Thursday, June 30, 2011

Singapore Art Museum

Last Saturday, we met up with some friends to visit the Singapore Art Museum. The museum was hosting "Art Garden" which was publicised as "interactive contemporary art for children" and visitors were invited to "spend a day of play and learning" there.

With our experience at Please Touch Museum still fresh in our minds, it was inevitable that we would compare the two museums. While I acknowledge that the one in Singapore is more of an art exhibition where the artist's voice needs to be respected, I also feel that, having touted itself as being "interactive contemporary art for children" and offering children the chance to learn through play, then the Art Garden has to be measured against the same standards and criteria that apply to the Please Touch Museum.

I should say now that, in my view, the Art Garden didn't match up. It was a big flop, if you measure it against its intent as publicised.

The first exhibit that greets visitors is Walter, the "curious colossal bunny". Made of PVC and filled with helium, he is 4 m tall (lying down) and 7.5 m long. It looked fantastic - from a child's perspective, I think the children were looking forward to feeling the massiveness of the exhibit, perhaps giving it a punch or even bouncing on it.

Unfortunately, dear Walter is protected from little children by a short railing. There is no way you are going to lay a finger on that bunny and there is even a security guard standing by to make sure of that. Ryan observed the scenario from afar and promptly lost all interest in the exhibit.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): We learned that curious colossal bunnies don't do anything except laze around.

After buying our tickets, we proceeded to the first room which hosted "Paramodelic-Graffiti", which was an installation made up of plastic train tracks, with artificial grass and styrofoam landscapes and topography, some plastic construction vehicles and structures and some plastic toy animals. When we walked in, I went, "Wow!" It looked so inviting!

Believe it or not, the exhibit is a no-touch zone! One of the children from our group ran up to touch the toys and was promptly told by the staff not to touch anything. I was stunned. The exhibit stretches all over the room and even up the walls! To get through to the next room, we literally had to weave our children through the exhibit. Don't ask whether we enjoyed the exhibit - we were too busy trying not to get in its way! There was also no way that our children could enjoy the exhibit because we had to get them out of there quickly BEFORE they actually noticed what the exhibit was made up of and wanted to touch it.

It was a complete flop in terms of being "interactive contemporary art for children".

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): Zero. When visiting the exhibit with children, you should blindfold them and move them out as quickly as possible.

Next to this was a room where the children could set up their own train tracks. However, this is limited to a certain number of children and it is also limited in time. We got there at the end of the last session, and I heard the staff yell out, "OK... PACK UP EVERYTHING!!" Gosh, it sounded like a command from an army commander. Maybe I'm being too sensitive about this, but you wouldn't speak to an adult like that so why is it necessary to speak like that when dealing with children? I don't think that's the way to go.

All right, let's move on. This exhibit is imaginatively titled "Fruits".

The part that you see in the photo is once again a "no-touch" zone, it is protected by a railing and some staff members are stationed next to it. The staff give out paper templates which you can fold into 3D fruit like the ones in the plastic trays in the photo. Each admission ticket entitles you to a template so we collected two templates with our two tickets.

The construction of the fruit is straightforward - you simply smear glue on the white tabs and glue them to adjacent white tabs and as you go along, you will naturally end up with a paper fruit. The white tabs have names of different fruits in different languages including English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. That is apparently the educational part of it but I couldn't see how I would be able to learn the name of a strawberry in Chinese/Malay/Tamil unless I already knew how to read the Chinese/Malay/Tamil words/characters for strawberry.

The white tabs of the template are quite small and intricate. Ryan took one look at it and walked away to the other part of this exhibit - the Tree of Love. I ended up doing the activity by myself (and my adult friends).

I actually did not like this activity. It was very restrictive. When I handed up my 3D fruits for exchange with real fruit, I was told that one of my fruit was not as it should be and I was told how it must be done. I felt like a factory worker, churning out meaningless waste.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): Zero. Maybe this portion will be more meaningful for older kids.

[The rest of this post is written by Richard]

The "Tree of Love" consists of tree structures with miniature sculptures on their branches and at the base of each tree, there is a cup with markers. Visitors are encouraged to color the miniature sculptures and the tree itself. Ryan enjoyed this portion of the exhibit. He promptly took the colour markers and began doodling away but he lasted less than five minutes before growing bored.

Leona: I thought it was too limited and restrictive. As you can see, there really is not much space for the children to write/doodle/draw. In addition, the children are supposed to pen "their hopes, thoughts and feelings" in the hope that this will inspire social harmony. This turned me off completely - the aim of the artist to dictate what the children should write about. You can see that most of the children just doodled on the trees. So much for deep thought.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): 3 out of 10. Although Ryan is quite interested and involved in colouring the branches, the miniature sculptures (even those on the lowest branch) are much too tall for him. Perhaps if they were allowed to draw on the clean white walls...
Educational (for 2 year olds): Zero. Maybe this will be more meaningful for older kids.

We moved on to the opposite wing on the 1st floor. The first exhibit that we went to was "Mummy Dearest". There were panels of different caricature cartoons and each caricature has a few sets of clothes and accessories for the children to play dress up. Each item (dress, shorts, shoes, etc) has velcro on the back to enable the children to stick it onto the caricature. A Project Runway in the making...

Ryan took to this display quite naturally but he only completed one of the caricatures here. I suppose the rest of the caricatures are basically the same, a variation on a theme and after the first one, the rest is not challenging or interesting enough to sustain the attention of a 2-year old.

Leona: I did not like this much because it did not allow the children to take the lead and learn through play. The children were pretty much dictated to - the panels are labelled, eg. "GIRL" or "BOY" and you have to dress the "GIRL" with the clothes from the GIRL section and the "BOY" with the clothes from the BOY section. I think the artist could have done a lot more with this, perhaps use more tactile elements like zippers and buttons and scarves. This was pretty boring.

At the centre of this gallery, is a huge multi-tiered cake which the children are supposed to decorate. It is quite huge and sits on a platform. The platform itself is almost as high as Ryan and Ryan could not reach even the lowest tier of the cake. I don't think Ryan even noticed this gigantic cake and judging by the bareness of the cake, neither did the other children.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): 2 out of 10. Interesting for the first caricature.
Educational (for 2 year olds): 1 out of 10. Kids learn that they can put on different outfits? Hardly anything new, even for a 2-year old?

The second exhibit on this wing is called "Go". Inspired by the Chinese game of Go or Weiqi, guests are given a piece of graph paper on which they can design a pattern by colouring the squares in the matrix with different colours. Once your pattern or art is completed, a staff will collate wooden circles in the various colours for you. You then slot the wooden circles into a large vertical replica of the matrix of dots to form your pattern or art and have a picture taken of it. There can be a few people designing their artwork at the table but only one person at a time can reproduce their art at the giant vertical replica. I thought it was a good concept. Everyone evidently thought the same because it was the most popular activity. We decided to give this a miss. Ryan did not look interested in this exhibit at all; probably more for slightly older children.

We moved on to the adjacent hall to another exhibit called "Superhigh". The first thing that struck us was the bright and wonderful colours surrounding the walls and floors of this room. This was a refreshing change.There are a few round shaped blocks of different colours and the children are supposed to slide these objects to sit on top the circle of the same size and colour painted on the floor. This is quite a lame exercise, I must say. Given the bright and vibrant colours and patterns on the walls and floors, we expected something more.

When we got into the room, Ryan quickly climbed on top one of the coloured blocks. As he was about to look around and enjoy the various colours at a different height and perspective, a museum staff walked up to us and asked us to bring Ryan down. We carried Ryan and walked to the next exhibit.

Leona: Yet another restrictive activity where the children are not allowed to think creatively or have their own interpretation. It gives me the impression that the artist has no clue about how children behave. The activity is also too simplistic for toddlers. Ryan could match colours before he started walking.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): 0.5. Two minutes on top of the round shaped object.
Educational (for 2 year olds): Zero.

The last exhibit in this wing is called "Lightning Action". It is quite an interesting art installation. A cluster of white boxes are placed strategically in the corner of a dark room. A projector projects the image of a toy box cover onto each of the boxes a few at a time, giving the impression that the toy boxes are appearing magically. Ryan was quite intrigued by this display. For the first few minutes, he kept wanting to go closer and closer to these boxes and wanting to touch them and to explore them. Of course, there is a low barricade around it and a museum staff nearby to ensure that nobody touches anything. We appreciate the intricacies of this particular installation and apparently Ryan understands this too as after awhile, he just sat back and enjoyed the show.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): Five. Quite entertaining and intriguing for Ryan.

We decided to go and explore the rest of the museum on the first floor and we came across this giant white elephant at the hallway leading to the internal courtyard. Each visitor was given a strip of stickers to stick onto the elephant. Here are 2 shots of Ryan doing his bit in decorating the elephant. He pasted two stickers and had to be persuaded to finish up the strip.

Leona: All the stickers are the same, albeit in different colours. All the children do the activity in the same way to achieve the intention of the artist, never mind what the child wants. The individuality of each child is completely disregarded.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): Huh? Putting stickers on an elephant?

Leona: The installation behind the elephant that you see in the first photo is quite interesting. It is called "Dancing Solar Flowers" - it is made up of paper flowers that rock in response to light. Ryan didn't care for it though. The museum was also holding screenings of animated children's films but unfortunately we missed the last screening for the day.

The last stop that we made was at the Glass Hall. There is no exhibit here, it is an activity space for the children. Ryan enjoyed himself the most here and we spent a long time here. In the middle of the hall, there was a table with train sets similar to those in Paramodelic-Graffiti and it was a nice surprise for Ryan as he finally had the chance to create something and get his hands on all those wonderful trains and train tracks.

Leona: There were also little tables along the sides of the space where children could sit and work on colouring sheets. Ryan was not interested in these and neither was I - the children were all given the same colouring sheet of an elephant and the end result was a slew of similar looking pictures. It was just so sad. Why is there this need to circumscribe what the children could create? Is there so little faith in the imagination and creativity of a child that we fear he/she will be paralysed if faced with a blank sheet of paper?

Leona: On the whole, the experience at the Art Garden paled in comparison to our experience at the Please Touch Museum. The exhibits were not child-focused, rather they were extremely artist-centric, which is completely inappropriate when your target audience is made up of children. The children are forced to play in a certain way, they are not allowed to have their own ideas or to experiment or to play freely. There is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to play, which is a concept that I do not agree with, (unless it is for safety reasons). Some of the exhibits are too simplistic, which ultimately bores and insults the child - how stupid do you think children are? Most of the time, the children are treated as though they are merely factory workers who are there to carry out specific tasks. I got the feeling that the exhibits were designed by people who had no understanding of children at all.

It is a commendable effort by the SAM to open up and engage the public especially the children but they still have a long long way to go as compared to the Please Touch Museum. A museum is only as good as its exhibits and some may even argue that it is only as good as the amount of visitors it attracts every year. The two are invariably linked. I hope to see the SAM take a bolder and more incisive step in developing more specific programs to engage the different age groups in Singapore; in particular the very young and the very old.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A different point of view

As usual, here are some selected shots of Ryan from Richard's phone. Enjoy!

This is part 2 of our visit to the Please Touch Museum. Sorry about the lack of photos - I was having too much fun playing with the exhibits!

After lunch, we went to explore Roadside Attractions which was in the opposite wing. The theme for this exhibit was road transportation. There were lots of opportunities for pretend play and role playing here. Children could pretend that they were going on a trip on a SEPTA bus (or they could be the driver), he/she could pretend to buy/sell a sandwich from a roadside snacks/drinks cart, or work the excavators at a construction site (scoop up balls). They could also fill up their cars at the gas station or fill up tires with air, collect tolls, learn about road signs, construct a large car (put on the wheels, the bumper, etc), send a car to a carwash, ride a scooter, etc. Ryan had a lot of fun here.

Next to this was "City Park", which was a replica of a small park, with park benches and trees. There is a mural made up of magnetic tiles there, which the children can rearrange to create an image and learn how things fit together.

The Please Touch Playhouse Theater was having a puppet show so we went over to the theater. On the way, we passed the Liberty Arm & Torch which is a 40-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty's Arm and Torch. The sculpture is made of toys, games and other objects. There is a small circular flight of steps leading up to it and you can touch it freely and try to spot some of your old favourite toys and games. It sits in Hamilton Hall, which is in the centre of Memorial Hall, and you can see the Memorial Hall's famous copper dome above it.

There was another sculpture made from discarded toys just outside the cafe called Artie the Elephant, which is a life-sized elephant made from hundreds of discarded playthings, including a 1960s Batmobile, some Smurfs, a Spider-Man and a football helmet.

The playhouse was putting on a puppet show called "There's Something Under My Bed". Here's a trailer on Youtube of the show, although the puppeteer we had was a different person from the person in the trailer. The show was fantastic, we enjoyed it thoroughly.

After the show, we ventured into Wonderland. This is based on the world of Alice in Wonderland. You can walk through a circular maze of green hedges, have tea with the Mad Hatter, make tea in a hollowed out tree trunk (the Duchess' Kitchen), play in the Hall of Doors and Mirrors where proportions and perspectives are not what they seem, play dress up - whether as the Mad Hatter, Alice or a playing card, and play croquet with flamingoes as the characters did in the story.

As usual, there was a toddler area for the youngest among us. It was called "Fairytale Garden" where children could pick apples off a tree, pin the laundry on a line (or take it off and put it in a basket), go on a ship adventure (like in the story of The Owl and the Pussycat), milk a cow, etc.

Oh Captain, my Captain! (The boat rocks and rolls while there are people in it) 
Next to this was a hall which housed the Centennial Exploration exhibit, which showcased the sight and sounds of Philadelphia in 1876. We were running out of time so we gave this a miss, but from the writeup on the website it did sound very interesting and fun for the children. Although it is more of an "adult" exhibit, there are still hands-on experiences for the children to explore, like an old telephone, typewriter, building a miniature railroad, playing with a wooden dollhouse, etc.

We spent a lot of time at City Capers, a child-sized "city" in the museum, which lets children explore a realistic urban environment, while getting to know the people, places and businesses that make up city life. There is a medical centre with lab coats, cribs, baby dolls and doctor's equipment, where the children can pretend to be a doctor/nurse/patient, there is a shoe store, with lots of shoes, where they can pretend to be a salesperson, customer or shopowner. There is a construction site ("Busy Build") where children can pretend to be construction workers, architects or city planners while using the tools and equipment on the construction site, like pulleys to lift bricks, etc.

Part of City Capers is "Front Step", which is the toddlers area. There is a small house surrounded by a garden complete with deck chairs. The children can go into the house and sit at the dining table or they can hang out on the porch. They can also do some vegetable gardening - Ryan planted and harvested some potatoes and carrots - or mow the lawn.

The most popular store at City Capers is the Supermarket. Children get to role play as customer or cashier. They can wheel a child-sized trolley around the supermarket and select the items they wish to buy from the display shelves. And after they have purchased their items, they can learn to re-stock the shelves (ie. put the items away!). Next to the supermarket is a kitchen, with kitchen counters and cupboards, a fridge, stove and dining table, for the children to put away their purchases or cook up a meal for the family.

And yes, there is a replica of McDonald's - the quintessential symbol of modern civilisation. We didn't go there.

The last exhibit zone we explored was Flight Fantasy, which has an outer space theme. Children are encouraged to experiment with balance, speed and coordination and create movement using their bodies. For example, there is a giant hamster wheel, a balance beam, a flying propeller bike, and a pedal track that operates a revolving circuit of toys. There is also a space where you can put together UFOs and rockets (made of styrofoam) and launch them across the room. Lots of opportunities to learn about math (there are timers at each launching station), science (gravity, wind resistance, lift), cause and effect, plus lots of gross motor development.

We next visited The Program Room, which provides arts-related programmes for the children, whether painting or building a tower with blocks. You can sit as long as you like with your child and play or paint as many pieces as you like, for free. In fact, everything in the museum was free, except for the Carousel (and the food at the cafe of course).

One of Ryan's masterpieces done at the Program Room
Our last stop was the bookstore/toy store/gift shop, where we picked up some toys and souvenirs for Ryan.

In addition to the interactive exhibits, the museum also has a collection of over 12,500 toys from yesteryear. There are little nooks and crannies around the museum displaying these old toys like Marvin the Martian, an entire Smurf collection and some old Star Wars figurines.

The museum was a wonderful experience. The exhibits were attractive and interesting enough to capture the interest and imagination of the children, and they provided lots of learning opportunities through play. The children were free to touch everything and play with all the exhibits in any manner they could imagine - there was no "right" or "wrong" way to handle the exhibits or to play and there were no museum staff to tell you not to do this or not to do that. There was one staff member stationed at each toddler area, one staff member at River Adventures to help with the waterproof overalls and one staff member at Roadside Attractions to help the children with the excavators. There was also one staff member at the Carousel and one inside the Program Room to replenish the art materials - but most of the time she was painting her own artpiece! So we were largely left on our own to discover and explore and play. Fantastic place.

Once again, sorry about the lack of photos - here's a Youtube video (slightly less than 3 minutes) with a general overview of the museum, and you can also see the children playing with the exhibits. Good stuff. We were glad that we made the trip.

Next instalment - New York City!

From Bucks County, we drove to the Please Touch Museum using the interstate (I-95). It was straightforward enough and we got there without any fuss. Of course we couldn't leave these two fellows behind.

The award-winning Please Touch Museum is specifically designed for families with children and provides learning opportunities through play. The exhibits promote the philosophy that hands-on, self-directed, open-ended experiences facilitate learning and, importantly, are fun!

The museum is set up in Memorial Hall, which is a restored 19th century building. It is the only major structure remaining from Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition (in honour of USA's 100th birthday). It is considered one of America's best examples of the Beaux-Arts style of architecture. I also found it interesting that, as graceful as it is, it is also completely fireproof, being fashioned from glass, iron, brick and granite, which I thought was remarkable for that era.

Here's a shot of the building. We didn't get a shot of the huge statues in front so do check out the shots on the internet to see those.

The exhibits are spread out over two wings and two floors - here's a map. All the exhibits in the museum are meant to be touched and played with in an open-ended manner - there is no right or wrong way to play!

The first section we went to was River Adventures. There are a few exhibits in this section, Ryan was most absorbed in this one.

Like a river, there is water flowing through the whole structure which snakes and curves around the hall. At various sections, there are  rubber ducks, boats, pumps, wheels, paddles and blowers. The children are encouraged to touch and play with the toys, the mechanisms, the structures and of course the water.

Ryan was able to see how the boats/ducks behave in the water, why some float and some sink, how the waves are generated, the patterns the waves make and how the waves affect the objects in the water. There was a miniature canal lock (like the canal lock in the Panama canal) which I found pretty cool. There is also a Water Wheel and an Archimedes Screw. Great introduction to basic concepts about engineering and mechanics, properties of water, a bit of math, nature, problem solving, critical thinking, and just plain fun. Gives a whole new dimension to the term "water play" and "sensory play"! We were there for a long time!

Off to one side of this water attraction was a section for younger children and infants to play, which was called Nature's Pond. There were animals hidden in the high grass, some logs and stepping stones. In addition to climbing up and down the structures, the children could also create nature's sounds by stepping on the lily pads in the pond and they could crawl inside the hollowed out log. There was also some educational information on eco-living for those who were interested. Of course, it was not a real pond with real animals, etc. Everything was cushioned or covered with PVC - all very safe for toddlers. We didn't venture into this section because Ryan wouldn't leave River Adventures.

Next to that was a giant musical keyboard which was placed on the floor for people to play by stepping or dancing on the keys. Anyone could step up and play if they felt like it. There were people playing with it when we were there so we gave it a miss. If you've seen the 1988 movie "Big" starring Tom Hanks, you'll remember the scene where he and Robert Loggia played "Heart and Soul" on a walking piano in the middle of a New York City toy store. This is the exact same keyboard from that movie. It was donated to the museum in 2009. Here's a link to a Youtube video of that scene.

After we tore Ryan away from River Adventures, Richard took him for a ride on this beautiful vintage carousel - the Woodside Park Dentzel Carousel.

This gorgeous carousel made its debut in 1924 at Woodside Park (although many of the animals on the carousel date back to 1908).  It is in the shape of an octadecagon (18-sided polygon). The animals are lifelike and were handcarved. They stand three abreast, the outer ring fixed while the inner rings rise and fall in a slow gallop. There are 2 chariots and 52 animals, including 40 horses, four cats, two goats and four rabbits. William Dentzel was so proud of the carousel that he had his initials carved on the lead horse. Some of the animals are quite rare - the "flirting rabbit" (where one paw is lifted as if waving hello) on the original carousel is one of only three known to exist in the world.

Eighteen beveled mirrors are attached to the outside rounding board, each surrounded by a clown head, decorated with acanthus leaves. There are 1278 light sockets lining the cross beams and decorating the entire lower edge of the outer rim, the clown shields and the mirror frames, leading The Smithsonian to note that they were "one of the most fantastic illuminated designs ever seen". I thought it was just beautiful!

After the ride, we had a quick lunch at the Please Taste Cafe. There is a dining hall adjacent to the cafe, which is a lovely sunlit space with a double-storey high ceiling and huge colourful artwork on the walls. I don't know if it was the intention but the proportions in the space - the windows, the high ceiling, the art - were so huge that I felt really small, like a child.

Ok, that's it for this post, I'll finish off the rest of our museum outing in the next instalment!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Weekend report

Saturday got off to an early start with breakfast at nearby Marine Parade Central.

We came across these baskets of durians. I do not like durians and usually walk past as quickly as possible to get away from the smell. Inexplicably, Richard takes every opportunity to introduce Ryan to them. I have no idea why - could he be trying to annoy me? Nah, the man I love and who loves me wouldn't do that. Then again, looking at his expression in this photo, I think something is not right (by the way, this shot was taken with a zoom lens while I was standing upwind.)

After breakfast, it started to rain heavily so we loitered around and visited some of the shops while waiting out the rain. The aquarium and pet shop was particularly interesting. Ryan got to see lots of fish, some terrapins, some lobsters plus some guinea pigs, rabbits, etc. He was very excited.

In the late afternoon, we met up with some friends for a visit to the Singapore Art Museum, where there was an exhibition of "interactive contemporary art" for children. I'll do a separate post on that, for now I will just say that it wasn't as interactive as I'd thought. Here's a shot of Richard and Ryan with Walter the curious colossal bunny on the lawn outside the entrance (there is nothing interactive about the bunny at all, by the way).

Oh well, even if the exhibition wasn't that great, we did have a wonderful time catching up with friends. After dinner with them, our little family went for Ben & Jerry's ice cream! Great way to end our evening out!

Back home, we did some activities with flashlights and coloured cellophane - will share that in a separate post. Then, Richard went to have drinks with the guys near our home while Ryan and I took Max for a walk around the neighbourhood. After coming home, Ryan had some water play in the shower before going off to bed.

On Sunday, Ryan had swimming class in the morning. We skipped last week's lesson on account of waking up late and it being Father's Day, so Ryan was pretty happy to be in the water this week.

We collected our underwater photo which Coach snapped for us when he handed out the Duckling Awards a few weeks back. Check it out!

Shichida class was next. This is the last class of the term and there will be a one week break before the start of the next term.

Ryan got a fantastic term report - full praise on every aspect and his teacher told me, "I'm really amazed at his abilities!" One of the parents in our class also commented that Ryan is "very fast". Super job, my darling!

Tea was a muffin tin meal - cornflakes, snacks and fruit (the apple is from the Singapore Art Museum!).

The evening was spent at the playground in Telok Kurau Park, taking advantage of the pleasant weather. As usual, Ryan rode there in his little car. On the way back he wanted to be carried, which was much better because it was easier to point out little things to him along the way, like the different flowers, the different coloured leaves, the pieces of tree bark, some fallen fruit, the canal, etc.

It was a fabulous weekend, can't wait for the next!

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