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Photo: Emily Gan

Kindergarten at the Museum

  • Article
  • PHI Foundation
By  Kim Johnson  &  Prakash Krishnan
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Photo: Emily Gan

We define museums today as welcoming spaces devoted to sharing and education. This has not always been the case. 

For a long time, museums were intended for private gatherings, reserved for the well-off with advanced degrees.

Over the past few decades, museums have been democratized, opening their doors to a more diverse public. Although today visitors provide a more accurate picture of society, in the Education Department of the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, our focus is on deepening a sense of belonging for visiting groups.

In the spring of 2023, we were fortunate enough to collaborate with Cindy Lebel, an instructor at the alternative school Le Vitrail, and her fabulous class of kindergarten students, for a second edition of the project School at the Museum. The nature of the project is to develop, in students of all ages, a profound sense of belonging to museums, and to show them that schools are not the only place of learning that they have access to. This project is spread out over several weeks and differs from regular school group visits in several ways. Notably, this is done through the repetition of an established routine, which makes it easier to maintain a common thread throughout their visits.

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Photo: Emily Gan
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Photo: Emily Gan

For the kindergarteners, we created a four-week plan for our exhibition, Terms of Use. The exhibition brought together fourteen artists working on the themes of technology and individual and group identities. With the students, we encountered a new artwork and its artist each week: Chun Hua Catherine Dong, VahMirè (Ludmila Steckelberg), Shanie Tomassini, and Helena Martin Franco.

In our preliminary conversations with Cindy Lebel, we decided on and developed the broad outlines of the project’s four sessions. Together, we created an educational plan which addressed the notion of identity through a variety of creative and collaborative activities. Each week, we maintained the established routine while adapting the activities to fit the artworks we were looking at together.

Here is a glimpse of one day in the shoes of one of our youngsters—a day devoted to discovering the installation Freehand Absence (2023) by the Montréal artist of Colombian descent, Helena Martin Franco. This work addresses the themes of identity, bodily movement, and emotions, in which the artist explores the place of her body, as an immigrant woman, on the unceded Indigenous land of Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal.

Glimpse of the day

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Photo: Emily Gan
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Photo: Emily Gan

After each visit, Cindy took the reins of artistic exploration as part of the school curriculum. By continuing the discussion of the topics addressed during the class visit of the PHI Foundation, she connected the cultural centre and the school. Following our exploration of Helena Martin Franco’s work Freehand Absence, Cindy continued the collaborative drawings in her classroom. In this way, each week started out from ideas and themes taken up in the previous visit in order to develop the students’ understanding of the major themes of the exhibition, in particular that of identity. Our wish was that the students would bring their new artistic knowledge to the rest of their studies.

For another activity session, we invited the artist Shanie Tomassini to design and lead a creative workshop connected to her installation Screen Glimmer under a Moonless Sky (2023). This enabled the students to explore the theme of identity in greater depth, especially in relation to nature and its four elements. The students questioned Tomassini about her life, artistic practice, and inspirations. During the workshop, the children, with the artist, became more familiar with sculpting, working with modelling clay and incorporating natural elements expressive of their collective identity. These principles were also revisited in class with their teacher Cindy after the visit. She led an activity using the same technique, but this time with sculpting clay rather than with modelling clay.

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Photo: Emily Gan

The progress being made in the democratization of museums is becoming increasingly discernible in the art world. Our mission to make the museum accessible lies in intuitive learning, free exploration and collaborative creation. Throughout the course of this second edition of School at the Museum, our team had the opportunity to witness the great bond that exists between Cindy and her students. Her sustained involvement was of great importance to our team. In fact, we share the same values and objectives: to introduce learners from a very early age to cultural experiences, and to let them express confidently and freely their opinions and artistic interpretations. Through projects such as School at the Museum, we commit to creating a healthy educational environment which will give rise, we hope, to more long-term collaborations between schools and the PHI Foundation.

Note: In the fall of 2022, we mounted a pilot project of this initiative with a 5th and 6th grade class at Le Vitrail during the exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work DANCING LIGHTS THAT FLEW UP TO THE UNIVERSE. You can read more on this topic in the article “Jeanne, of course, I remember your name.” 


Kim Johnson
Kim Johnson is an educator at the PHI Foundation. She completed a BA in Art Education at Concordia University in 2016. Kim is involved in the democratization of visual art through her educational and artistic projects in various community centres and cultural institutions in Montréal. As a visual artist, she draws her inspiration from human connections, the feminine and nature.

Prakash Krishnan
Prakash Krishnan is a researcher and cultural worker in the fields of digital media, contemporary art, archives, and accessibility. He completed a master’s degree in Media Studies at Concordia University in 2021 and has penned a number of essays, articles, and reviews for international publications. Prakash is an educator at the PHI Foundation and works with various local organizations, artist-run centres, and collectives on cultural mediation programming and accessibility.

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