Creative Baby! The Beginnings of an idea…

A couple of weeks ago Hannah Mackay-Jackson visited Manchester to see some of our work with under 5s in action. Hannah, who works at the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, has written this brilliant blog post about her experiences which we are delighted to share. We love sharing what we do and we are looking forward to watching Creative Baby! grow. Keep an eye on their blog for updates 

For my first blog post, I thought I’d give you some insight into how ‘Creative Baby!’ came about. This is a new monthly group I’ve developed for babies 0-12 months, which combines an exhibition tour, crafting activity, parachute games and songs, and a sensory play space inspired by the exhibition. Although several baby and toddler-focused groups meet at the Shipley, their activities mainly take place in the Lounge, and I wanted to develop something that really engaged babies and parents in our exhibitions.

Thinking about those parents who enjoyed a gallery visit pre-baby and would now like to introduce their baby to gallery-going, I embarked on a research trip to Manchester, where the Museums and Galleries Partnership (The Whitworth, Manchester Museum and Manchester City Galleries) are working collaboratively to highlight innovative, cultural practice with the under-twos. The Culturebabies website tells you more about their exciting work, which takes a really interesting and creative approach to early intervention, language and social development.

At The Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery I couldn’t stop smiling; my head was buzzing with ideas I couldn’t wait to take back to Gateshead, and everywhere I looked I saw young families being engaged in inspiring ways. At The Whitworth (which has since been awarded Museum of the Year) I was really struck by the Early Years Atelier (meaning ‘workshop’ or ‘studio’); a bright and airy room that not only offers creative activities for families, but smoothly opens out onto a welcoming patio, which seamlessly merges with an extensive public park. I was particularly interested to hear that the Whitworth employs a ‘cultural park keeper’ to help family audiences make the transition from using the park, to exploring inside the museum.

An equally enticing Early Years offer awaited me at Manchester Art Gallery, where I met some of the Learning staff and visited the Mini Art Club, which is just one of the gallery’s many offers for families. I delighted in the Clore Art Studio, where artists Jessica Wild and Sarah Marsh have created a space for families to interact creatively. Here, children and adults alike can explore pattern in exciting and innovative ways, and engage with the themes of the exhibition ‘House Proud’ in a unique and hands-on way. I was so taken with this space I didn’t want to leave; but downstairs more wonder awaited, in the Mini Art Club for 1-4 year olds.

This was a place of exploration, furnished with different textures and art materials, all beautifully presented in ways that invited investigative play. The most striking thing was that none of the children were making an artwork to take home; rather they were freely exploring an array of open-ended creative opportunities. Moving about at their own pace, the children were engrossed in using potato mashers to print on the vast rolls of paper covering the floor; observing how ribbons blew out from a fan; delighting in the scrunchy noise of foil; and exploring how voices were altered by whispering through a hosepipe. One boy spent much of the session putting a plastic waste paper bin on his head and peering through its mesh surface; occasionally taking it off and then deciding the world was far more interested when viewed in this way. This was about having a creative experience in the moment and in the gallery; and what a mesmerising experience it was!


The Clore Art Studio


Mini Art Club


Mini Art Club

I enjoyed talking to staff at Manchester Art Gallery about the Reggio Emilia philosophy that underpins their work with children. Much is written on this approach, and for those interested to find out more I’d recommend reading ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’. The approach puts great emphasis on the child’s environment, which should encourage collaboration, communication and exploration, offering inviting spaces for children to explore their creative interests. The child is the driver of their learning and the adult is the enabler, presenting opportunities for the child to take an investigative approach to the world. The title of the book mentioned above refers to the thinking that there are a hundred potential ‘languages’ through which the child communicates; they use many different creative expressions to show their understanding and interest, and to express themselves. Learning and play are intertwined as the child embarks on discovery through a myriad of creative ‘languages’.

This approach seemed to me the natural way to engage with children, particularly in a creative setting such as the gallery. With a head full of ideas, I returned to the Shipley Art Gallery to get planning. As I embarked on this new venture there were so many unknowns to navigate; How was I going to conduct an exhibition tour that would engage young babies? What should the sensory exploration environment look like? What balance should I strike between facilitated session and free play? Many more questions would emerge as ‘Creative Baby!’ took shape, and it was a creative adventure I was eager to embark on, and one that you can read more about in my next blog post!

For now, I leave you with the poem ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’, by Loris Malaguzzi, Founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach:

The child is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.

A hundred.

Always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling, of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
a hundred worlds
to invent
a hundred worlds
to dream.

The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.

Walkabout in Reggio Emilia


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Hello, it’s Michiko Fujii here. I’m the Atelierista at the Whitworth. Working also as a freelance artist and creative practitioner for different galleries, children’s centres and schools across the North of England, I have often referred to the Reggio Emilia approach within both my research and also on a practical level for guidance and inspiration. The wealth and depth of documentation, publications, seminars and academic papers from the schools in Northern Italy have underlined its influence as an exemplary education model where theory is tightly woven into practice.

Working as the Whitworth Atelierista, I have been developing and delivering the weekly Early Years Atelier. This has provided the opportunity to observe a dynamic atelier space in action each week. The atelier runs in the Clore Learning Studio every Monday as a free, drop-in space for children aged 0-5 years. The fundamental difference being of course that in contrast to the Reggio Emilia atelier, our atelier is situated in an art gallery with a flow of different participants of mixed ages who drop in throughout the day, rather than it being a space inhabited by one small group within a nursery or pre-school classroom. It is perhaps more informal too, in that there is no teacher present. Operating within the context of learning and interpretation within a gallery environment, there are also no Early Years Foundation Stage learning objectives to be monitored and assessed, although that doesn’t mean that we aren’t achieving the learning goals.

Since opening, a range of materials and immersive spaces have been set up to form each atelier, inspired by key artworks and exhibits as starting points. Atelier themes have included black & white, natural materials, indoors-outdoors, geometric patterns and movement, light and dark, heavy and light. As the images above show, a range of materials have been used in both conventional and unconventional ways as children have brought their interests and imaginations to the space:



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Having run the atelier in the Whitworth for over six months, I decided it was time I visited the town of Reggio Emilia to research atelier spaces at the International Loris Malaguzzi Centre.  I was also keen to see whether there was something about the town of Reggio Emilia itself that reflected the work that was going on within the world-renowned schools. It is impossible to visit the schools without signing up to a paid research study trip, so this time I wanted to get a feel for Reggio Emilia as a place beyond the schools.

On a fast, cool train from Bologna, we arrived at an ultra-modern and rather deserted high speed rail station just outside the town of Reggio Emilia. The light and shadows cast by the extraordinary white beamed ‘ceiling’ above the platform were highly impressive and once in the main atrium below, each time a train passed over at high speed the building was filled with an immense burst of sound. Already our senses were alive in the sweltering heat! It was here at a vacant information desk that we also discovered that Reggio Children have created the Children’s Park at Milan Expo 2015 , which runs until the 31st October.

Taking a bus into the town centre from the high speed station, Reggio Emilia felt like a typical, sleepy little Italian town with tree-lined stradas, useful for people to find shade under in the intense 37-40 degree heat. It was also clear that the recession has taken a bite even in a prosperous town like Reggio as, upon asking for directions from a friendly Nigerian man, we were told that many people were struggling with long-term unemployment as jobs in the town were hard to come by. This perhaps explained the number of men hanging around in the shade in the parks and outside the train stations at midday.

As with most hot countries, in the the afternoon, the town seemed to become completely deserted as the heat intensified. However, night time in Reggio was a different matter as the streets were filled with activity. A number of free, large-scale, outdoor, cultural events took over the piazzas in the centre as live musicians played in the street, DJs took their decks outside, ballet companies performed on temporary platform stages in the central square, and tango dancers and circus acts entertained the crowds. In one small square, some local women had brought out vintage toys and games for families to play with as children stayed up well past the average UK child’s bedtime. It was also really impressive to see the huge crowds of unsupervised teenagers and young people welcomed in the street for the events. Here there was a sense of the whole town community (young and old) coming today as people set up fun, free, DIY, pop-up interventions.



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After absorbing the tastes, sights, sounds and atmosphere of the town, we took a day out to visit the Loris Malaguzzi Centre. Named after the visionary educator and founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, the centre showcases different aspects of the movement in a large, former Locatelli warehouse. It was well worth visiting the centre in mid-July as the building was virtually empty, so we were able to take in all the displays, images, videos and spaces in our own time. Perhaps the week earlier would have been a different matter though as the website had advertised a study visit and conference for educators.

Upon entering the building we bought a swift americano and biscotti to wake us up. The first stop was the Pause cafe – one of the designated areas of the Atelier of Tastes. A nice touch to this area was the open-ended materials placed in a small children’s area in the corner of the cafe, giving a taster of the Remida creative recycling project. Here, different samples of materials, image flashcards and words in different languages provided an insight into the way Reggio have worked to create a local, creative, recycling, resource centre, receiving industrial waste materials which are then sent on to the local schools to be used as open-ended resources in the classroom and ateliers.

Moving into the exhibition display areas, long, detailled documentation boards charted the history of Reggio Emilia as a partisan town whose citizens bravely resisted fascism duing WWII. A long timeline charts the influence of this progressive, forward-thinking town, whose inhabitants wanted to insure that such atrocities would never happen again. This strong sentiment led to the decision to create the Reggio schools and the displays illustrate how the visionary education approach came to be. To mirror this progression, in another corridor, a rich documentation board describes the way children were consulted in the development of the current Children’s Park at Milan Expo – which focuses on engaging children with the theme of sustainability through interactive, sensory exhibits, games and activities. The boards document the ways Reggio schools worked with young children to develop ideas and content for the Children’s Park.

The main reason I visited the centre was to get an insight into the way Reggio set up their atelier spaces. Both the digital and light ateliers are really worth visiting as they are huge rooms set up to demonstrate the numerous ways children can encounter and question light, transparency, translucency, shadow, reflection, objects, images, landscapes, projections, film, colour, rainbows, refraction, etc. in thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing spaces. Provocations and open-ended questions line the walls alongside the exhibits, and for further insight into how the ateliers in the schools would work, a Reggio atelierista runs a paid guided tour for visitors. Unfortunately, taking photos in the centre was strictly forbidden, so I spent much time taking notes and watching extensive video footage of children in the Reggio schools, exploring the world of natural materials, pens, mark-making, etc.

You would need at least a day (if not longer) to explore the Loris Malaguzzi centre as there is a lot to see and absorb, such is the nature of the approach. Hours passed quickly as we focused on the detailled displays, documentation and discourse. There is also a bookshop in the centre which sells all the publications which provide further extensive information to carry away. AND the Pause Atelier of Tastes restaurant is really worth a visit too, especially if you have a starving husband in tow. He was happy to propose a return to the centre for Day 2, on the condition we return to the restaurant which is run by friendly, talkative chefs and seemed to be the place where all the Reggio staff spent their lunch hour – in true Italian style.

Unfortunately, there were no children to be seen though, as it seems most were either out in town or on holiday. The centre is more for educators and professionals to meet up and learn more about the thinking behind the approach. Reggio Children had also taken over part of the subway underneath the railway lines nearby as further documentation showed how adults and children had illustrated bicycles through drawing, wire and bike parts – quite apt as numerous adults and children zipped past as I took photos, in the region of Emiliano Reggiano – known to be the most progressive, bicycle friendly region in Italy.

All in all, I definitely think a return visit to this town and region is on the cards again soon. Hopefully along with a trip to Milan before the end of October!

Art Babies at Dallas Museum of Art

In September 2014, we had a visit from Leah Hanson, a colleague from Dallas Museum of Art. At that, time she was developing a programme for babies and their carers. Whilst googling for similar programmes , to see what was already out there, she came across our Culturebabies blog! She successfully applied for funding to visit several museums and galleries in England and spent the day with us at Manchester Museum on our Baby Explorers programme.  She recently contacted me with an update on the Art Baby programme at DMA and it is great to hear that she has incorporated sensory play which is a really key element of our sessions in Manchester in helping babies to connect with our collections.
Art Babies 10.2014.1  Art Babies 6.2015 Art Babies 2.2015

Leah comments,
“Our Art Babies class has benefited so much from my observations of your program. I’ve had some great feedback on the class since I instituted some of the ideas I learned from you. Parents LOVE the sensory play element I added, and it has been fun to watch the babies interact with each other and with materials in a new way. And I have just as much fun coming up with new ideas to try. I’ve also been trying to channel Carla and added storytelling and puppets. I’ve attached a few photos so that you can see the effect of your wonderful mentoring.”

Find out more about Art Babies at DMA, at:

Cuturebabies: Melbourne meets Manchester!

Visiting from Australia and staying with relatives in North Wales, I couldn’t resist popping over to Manchester to meet up with fellow museum colleagues and passionate play advocates.

At Melbourne Museum I am working on a project where we are redesigning our Children’s Gallery to create a new gallery for children aged from birth to five years and their families. We are consulting widely and it was through a professional development opportunity that I met Stuart Lester, a play academic from Gloucester University. Stuart has worked with play consultant Charlotte Derry and the Manchester Museum staff to implement the Happy Museum project and develop ‘Rules for a Playful Museum’ at Manchester Museum. Stuart arranged for me to meet him and Charlotte, along with museum staff members Anna and Rowena, to discuss how the program was applied at Manchester Museum and how it has evolved to become ingrained in the museum’s visitor services culture. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet passionate advocates of play and gain an insight into the project from different perspectives.

DSC_0645    DSC_0468

I follow ‘CultureBabies’ on Twitter and was aware of the Baby Explorers sessions at Manchester Museum so was delighted when told that my visit coincided with one of the ‘drop in’ sessions. I was introduced to Elaine and shown around the Nature Discovery Gallery. I was most impressed by how the museum objects were incorporated within magical landscapes. And I was also greatly inspired by the beautiful and thoughtful learning experiences set up for the babies and their carers for the Baby Explorer session. We’ve found through our first hand research with children that babies love bubble wrap, but this is difficult to implement when considering the need for long term, high durability materials in exhibitions. The Baby Explorer sessions demonstrated for me how such materials can be successfully incorporated in programs.

We are especially conscious of the need to promote positive adult and child interactions through our learning environments and it was a pleasure to witness this occurring through the experiences that were set up during this session. The atmosphere was very relaxed, parents were comfortable and totally focussed on their children’s exploration of the materials. The inclusion of music added an extra mode of engagement, it was lovely to watch the babies interact with the cellist.


In our redeveloped gallery we will be presenting family programs each week for babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers as well as education programs for children visiting from early learning centres and kindergartens. We are especially mindful of the development and needs of children in each particular age group and it has been wonderful to see how successful a program for babies situated in a gallery can be. It was a most inspiring visit and one I’ve enjoyed sharing with my colleagues since returning to Melbourne.

Alex Price, Programs Officer, Melbourne Museum Children’s Gallery Redevelopment Project. Victoria, Australia

The next generation of Art Baby goers

Last week two mums returned to the Whitworth with second generation Art Baby goers in arms.

Before the Whitworth closed it’s doors for it’s regeneration we enjoyed seeing Mylo and Agnes week in week out playing and growing up together through the Art Baby programme. Now, in the new Whitworth we welcome the same mamas but with two brand new faces – welcome Gene and April!

Today was fun and special in equal parts… Back at Art Baby at the Whitworth where we enjoyed cooing over our first borns, to reminisce and make new memories with our second babies. I love this city for babies!

Today we returned to ‘Art Baby’ at the Whitworth with our second borns. This class was the backdrop to so many beautiful times with our first babies & it was so special taking Gene & April to the art baby playground that their big siblings used to love ever so much. They seemed to love it too! Whitworth, it’s good to be back!x

April dot was serenaded by the angelic sounds of a harp. In that moment she was chilled and content and I got to enjoy her x

image 4

Harp magic. Nancy came to sit with us & as she started to play, Gene turned to the sound of the harp. He laid there listening, content in his own little music world x

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Head held high & curled up trotters telling the story of a baby boy who was so very happy in his environment today. He loved being around the other babies & was so very vocal. Here he was having a ‘squeaky roar’ chat to baby Arizona.


Our littlest loves on our first of many city adventures at our family favourite, The Whitworth x

Thank you so much to Danielle and Gemma for sharing their photos and experiences with us. Are you an Art Baby goer? We’d love to hear from you so we can share your photos and stories too. You can contact me on

It’s the little things that make a big difference

I’ve recently returned to the Whitworth after spending an amazing (if not tiring!) year on maternity leave with my little boy Henry.

I timed my maternity leave pretty well, returning to work just as the gallery opened it’s doors after a £15 million transformation, doubling it in size and creating new spaces that embrace the park.

As Early Years Coordinator I am responsible for all activity related to under 5s and their parents and carers. Since returning lots of people have asked me if I think having a baby myself has helped to inform my role. The answer is a definite yes and actually I’ve realized that a lot of the time it’s the really little things that make a big difference to the success or failure of an outing with a little one.

Many many times I have been caught out having run out of wipes or forgotten to bring enough nappies.
nappy supplies
So now at the Whitworth we have an emergency baby supplies kit packed full of everything you might need – wipes, nappies, nappy cream, cotton wool and even a few spare clothes, for all those little emergencies. Items are free to use and are available at our Welcome Desk.

Little things like toilets with space to take your pushchair in with you, otherwise how do you go to the toilet when you’re out on your own…?
The Whitworth has three baby changing areas all of which have a toilet within them and plenty of space for pushchairs, even double pushchairs. We have also put mobiles above each changing table to keep little ones happy and entertained during nappy changes.

Once Henry started walking he didn’t want to be in his pushchair for long anymore, he’d much prefer to be toddling around exploring. Juggling running after him and trying to keep control of a pushchair is a bit of a challenge so if there’s the option to leave the pushchair somewhere safe then that’s a big help.
The Whitworth has a buggy park at the bottom of the South Staircase and lockers to put away bags, coats etc.

However, I’d say the biggest thing I will bring back to work will be in the welcome I give to parents/ carers when they arrive at the gallery, knowing what a challenge it is just to get out of the house with a little one.
Providing a friendly and supportive space where you can get out of the house and meet other people and feel like you’re doing something positive and worth while with your baby is a life line. Sometimes just chatting to someone else who’s going through or gone through the same as you, whoever they are, makes you realize that you’re not on your own.
The Whitworth runs Art Baby sessions every Wednesday for non-walking babies and their parents/ carers.

Since reopening we’ve worked really hard to think of everything to make a family visit to the Whitworth as brilliant as possible. We’ve tried to add little touches that say ‘we’ve thought about you’. However, we always want to improve what we offer so if you have any suggestions please do get in touch at

To find out more about the Early Years programme at The Whitworth visit the website.

Museum of the Year 2015 – it’s the Whitworth!

The gallery, part of the University of Manchester, has been awarded the Art Fund’s prestigious prize – and we couldn’t be happier.

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On 1 July, at a prestigious ceremony at Tate Modern, the gallery was awarded the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015. It’s the largest arts award in Britain and the biggest museum prize in the world. It is awarded to the museum or gallery in the UK that is judged to have best demonstrated excellence, innovation and imagination. We reopened on 14 February, but while we were closed we did all we could to remain “open”, with pop-up projects all over the city and beyond, maintaining links to our existing audiences and building new ones. Since reopening, our new building has enabled us to undertake larger and more ambitious projects, presentations and exhibitions, and we hope we have realised our potential as a major UK cultural destination.

“During 2014, while MUMA created our new gallery, we took the Whitworth and its collections out into the city,” explains our director, Maria Balshaw. “We used the time to create more ambitious programmes. We considered what sorts of collaborations could work at the Whitworth, between young people and our collections, say, or between artists and the academics we share a campus with. And we created an ambitious opening season of exhibitions and events that could only happen here at the Whitworth.

“That period of intensive work paid off. In the five months since our reopening, 200,000 people have enjoyed everything from Cornelia Parker’s collaboration with the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Konstantin Novoselov – alongside her monumental new commission, War Room – to hip hop in the Grand Hall, tai chi in the art garden and an exhibition curated by older men from a local care home. In between, we’ve hosted ten, critically acclaimed exhibitions and witnessed a ‘takeover’ of the gallery by young people.

“What we have done this year is the culmination of all that we achieved in 2014. It has been a momentous period for the gallery – and winning this award is a wonderful way to say thank you to all those who made it possible, and to those visitors, old and new, who joined us on our journey.”

The panel of judges chaired by Art Fund director, Stephen Deuchar were artist Michael Landy; design critic and author Alice Rawsthorn; books and arts editor of The Economist Fiammetta Rocco; and Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The University of Manchester‘s Whitworth was chosen from a shortlist of six finalists: Dunham Massey (National Trust), Altrincham; IWM, London; The MAC, Belfast; Oxford University Museum of Natural History; and HM Tower of London.

Use the hashtag #museumoftheyear to tell the world what the Whitworth means to you.