space. Through the large glass doors in the studio, the children can look out and visitors and deCordova Museum School students can look in, creating a transparency and dialogue about the learning that is taking place.

The opportunity for unique interaction with art provided by this collaboration was illustrated the first week of class when sand sculptors were at deCordova building several large pieces for the approaching Family SculptureFest. Since it took more than a week for the sculptures to be built, the students were able to watch the process and ask questions of the artists as they worked. Watching the artists stamp, tamp down and add water to their sculptures impacted the children’s creation of their own sand pieces. The students discussed many ideas for the kinds of tools they would need for carving in the sand. Additionally, they discussed the possibility of working hard on a piece that then collapses, as they had just seen happen to one of the sand sculptor’s pieces. Everyone agreed that would be sad, but one child offered that “you could just get some wet sand, dribble it on and fix it!”

The integration of visual arts education and the myriad of museum resources into the curriculum of the pilot class are planned through weekly meetings with the Lincoln Nursery School teaching team and the staff of the museum’s education department. A recent and ongoing project that developed from one of these meetings involved engaging the children in the exploration of sculpture through small groups. Having observed the children in the park over many weeks, the pilot class teaching team chose four sculptures that the children appeared particularly drawn to. Each group explored one of the sculptures in depth through a variety of lenses, including color, line, shape, sound, texture and movement. The next phase in this project is to have the groups explore relevant sculpture building materials in the classroom and see what connections are made to “their” sculptures.

The initial phase of this project involved asking the children, “What is a sculpture?” One child motioned with her hands and said, “It can go zigzag or in a circle.” Another child said, “It’s like a cement thing that can’t move.” During the days that followed this conversation, the teachers noticed that the children’s language had shifted from wanting to show us “my building” or “what I made” to “come see my sculpture.”  This was evident in multiple settings. The documentation of the small group work around “their” sculpture has driven further provocations within the classroom. Additionally, the children’s stories and ideas around these four sculptures will be turned into an audio tour that will be available to all visitors to the sculpture park.

In addition to the sculpture park, students have access to the museum exhibitions, staff members and behind-the-scenes areas of the museum. Most recently, Curatorial Educator Emily Silet was a guest speaker in the students’ classroom. She spoke to the excited students about what she does at the museum and talked about an upcoming exhibition, “Rachel Perry Welty: 24/7.” Silet showed photos of Welty’s artwork and spent some time discussing a piece that involves hundreds of twist ties.

Silet: Does anyone have twist ties at home?

Several: I do.

Silet: People send her [Welty] twist ties because they know that she collects them.

She put them on a wall. [Silet showed a photo of Welty in front of lines of twist ties.]

Child 1: She made shelves.

Child 2: She straightened them out.

Child 3: They look like a mess.

Child 4: They are attached.

Silet: She straightens them out and connects them. [Silet showed the children how to straighten out twist ties.]

Child: She is hiding.

Child 5: She made clothes out of them.

Silet: One of the reasons that I am here is that I need your help. One of the things I want to put into the Process Gallery [an interactive space] is lots of twist ties. I have a container this big [used arms to express something large]. So I need your help in collecting them. Will you collect twist ties for me?

Several: Yes.

Silet: There will be a box in the Process Gallery, and you can put them in there.

Silet explained that the children can visit the Process Gallery and see how many twist ties have been collected or whether Welty has taken some out of the container. Today, a large container for collecting twist ties for Welty awaits the students as they enter their classroom. The students and their families, including aunts, cousins and grandparents, have been contributing to it. The students are measuring the pile as it grows and eagerly invite all who enter their room to help them add to it.

Several days after the visit with Silet, the students went to the museum during installation—a time the entire museum is closed to the public—to get a behind-the-scenes tour with Head Preparator Brian McNamara and Registrar Lynn Traub. After learning about McNamara’s and Traub’s responsibilities as staff members, the students toured the museum. Rachel happened to be there installing some of her work, including a twist tie piece, while the students were touring the museum. The very excited children spent time talking to her and watching her create a wall installation made with twist ties. Photographs showing Welty’s work and documenting the children’s visit to the museum now hang in the classroom. The teachers are planning to bring the children back to the museum post installation so they can explore and discuss the changes to the space and the artwork.

Opportunities like this and the many others that have occurred since September are unique to a classroom that is embedded in a museum setting. The planned and unplanned happenings at the museum—such as artist visits, the installation or de-installation of artwork, the removal of sculpture via cranes and flatbed trucks, and the golf carts used by the buildings and grounds staff—all become opportunities for exploration and learning.

The evolving relationship between deCordova and Lincoln Nursery School enriches and inspires everyone involved, exemplifying how different organizations with a common purpose can come together as a community to open new pathways of experience. This collaboration provides the children with an opportunity to explore art as a part of their daily lives. Making meaning of art often inspires stories that encourage them to use a variety of skills: language, social, visual literacy and problem solving. The stories are told and retold in various ways as the children develop their understanding of the sculptures and the world around them. Conversely, working with early childhood educators who share a common approach to education has inspired deCordova’s museum educators to think differently about current family program offerings as well as the development of new programs for younger audiences whom the museum is not yet serving.

In addition to these impacts, the program is building and strengthening relationships within the Lincoln community and beyond. Not only the pilot class parents but also other families from Lincoln Nursery School are now partaking in various programs and opportunities at the museum. During a weekend this past fall, a group of Lincoln Nursery School families came to the museum to watch a sculptor and his assistants rearrange the shapes in a sculpture—something the artist does once or twice a year. The families watched as the large trucks lifted and moved the cement shapes and the sculptor directed the positioning of each piece. As they watched and spoke to the artists, the families learned about the vehicles and machinery needed to move the pieces and the artist’s process. The following week, one of the children who was present explained with excitement to his friends that “they used a thing called a snorkel to lift up the bars.”

Additionally, museum family program attendance has seen an increase of Lincoln Nursery School families, their friends and their neighbors. Nursery school parents have organized a school-wide picnic on the museum grounds centered on a theme inspired by a sculpture; the school has hosted a Reggio Emilia networking group at deCordova that brought in close to 100 area educators; and this winter the school will be holding its annual fundraiser at the museum. Most recently, several Lesley University researchers have offered to assist in the evaluation of the program so that it can be shared with the larger museum and early childhood education field.

While this two-year pilot program is still in its initial stages, the collaboration has sparked the interests of many. Ultimately we’d like to design a program that could be used as a model for organizations to work together to educate young children through objects, comfortably engage them with museums and, in the end, inspire life-long museum goers who feel ownership of the hundreds of cultural institutions and all they have to offer.

Lynn Thomson is acting director of education, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, Mass.