Thursday 8 August 2013

Tate for Toddlers - Gaba for Babas

More than any other gallery space, the Tate Modern has become our playground. At six months, strapped into a Baby Bjorn, Culturebaby bounced and cooed at the bright images; at a year she clambered up and down steps and explored the toddler play area; and at 18 months we used Lichtenstein to identify and discuss familiar images. We've seen some amazingly bright and powerful exhibitions, perfect for little senses (especially Hirst and Kusama - see here and here) and today was no exception. At 22 months, Culturebaby seems to get more and more out of every visit, especially as she can walk where she likes and is beginning to articulate her interests. This does mean at times that her frustration increases as she can't understand why she can't cross, run along, or pull the (far too) tempting toddler-height barriers, but there is always something new that she can touch and engage with to make up for this.

Today she invited along her 13 month old friend for a toddle around the galleries. They had a great time exploring the hallways with their ramps and steps, and, as some of the gallery spaces are so big, they were able to crawl around a number of these together. They both loved Dan Flavin's light installations, especially his Untitled work with coloured fluorescent light. Culturebaby is learning her colours at the moment and loved walking up and down identifying each of the pink, red, green, yellow and blue pieces. We've found in general that light installations are great for this age group, and there are often a number to be found at any one time. 

Our great find today, however, was the free exhibition Meschac Gaba's Museum of Contemporary African Art. From the title, you wouldn't necessarily expect to stumble upon a playground for adults and children alike. Gaba's work, as the Tate notes, calls into question the nature and function of the museum and our relationship to it. It is conceptual and interactive, and fantastical. Tate says that "Gaba’s museum is a space not only for the contemplation of objects, but for sociability, study and play in which the boundaries between everyday life and art, and observation and participation are blurred". This was certainly what we observed as we meandered through the various spaces Gaba has created - from bars, to libraries and games rooms. At times one wasn't entirely sure on entering whether the next space was a shop or cafe, or part of the installation. Some items could be interacted with and others were off limits, and it wasn't just the toddlers who were unclear. This, albeit with some hairy moments of chasing and grabbing Culturebaby as she attempted to scale ladder like structures, rather added to the interest of the space, and there was much that they could actually play with too...

In the 'Architecture Room' there was a floor area filled with wooden building bricks - perfect for babies and children to engage with (alongside adults clambering around building elaborate architectural creations), then in the games room we found a piano to play, small furniture and tables and cabinets filled with interesting objects, and rather excitingly - sliding puzzle tables that the little ones could sit on and move around. There was also a beautiful little children's reading area, complete with a huge bookshelf of exciting-looking picture books to read. Although with a toddler leading the way I have much less time to read and understand the exhibitions as I may have done in the past (though some of this I can do afterwards) what is so wonderful is that I am forced to look at what is appealing to her and consider why. Experiencing space in this way, is actually just as interesting and exciting, and brings a whole new dimension to my enjoyment of art too - and I find that I scrutinise and remember certain works more than I might ever have done otherwise.

There is always something new and surprising to discover at Tate, and it increasingly feels rather like a home from home. As my good friend noted today, wielding her glass of wine and looking out at the unparalleled view of the river afforded by the Tate Members Room, as with perfect synchronicity our toddlers both conked out after a good few hours of exciting play; it is days like these that remind you why maternity leave and the tiring days with toddlers can be so amazing. We love it, they love it, and it is brilliantly educational too. Why would you ever just hang out at the local soulless soft play?

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