Schools and Museums: Interview with Anna Cutler

Anna Cutler is the Director of Learning at Tate in the United Kingdom. Before joining Tate Anna was the director of Creative Partnerships Kent, where she was involved with research into learning in the visual arts.

Anna Cutler


Why offer school tours?

Students’ horizons have been so concertinaed into one perspective – museums offer an expanded vision of what life could be. Art asks “what if,” and there is almost nowhere in the curriculum to ask that these days.  And field trips are important even if kids are just getting on a bus and talking to each other — research shows that children have five minutes of conversation in a six hour school day (in lesson time). The positive benefits of field trips are really high, given children’s daily trudge through subjects, which are not very exciting to them in my experience and research.

We want to support teachers to extend their ideas and the curriculum content – we don’t want to deliver it or reflect it. If your purpose as an organization is to amplify and provide for the curriculum, then invite schools to do that. But I don’t think most cultural institutions are set up to do that – they are set up to invite broader thinking in the world. We have extraordinary works with an aesthetic and intellectual yield – a rich way of abstract thinking, coupled with an environment that students rarely get, in public, with each other, where they are invited to have dialogue about abstract ideas.

But purpose does matter. If you go with a low-level purpose, you’ll have a low-level experience. If you are going to a museum to do more school, you’ve missed the point. If you are going to reaffirm curriculum, everybody will lose out, because museums offer so much more. And it’s the “so much more” that we should be looking at.

How is the Tate thinking about field trips?

I have this little equation: “time + space” over “content + method” = quality of experience.  The four things that we can change in the galleries, to make them different from schools, are time, space, content, and method.

We have a space called the Tanks, huge amazing spaces where oil used to be held. We realized that in the Tanks we had to do a completely different program for people. So we changed our model, and we’ve done a week of working with schools. Everyone tells me no school will do this – dedicate an entire week to the museum – but it turns out that they are happy to do it.

A class stays with us for a week, and we invite the children to make an educational intervention for the public. One group (in a project entitled Misguided) chose to make a version of a Children’s TV show about the art works on display. By the end of the week they were the most expert people in the building about what was in those galleries, and their film was a fascinating, significant intervention.

One of our questions for the Tanks was, what is an audience? Part of this is thinking about school groups as members of our audience who are alive and kicking and with brains of their own to respond – a group of wonderful, inventive people who have something to share. If you think like that you have extraordinary potential in the museum.

My team are keen on performativity – actions of learning in the galleries that give others ownership of the space. Being with young people in a space and using it differently impacts the public visitors that are there. It shifts the social relations in the space, which is quite interesting.

Misguided class

Students creating the “Misguided” video in Tate galleries.

Do you offer shorter guided experiences as well?

We also do one-and-a-half or two hour workshops. We offer these three days per week, not every day. We try to spend the other two days each week making resources, online materials, things that can extend the experience of schools that visit, and for schools that cannot visit.

What can we do in an hour? Inspire. Offer a really extraordinary experience that students have an emotional reaction to. Teach them how to learn for themselves. What can you do within an hour that invites children to see what questions they need to ask?

I do deeply believe in the process of learning as experience over time. However, I once went to a session on evaluation for one hour with Steve Seidel and I learned more in that hour than I’ve learned in my life about that subject. And I’ve seen a 10 minute Beckett play, which didn’t need to last 90 minutes to be one of the most exceptional things I‘ve ever seen. So it depends what you do in that hour. It would be great to do, wouldn’t it, to see just how little time you really need to make something amazing happen?

We always work with artists now. Ten new artists every year, who work with schools. We now ask visiting schools what they want to get out of the visit. That question is transformative. Then the artist is responsible for taking students to places in the museum where they can explore those ideas.

The Tate is in a very privileged position, in that groups will come even if you do not offer what teachers ask for. What do you see as the implications of this for smaller museums?

We don’t tell teachers, “We don’t do this, we won’t connect to your curriculum.” We tell them what we do offer, which is beyond what teachers can do in the classroom. Which seems to be much more exciting. Teachers who have decided that they are going to bring their students to the museum, who bother to make this happen, are already committed. So why not do something really great?

We have trained staff on the phones, and they talk to every group about what they want. So it’s an incredibly bespoke experience. I respect the fact that this takes time and money and people, but saying this visit will suit the letter of the curriculum – I’m not sure if it does, or if that will get the children back in years to come. In the last year we have seen a huge increase in the percentage of schools that ask for a return visit within the year. In one instance it’s gone from from 22% to 85%. Something seems to be working.

What are the costs of field trips for the museum and the school?

It’s about £1.50 or £2 per student visitor, after everything. It’s not a huge amount of money we have. We have 750 kids visiting a day across sites (most on self-guided tours, but always given resources by Tate).

But it’s a numbers game, isn’t it? Every museum is judged by the number of people coming through. If you have a million kids coming through for a bad experience, is that value for money? The Tate is quite brave to support quality over quantity.

I’m really interested in your question about cost and benefit. Because you would have to work out the cost / benefit for any individual. It costs us millions of pounds for exhibitions serving millions of visitors (sometimes). Why do it? Why provide this opportunity for anyone?

There is an assumption behind the discussion of cost and benefit, that these school subjects have more value than a visit to a museum and that something will be lost or need compensating if they visit. I know that some teachers do feel hacked off when there is a trip that interrupts their lessons – but not all schools feel this way. Some feel that museum visits are a benefit and an important part of children’s broad and holistic learning experience. So it’s about values, as well as what experience you get when you are there.

The Finnish have the least hours at school and do the best academically. I was ill and off school for practically two years just before my exams and passed them all (not brilliantly I grant you). I had to ask what the point of school was. It’s got to be more than passing or failing exams.

So if you are talking about value for money, then you must ask: What are the values that underlie questions of value, learning and culture?

3 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Anna Cutler

  1. I love the idea of “thinking about school groups as members of our audience who are alive and kicking and with brains of their own to respond – a group of wonderful, inventive people who have something to share.” Yes! Dialog is where all the good stuff happens and dialog by definition can’t be one-sided.

    ” …So it depends what you do in that hour. It would be great to do, wouldn’t it, to see just how little time you really need to make something amazing happen?”
    This really gave me pause and is challenging me to flip what I see as an obstacle(we always need more time!) as an opportunity’..

    Great thought-provoking stuff.

  2. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Goals for Students | Museum Questions

  3. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II | Museum Questions

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