Boston Children’s Museum has an art gallery on the second floor, which is sometimes overlooked as children run from Arthur’s World to Johnny’s Workbench. Exhibits rotate every two months, with work from local, contemporary artists. A recent exhibit was Floor van de Velde’s A Curious Symphony and it featured a wide variety of musical instruments from the Museum’s collections, arranged to show off instruments from around the world. Music played overhead and in phone booths so visitors could hear a range of music from different countries, cultures, and eras. On one of the last Saturdays of the exhibit’s run, I held guitar-making workshops for nineteen visitors and their grown-ups.
Since the fall, I have planned workshops for each new Gallery exhibit, hoping to help children explore the art in new ways and obtain new tools for encountering and interpreting art. Past workshops included learning how to “Move Like a Monster” for Monster Party and designing a boat for dreams for The Star Travelers’ Dreams. This A Curious Symphony exhibit challenged me. Initially, the instrument-making workshops I eventually settled on seemed too obvious. But sometimes the most obvious ideas are the best ones.
When I held the guitar-making workshop we started in the Gallery, looking at guitars and other stringed instruments in the exhibit. I asked the children to describe what they saw when looking at each instrument. Children noticed seemingly simple things like the shapes of the instruments and the number of strings, and then got deeper, trying to decipher what the figures painted on one instrument were doing. I had received a list of the instruments from our Collections department with information on their background, including country of origin and the year it was made, but this proved to be unnecessary. The children did not need to know the history of the pieces, but instead were open to describing and expressing what they saw.
Once in the studio, children were given simple materials: cardboard, rubber bands, yogurt containers, stickers, and markers. Beforehand, the only altering I did to the materials was to cut the cardboard into rectangles and then cut a circle in each cardboard piece to fit a yogurt container. Basic materials, but the variety of output was huge. Some made no alterations to the size and shape of the cardboard, others cut it into a triangle similar to one of the instruments in the exhibit, and one child made hers as small as she could. The rubber band “strings” proved difficult because when too many were put on the yogurt container, it got squashed out of shape so that it would no longer fit into the pre-cut hole. No matter, children just crisscrossed the bands so they could still use the number they wanted and maintain the shape. When plucking the rubber bands, they created different tones, changing with the size and stretch of each. The children reached out to the inspiration of the Gallery instruments and to their own imagination in creating their guitars.
It’s always a special moment in teaching when your lesson crosses disciplines. I find that it makes both subjects more relevant, because art is not just important for the sake of art, but it is also important in the worlds of music and history. Children made art in making their instruments, but also were able to make unique music with the instruments themselves. The children explored collections items that they may have otherwise overlooked and these objects provided inspiration and information for both the art and the music. The exhibit challenged me to create a workshop I might not have tackled otherwise, as I do not consider myself a music educator. But at the intersection of music and art, and collections and education, both I and the children were able to find new connections, new explorations, and new art.