Teachers' resource: Using the V&A at Key Stages 1 & 2

Robe worn by a Daoist Priest (detail), about 1650-1700, Museum no. T.91-1928

Robe worn by a Daoist Priest (detail), silk embroidered with coloured silks and gold thread, China, about 1650-1700 (Qing dynasty), Museum no. T.91-1928

This resource is designed to support teachers at Key Stages 1 and 2 to use the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It covers practical considerations, gives advice on using the V&A with younger students, suggests ways to prepare students and accompanying adults and includes ideas for gallery activities and follow-up work back at school.

The ideas take a cross-cultural approach and can be applied to the English, Maths, Science, Art and History areas of the curriculum. Activities include:

  • Language and literacy
  • Counting and numeracy
  • Shapes and patterns
  • Materials
  • Art
  • History

Why use the V&A with young students?

The V&A is the national museum of art and design. These rich collections provide an opportunity for students to learn from real objects. For young students, visiting a large and imposing building like the V&A can be an exciting and provocative experience. Channelling this immediate emotional and intellectual response into a structured and enjoyable educational experience will help students to develop positive values and attitudes to using museums. This in turn will establish a good foundation for future visits.

Preparing a visit

Talk to students about what a museum is. If they have already visited a similar museum, explain that the V&A is very large. Show them pictures of the outside of the building and point out how high and wide it is. Compare the building with other large buildings they know, such as their school, public library, block of flats or supermarket. Introduce students to new words like objects, collections, displays, galleries. Pictures of the museum interior will help to do this. Show them postcards and other pictures of museum objects to familiarise them with the kinds of things they will see.

Assemble a collection of interesting objects and practise talking about them, asking questions about size, shape, texture, colour, decoration, materials, function, etc. You should set a task for the students to carry out during their visit to the V&A,  explaining clearly what they will be doing and why.

In the classroom, try out appropriate tasks, such as counting and drawing objects or identifying materials, so that students will be confident when applying these skills during their visit. Talk about the people they will encounter in the museum, such as warders and other visitors. Explain that they will be sharing the museum with other people and that they should consider the needs of others in a public place.

Tell them that one of the important roles of museums is to look after rare and valuable objects. Explain too that the students should not touch uncased objects nor knock into or rest their drawings on glass cases, which may contain fragile objects. Encourage students to talk about what they think will happen on the visit and find out what their expectations are.

Preparing accompanying adults

Ideally, the class should be divided into small groups of five or six students to one adult group leader. The leader's role is extremely important and good preparation will go a long way towards ensuring a successful visit. Fully brief group leaders in advance of the visit. The briefing should include a timetable for the day (for young students, a maximum of two hours is recommended); a map showing galleries to be visited and the location of cloakrooms, toilets, the Lunchroom, shops and meeting places; dos and don'ts about behaviour; background information to support any activity; ideas for the sorts of questions to ask students; and other ways of prompting their interest and curiosity. Make it clear to group leaders that talking in the galleries is to be positively encouraged.

Objects provide stimulus for discussion and the leaders play a central role in encouraging this. There are many different ways of using language: for example, description, analysis, storytelling and imaginative reconstruction. As well as direct observational questions, try some speculative ones too. Ask, 'What would happen if…?' or 'Why do you think…?'. Talking through their experience with an adult, who will ask and answer appropriate questions, is one of the most productive activities for young students on a museum visit.

Photography is allowed in the museum and is a good way of recording the visit, refreshing students' memories and generating discussion back at school. If students are confident using small cassette recorders, these can be a good aid in recording their immediate responses to what they see and do.

Ideas for gallery activities

The V&A is large so you must be selective about the galleries you are going to use. Each activity suggested here links to a specific gallery and curriculum area. Every group could attempt either one or at most two activities. Provide each group leader with any drawing or writing materials they will need. Only dry art materials are allowed in the museum.

Using museum displays will be a new experience for many students at Key Stage 1.

Spend a little time at the beginning of your gallery visit to help students to become familiar with looking at displays. Small children tend to press close up to displays which is not always the best way to see them.

Choose a large, floor-level case containing a variety of objects. Sit the group about two metres away from it so they can take in the whole display. Talk about what they can see. Describe some objects for them to identify. Ask them to do the same, in a sort of 'I Spy' game. Talk about why the objects are displayed together. Find the biggest and smallest objects. Count objects of similar shapes or colours. Ask students to turn their backs to the case and try to remember some of the things they have seen. After the students have finished their set task, spend about ten minutes looking round the gallery in which they have been working, or another gallery on the way back to the meeting place. This gives students a chance to explore their own interests and express what they feel about the objects.


Key Stages 1 & 2 projects

Here are some projects that you may like to study with your students.

Language & literacy

Language usage in the 20th century gallery (Rooms 71-73)

Background information
Noah Armchair, 1988, Museum no. W.15-1990

Noah Armchair designed by Nigel Coates, steel frame with ash (wood) seat, London, 1988. Museum no. W.15-1990

The 20th century gallery in the V&A explores the design ideas and manufacturing techniques and materials that shape consumer and household products.

Objects on display include many familiar to young children, though some are of unconventional design.

At the V&A

The aim of the activity is to gather ideas and material and to create a short narrative. Give each student five sheets of paper individually labelled: a chair; a teapot; a toy; something to wear; something I like. Ask them to choose and draw on each sheet one object from those on display. Their drawings can be used as illustrations in a simple narrative that they can make up and tell to the rest of the class back at school. Students with strong skills could be asked to write captions for the drawings. Alternatively each student could produce a drawing of one object and the group could make up a narrative together.

Imperial dragon robe, 19th century, Museum no. T.199-1948

Imperial dragon robe (back view detail), silk tapestry weave, China, 1780-1850 (Qing dynasty), Museum no. T.199-1948)

Counting & numeracy

Counting in the China gallery (Room 44)

Background information
The China gallery includes objects dating back about 5000 years to the present. It is arranged according to how the objects were used, in sections called: Living, Eating and Drinking, Ruling, Temple and Worship, Burial, and Collecting.

The gallery contains a red lacquered throne, dragon robes, a giant Buddha's head and items of furniture, clothing, tableware, ornaments and interior decoration. Displays are labelled in English and Chinese.

At the V&A

There are two objects that can be touched in the gallery - the glazed porcelain Ming vase and the stone head of the Buddha. Encourage students to feel the difference between them and talk about what they can feel.

Warm up the group with some counting activities led by the group leader.

  • Count the dragon robes in the case at the edge of the Ruling section. Choose the one you like best. How many dragons are there on that robe? How many claws on a dragon's foot? How many dragons altogether?
  • Find the robe for the Daoist priest with many people on it in the Temple & Worship section. Estimate how many people there are: more than 5, more than 10, more than 20, less than 100, more than 100? (Actually there are nearly 350!) Find another object in the gallery that has many copies of the same image decorating it.
  • How many animal legs can you count in the Burial case containing horses?
  • Count the teapots in the Tea case.
  • Find the case with three shelves of porcelain vessels in the Ruling section. How many white ones? How many blue ones? How many red ones? How many yellow ones? How many altogether?
  • How many objects are there altogether in this display cabinet?

The verbal counting activities suggested here could also be made into worksheets for the students to do as a task on their own. Give students an enlarged photocopy of the cabinet outline found in the Cabinet worksheet below.

Ask the students to count the objects in the actual cabinet in the gallery and then draw them on their copy in the right compartments. They could number the objects on the outline.

Back at school make another enlarged photocopy of the cabinet and ask students to draw their favourite object to stick on it. This could be put on the wall and used as a counting activity by the rest of the class.

Shapes & patterns

South Kensington Museum, February 1869

South Kensington Museum, frontispiece from 'The Guide', February 1869

At the V&A

If the weather is fine, the garden is an excellent place to work outside and view the building and its architectural features. If you stand in the garden looking north (straight ahead as you go outside) you will see what was intended to be the original entrance to the museum. In 1869 all that stood between this entrance and the Cromwell Road (behind you) was a stretch of grass. The quarter-mile frontage on Cromwell Road and the galleries behind it were not completed until 1909.

All sorts of geometric designs and repeating patterns can be seen in the building façades on the four sides of the garden. Give the group leader a bag containing cardboard cut-out shapes that replicate those that can be found in the features of the building. The shapes can be made by enlarging and photocopying on card the template below.

Look at the shapes and patterns on the building together. Identify and name shapes as you can. Invite students to dip into the bag and pick out a shape, which they must find on the building. The shapes could have their names written on them for students to read. Give the students large outlines of the façade (photocopy from the Garden Shapes template above), making sure the shapes are kept to scale. Then, using the shape they have picked as a template, ask them to draw the shape in the right place. Where shapes are repeated, students should draw the repeats as well.

If the weather is bad and access to the garden is restricted, shapes and patterns can be seen in many internal structural and decorative features of the building.

Back at school

The drawings the children produced at the V&A could be pasted onto the insides of a large box to create a model of the garden.

Materials

Identifying materials in the Japan gallery (Room 45)

Before your visit

Japan gallery (Room 45)

Japan gallery (Room 45)

The Japan gallery at the V&A is designed in Japanese style and includes objects made of many different materials. Students should handle and examine objects made from the materials they will see in the gallery so they become familiar with their properties by sight. The materials are cloth, wood, stone, metal and clay. Introduce them to words that they can use to describe the materials: rough, smooth, shiny, dull, hard, soft. Remember, they will not be able to handle objects at the V&A so they need to be able to identify materials by sight. You could take small samples of the five materials to the museum to remind students of what they feel like.

At the V&A

Direct students to objects made of each of the following materials: cloth - a kimono; wood - a merchant's chest; stone - a Buddhist figure; metal - a Samurai sword blade; and clay - a porcelain, terracotta or stoneware dish or bowl. Talk about the materials and their properties. Remind students of the words they used to describe materials at school. Use the same words to describe objects that they can see in the gallery. Look for pairs of objects where contrasting words can be used. Discuss the function of the object and the suitability of the material from which it is made. Ask students to look around the gallery and find other objects made from the same materials. Give each student a sheet divided into five boxes labelled with the individual materials. Students should draw an object made of each material in the appropriate box and write what it is.

Back at school

Students could be asked to assemble their own collection of objects made of the 

Art

Background information

Mughal hunting coat, satin embroidered with silk, India, 1620-1630, Museum no. IS.18-1947

Mughal hunting coat, satin embroidered with silk, India, 1620-1630, Museum no. IS.18-1947

The V&A holds the largest collection of Indian art and artefacts outside India. It covers the period 1550-1900 and includes textiles, jewellery, painting, metalwork and furniture.

At the V&A

For this activity, you will be working in the South Asia gallery (Room 41). Its focus is to make line drawings of animals. Look in textiles, paintings and inlaid wooden boxes for animals that have a very clear line. Name the animals. You will find tigers, elephants, horses, deer, goats and rabbits. Talk about how the animal is represented in line. Give students a sheet of paper and a black wax crayon and ask them to choose an animal and do a large line drawing of it.

Make sure they position their drawing well on the paper. For example, they should start drawing the head of a sideways-facing animal at one side of the paper, not in the middle.

Back at school

Line drawings can be made into prints. If 'pressprint' sheets are available, draw directly onto a sheet with a pen and then take this back to school. ('Pressprints' are thin sheets of polystyrene and are available through educational supplies catalogues.)

At school, go over the line drawing with a biro, pressing fairly hard so a line is made into the polystyrene. Then, cover the sheet with paint or water-based printing ink and place the inky side down onto a large piece of cloth (test this process out on paper first, until students have got the hang of it), applying pressure on the back of the sheet with the back of a spoon or roller. Lift the sheet and move to another place on the material, repeating the pattern/drawing to replicate an Indian textile.

History

History in the Fashion gallery (Room 40)

Mantua or court dress, 1740-45, Museum no. T.260-1969

Mantua or court dress, silk embroidered with coloured silk and silver thread, England, 1740-45, Museum no. T.260-1969

Background information

The Fashion gallery features highlights from the V&A's extensive collection. The seven cases around the outside of the room illustrate the evolution of high fashion. Evolving themes and styles in fashion history include Dressing Up, Undress, The Suit for Men, The Suit for Women, The Dress and Sportswear.

Clothes in these sections cases are arranged chronologically to show their development from the 1750's to the present. The central cases facing outward are dedicated to fashion designers active since the 1950's. The four freestanding cases feature wedding dresses from the 1830's to the present. Temporary fashion displays can be seen in the centre of the room. Children's clothes are not usually displayed here but are shown at the Museum of Childhood, in Bethnal Green. Lighting in this gallery is kept low to prevent fabrics from fading.

The chronological displays allow young students to get an interesting view of changing shapes and styles of clothes through time. The aim of the activity is to get students thinking about differences and similarities in clothes between the present and the past.

At the V&A

Riding jacket, 1750s, Museum no. T.554-1993

Riding jacket, brown camlet (wool) lined with silk and trimmed with silver braid, England, 1750s, Museum no. T.554-1993

Choose a case of clothes from the themes and styles listed above. Talk about the differences and similarities between historical and contemporary fashions. The reference point for contemporary dress could be some of the garments in the Designer Circle, as well as the clothes of other visitors in the gallery, though this needs to be done discreetly and students made aware that they are not necessarily comparing like with like. Discuss dress materials, colours, style, shape, lengths, as well as any accessories they might come across.

Talk about the kinds of garments people wear now, which they cannot see in the display. The group leader should act as scribe and record the discussion. This could be done using a large sheet of paper divided into two columns: 'Now' and 'Then'. Students should choose one dress and draw an outline of it to show its shape and, if there is time, sketch a detail of the pattern of the fabric.

Back at school

Students could cut out pictures of current fashions from magazines and, using these with their drawings from the V&A, make a pictorial 'Now' and 'Then' chart.

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