“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.”
— Maira Kalman
One of the most inspiring features of James Mayhew’s Katie series is the way in which museums and art galleries become playgrounds for adventure. The gallery is reimagined. Beginning as a dry, out of reach museum experience, Mayhew transforms it to one full of energy as Katie prances from one painting to another. This delightful little girl changes from being intimidated and overwhelmed to engaged and curious. Remember the series tagline mentioned in the previous post – “Make Art an Adventure”.
As Katie looks out from the front cover of Katie’s Picture Show (2014), she is already immersed in Henri Rousseau’s Surprised! and meets our gaze beckoning us to join her inside. Opening the book, we are propelled through the revolving door of the National Gallery with Katie and Grandma, as though spinning on a roundabout.
Katie has opened the floodgates and despite the big “NO ENTRY” sign above the door (3), the museum is no longer off limits. “The drama of the turning of the page” as Barbara Bader calls it, carries us into the entrance hall (4).
Inside the National Gallery’s famous Staircase Hall, Katie is small and out of place. She stares up, bewildered, at the high glass dome, dwarfed by the towering columns. It’s “grand” she says, overwhelmed by the grandeur, her tiny figure isolated and outnumbered by self-confident grownups. This coupled with paintings being well above her eyeline, stern-faced guards protecting each doorway, the strict rules that no one is very clear on but are obvious when the slightest noise gets a stare and a SHHHH…. I can almost hear the low hum of muttered breaths spilling out of the page (see below). Not the big welcome a child would hope for.
The guard has clocked Katie immediately (5). That sideways glance is so familiar. Is the ever-present guard friend or foe? I certainly fear guards who nervously watch my children as if they are waiting expectantly for them to charge into a priceless Renaissance painting or shriek loudly into the silence. The guard reappears repeatedly in Katie’s Picture Show keeping his eye on Katie, but when she falls, he is the one to rescue her (30). It’s good to know that the guards are actually on our side.
Wonderfully no one is looking when Katie ignores “DO NOT TOUCH” on the exhibit labels. Katie discovers that as she touches The Hay Wain by John Constable her hand “goes past the frame and into the painting” (7). The excitement of this imagined reality is palpable.
“This isn’t a picture at all,” cried Katie. “It’s real!” (7)
With this, her adventure comes alive. She is off exploring and making friends. As she clambers in and out of the paintings there is action at every point. Katie spins, climbs, runs, laughs, jumps, plays, hits, grabs, throws, slides, and falls through the story. This familiar language and behaviour of the playground is Mayhew’s apt language of choice for a child’s adventure. Combined with an abundance of food, and friends quickly made, the museum is reimagined as a children’s adventure playground. Liz Yohlin Baill from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a champion for using the familiar to help with museum learning and here Mayhew’s ingenious use of the familiarity of both the picture book and the playground empowers children to find museums accessible. Children already know what to do in a playground, so they will adapt quickly to a museum.
Katie’s visit involves a whistle-stop tour starting in London, calling at Suffolk, Paris, and the jungle, with the last stop in the land of the make-believe. And all from within the National Gallery. Similarly, from the confines of the playground, the slide, climbing frame and swings are often declared to all be different countries for an imaginary game. Katie has found adventure in a parallel universe. A mere touch of the canvas and she’s off again, slipping in and out of the 19th century – a rural farm one minute, a Parisienne salon the next. She sees the possibility of adventuring into different stories, rather like delving through a stack of picture books in quick succession. Katie sees stories within the frame. She sees people to talk to. She sees places to explore.
It takes curiosity and courage to explore the unknown alone, but Mayhew’s little girl is daring and willing to take risks. As the story moves forward, Katie grows in confidence and her image grows as though Mayhew has zoomed in with his paintbrush. Her full immersion inside a painting highlights the three-dimensionality of her playground experience inside and shows how she has matured from the bewildered girl at the beginning. She has overcome her fears of climbing to the top of the highest slide and been transformed by her experience. Mayhew leaves children wanting to join Katie in her new playground this weekend. The gallery has been reimagined into a gateway to adventure.