How National Gallery Singapore Has Approached Children During the Pandemic
It has been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. Every business sector has been forced to adapt to new ways of working, including museums. Months of lockdown have seen museum access restricted to the digital sphere, and even as museums have reopened, there is some hesitation about their future. As we’ve seen in various virtual museum exhibitions, adults can still enjoy museums and galleries pretty freely, but what about children? How can museums make sure that kids can still have fun, memorable experiences?
The Children’s Biennale at National Gallery Singapore was one institute faced with this question. Celebrating its third event, titled Why Art Matters the exhibition turns to hybrid approaches of audience engagement, providing both virtual and physical access to its works. This means that children can more easily “visit” the exhibition, often without needing to leave their home.
“We asked ourselves several questions: What does it mean to connect with our audiences at this point especially when people are confined to their homes? How could we facilitate and bring art closer to the public, and what does this mean today?” — Vanini Belarmino, Festival Curator for Children’s Biennale
Of course, it’s natural to have a little hesitation about rushing back into museum and gallery spaces as the pandemic still lingers. Over the last 18 months, museums and galleries have heard their audiences’ requests, and many have put in significant work to provide free digital access to their collections. As children learn and grow in this ever-changing world, it can be comforting to know that there are still museum experiences out there for them. Even as COVID safety procedures continue to impact physical access, families can virtually participate in an exhibition like the Children’s Biennale, ensuring they don’t miss out on the quality time and family bonding they’re used to.
Vanini Belarmino (a Festival Curator for Children’s Biennale of National Gallery Singapore) explains that each iteration of the Children’s Biennale provides new challenges, but also presents new opportunities for learning. Invited artists are asked to encourage public engagement through participatory development, immersive works, and interactive art installations. The Biennale encourages children to view the contributions of other children from different backgrounds and societies, broadening their horizons and opening them up to the wealth of diverse experiences around the world.
How does the biennale work?
The main theme of the Biennale is broken into four smaller sub-themes, each easily accessible via a microsite. These sub-themes are home, environment, time, and diversity with a compass to guide its virtual audience on their cultural journey. Within that same digital space, children can also participate in a range of programmes from film screenings to guided sonic walks, and from craft workshops to storytelling. The visitors can even contribute to the online works, download accompanying activities, and glimpse the artists in their studios through short video interviews.
As children are their target audience, the National Gallery Singapore actively seeks to work with artists who are open to collaborate and welcome them in their creative process. The nine commissioned artists also work across a wide array of media to create an engaging and immersive experience, from photography and painting to Tik Tok videos and social media posts.
Building a coherent experience for this young audience is one of Belarmino’s biggest challenges. She has to work with artists to not only create an interesting exhibition full of engaging works, but also find a way to make the artists’ vision line up with the need for a suitable environment for children. It can be difficult to bring these ideas together and create something that appeals to the inquisitive, energetic minds of children.
Meet the Artists
The artworks on display were created by nine artists from all over Asia, specifically Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Australia, India, and Taiwan. Each brings their own perspectives and approaches to their work, and the interaction between these different experiences can make for an engaging exhibition. Each artist’s microsite has a whole array of activities designed for art-lovers under 12.
From the nine artists on show, Belarmino shares her three personal recommendations for kids (and big kids) to try at home. First, there is a Singaporean artist Speak Cryptic and art collective ADDADDADD with their artwork named BEHOME, an animated, gamified story revolving around a bee. Young participants can look forward to a dynamic onscreen experience as they chart the bee’s contribution to the larger ecosystem through the game. The digital experience transitions into an immersive physical manifestation of BEHOME, with a cluster of large hexagonal sculptures that evoke a beehive, housing holograms, GIFs, and novel audio experiences.
Next, she recommends Joyce Ho’s A Day’s Book and Nona Garcia’s Illuminated. When viewing A Day’s Book, visitors will see a range of stories from across the globe, compiled over 20 months. Through the micro-site, participants are invited to write and draw a story, which can be accessed and continued by other participants. As soon as the day ends, the book is archived and available for visitors to read the next day. The artist will then present a full collection of books in the gallery’s physical space, highlighting Biennale’s hybrid cultural experience.
The last one is Nona Garcia’s artwork exploring the use of patterns for image-making and storytelling. Audiences can use digital x-rays of natural elements, such as bones and corals, to create nature-inspired patterns across five digital backgrounds. The digital experience seamlessly transitions to the physical installation, where the same five backgrounds are stitched together into an immersive wall-to-floor magnetic mural. Audiences will be invited to express their creativity and complete Nona’s murals by creating scenes using magnetic pieces of digital x-rays.
For those interested in visiting the physical exhibition (especially for those living in Singapore), the Children’s Biennale will open for the public from November 2021 until December 2022. Kids under 12 can look forward to more than a hundred activities in addition to the nine exhibited virtual artworks. There will be a mix of online and offline activities to inspire the imagination, with each quarter’s activities focusing on one of the four subthemes — Home, Time, Diversity, and Environment. Highlights include a sonic art workshop and storytelling by Kamini Ramachandran (Singapore).
Creating parental bonds through artwork
There is a hope that the Biennale, through its mix of physical and virtual artwork and its range of interactive and imaginative experiences, will bring a little bit of hope and excitement into the lives of its young visitors. But this programme can’t succeed without parental participation. The museum expects every parent to join in, building strong bonds with their children through the exhibition. Visitors will not only see how fun and interesting art can be but also find new ways to enjoy cultural spaces as a family.
In the end, Biennale encourages the children work, learn, and share with other children regardless of their backgrounds and societies. This approach can transcend their physical boundaries and create inspiring connections through shared experiences formed by art.
Amirahvelda Priyono is an art writer based in Indonesia. She is interested in Southeast Asian contemporary art and currently writing for various online platforms based in Europe. Since 2019, she created ‘My Museum Journal’ on her personal Instagram account. She recently won a Special Mention Award from Fresh Take Second Contest by Art & Market X ASEAN Foundation. You can find her articles on Linkedin and Instagram to see the museum content.