Monday 19 August 2013

Splashes of colour amongst those dark satanic mills

Culturebaby and I are currently in exile, due to the compulsory building work everyone seems to inflict on themselves a couple of months before giving birth. Last week we were up north, and as the weather was rather grotty on Tuesday, we thought we'd take the opportunity to retrace some of my own toddler steps and investigate Oldham Art Gallery, rechristened GalleryOldham.
Oldham, let's face it, isn't a tourist hotspot and is rather a depressing place these days; but it does have an interesting history and rather a distinguished list of former residents from Brian Cox, Inspiral Carpets, Philip Schofield and Mark Owen, to artist Helen Bradley, at least two famous suffragettes, and the Artful Dodger from the 1960s classic musical of Oliver! For fellow lovers of the mighty chip, Oldham is perhaps a worthy place for pilgrimage - Britain's first fish and chip shop was situated in Oldham's own Tommyfield Market. It was also a major mill town of the industrial revolution and the cotton spinning capital of the world, and in the 1900 general election Winston Churchill began his political career here. 
  As a result, Oldham has a fascinating collection of local history and also some great art. Its art gallery is cleverly housed above its central library, it is free and extremely accessible and relaxed. I can remember visiting the old gallery often as a child, and I recall that they had a pretty decent collection of watercolours and Victorian art - including some Pre-Raphaelites (due presumably to its prosperous past as a major player in the industrial revolution), and I was disappointed to find that much of this was not currently in display. However, we were delighted to discover that there were actually some really creative spaces for children, a couple of really good exhibitions and a plethora of opportunities for toddlers to engage with the collections.
I read somewhere recently that, when entering a new gallery space, toddlers often need the chance to dart around, explore and orient themselves before they start to examine the contents, and this is certainly the case for Culturebaby. Some galleries are better than others at handling this, and I was really impressed to find how relaxed, safe and accessible a space Gallery Oldham is. Culturebaby started by having a wonderful time walking along grills on the floor, running through corridors and looking out of the windows to the panoramic views beyond. She then took the time to really engage with some of the collections on display, including leading CultureGrandad around to various items that caught her eye.

As a child one of my favourite books was Rodney Peppe's The Mice Who Lived in a Shoe. Peppe is a model maker and author of over 80 children's books, and I was delighted to find this book and the wonderful model boot I remember returning to again and again on the back pages as part of a really exciting and impressively large exhibition of Peppe's work. The exhibition includes books, models, videos, toys and automata from throughout his career and to our joy included a number of mechanical toys with the express invitation "Please Touch". What a welcome sign for children in a gallery space! These were at the perfect height for Culturebaby and she loved turning various handles to make cogs whirl and birds dance. There was also a great creative area for slightly older children (or toddlers in the mood to concentrate), with materials to produce artwork, an invitation take part in a thumbprint circus, and wooden toys and models to handle.

The Death of Cleopatra
Just beyond this gallery I was really pleased to see on display a painting I loved as a child, with some inventive interpretation material for children. Right in front of this huge painting of Collier's The Death of Cleopatra, little viewers were invited to touch and identify a number of textures and materials visible in the painting. Next to this they were also encouraged to work out and place on a map of the ancient world symbols of a number of everyday items invented by each of the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Who knew the Romans invented socks and the Ancient Egyptians, marshmallows? There were also worksheets for writing one's name in hieroglyphics and other puzzles. I was really impressed with how this painting was made so accessible and alive to young viewers, and found myself wishing some of our London Galleries did more of this themselves.

Culturebaby then moved on to the local history areas, housing a number of interactive displays. Everywhere we turned there was an opportunity for sensory experiences or the chance to draw or colour. There was a display of stuffed owls (Oldham's symbol) with the chance to listen to a variety of owl calls and, for slightly older children, an owl activity bag. Another highlight was a reconstruction of an old Pharmacy, complete with parcels to handle and draws to open, each containing details of various herbs and products (with real smells).

We also discovered a great collection of inspiring artwork by schoolchildren and an exhibition of work by Oldham artist, Brian Clarke, who attributes his love of architecture first to his love of cotton mills. Some of his images, especially a series of aeroplanes were excellent for toddler counting practice - with different numbers of similar images on 4 or 5 canvases.

We finished off our visit in the library below, and just as we found in the galleries, the children's spaces were really well thought out. Far from housing just books, these spaces had giant trays of Lego and Duplo, buckets of toys, miniature tables and chairs and even bookcases with tunnels inside. Of course, this meant that Culturebaby didn't actually read anything on this occasion, but she had a wonderful time exploring the space!

We were really impressed to find what GalleryOldham have done and how lovely, bright and welcoming their space is for little ones. The only sadness was that there were not enough Culturebabies using the space - just a handful. Hopefully this was a blip, but if you are reading this and live anywhere near, we'd really recommend a visit. We were certainly pleasantly surprised to be reminded that there's still plenty of colour to be found between those dark mills, TKMaxx and the Metrolink building site.

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