Slow Food: Still Lifes of the Golden Age at the Mauritshuis

By Claire Bown

The new exhibition at the Mauritshuis ‘Slow Food: Still Lifes of the Golden Age’ is a real feast for the senses.  It’s also the first exhibition to be devoted to the development of meal still lifes in Holland and Flanders from 1600 onwards.

The inspiration for the exhibition comes in the form of a painting acquired by the museum in 2012, ‘Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels’ by Clara Peeters. There are a total of 22 works on display with masterpieces on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Washington’s National Gallery of Art, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels (c.1615)

The 17th century saw the rise of a new specialism in painting with artists painting richly laid tables piled high with appetising delicacies – bread, cheese, fruit, oysters, lemons and olives – alongside fine glassware, gilt goblets, earthenware jugs and fine Chinese porcelain. These depictions of prepared food – without human figures – literally invite the viewer to pull up a chair and start eating.



Nothing is unplanned in a still life. Usually painted on a wood panel but sometimes also on a copper plate, compositions are normally in horizontal format with the table extending across the entire width of the painting. Bright colours are avoided so that all the attention can be focused on the differences between materials and surfaces. A neutral background enables the carefully arranged foodstuffs and objects to jump out. Objects are placed together closely on a tablecloth (often, wool, linen or damask) and are often but not always overlapping.

An eye for details

What astonished me walking around this exhibition was the extraordinary precision with which the food has been rendered – the crumbly cheese, the creamy butter, the texture of the bread. The longer you look at these paintings, the more details you are rewarded with – light reflecting off a silver knife or a wine glass, the muted sheen of a silver tazza – all reflecting the superb craftmanship of these paintings. If you linger longer, you will also notice hidden details – Clara Peeters includes not only  her signature on the silver bridal knife in ‘Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels” but also her self-portrait. On the pewter lid of the stoneware jug, you can see the refelection of a female face with a white cap. This hidden self-portrait appears in a number of other paintings not least in ‘Still Life with Flowers and Delicacies’ (1611) where Peeter’s face appears four times on the shiny surface of the pewter wine jug.

But what do these pictures mean to today’s viewers? Art historians have attempted to attribute meanings to the genre but it is not straightforward. Are they a display of wealth, abundance and prosperity or a call for moderation? Or perhaps they provide us with a warning of the transience of life, of mortality itself? We should perhaps exercise a little caution with interpretation in this exhibition and focus instead on the astonishing detail and craftsmanship of these artists and allow ourselves to experience the paintings much in the same slow and leisurely way as you would savour a good meal.

Slow Food – Still Lifes of the Golden Age in the Netherlands runs from 09 March to 25 June at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Book a 2 hour custom-made private tour with Thinking Museum and see both the permanent collection and the new exhibition!


Interview with Katrina Posner, creator of ‘Ceramic Arts in the Golden Age’

This week Thinking Museum is proud to announce a new programme ‘Ceramic Arts in the Golden Age’ to add our growing list of in-depth tours. Conservator Katrina Posner has designed a special tour focusing on the wonderful ceramics collection in the Rijksmuseum. We caught up with Katrina to find out more:

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
 I grew up in Los Angeles and journeyed to the other side of the country for college, where I studied Art History and wrote my senior thesis on the American artist, Agnes Martin.  After college I joined the mass-migration to San Francisco, where I apprenticed to a paper conservator by day and took chemistry and studio art classes in the evenings. After four years of living the good life in San Francisco, I packed up and moved to Buffalo, New York to begin my studies in art conservation.  I decided to specialise in three-dimensional artworks, or as it is known in the US, objects conservation.  After two years in Buffalo and a year treating objects from the fantastic collection of Egyptian art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, I found myself back in Los Angeles with a Graduate Internship in the Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation department at the Getty Museum.  I eventually became a permanent member of that department where I was responsible, among other tasks, for the care and maintenance of the Getty’s collection of modern outdoor sculpture.  In 2013, my family and I decided to shake things up and we moved to Amsterdam.  I’ve since taken a step away from the ‘bench’ and have been exploring different ways to talk about our shared cultural heritage.

How did you come up with the idea for the new programme on ceramics? What was your inspiration?


Part of my recent explorations have been an attempt to consider the history of objects through the lens of my education and professional experience: art history and conservation together.  My impetus was the field of Technical Art History – where the ‘how’ of an object’s genesis is explored alongside the ‘why’ of its contemporary context.  This field invites art history, conservation science and the examination methodologies of art conservation to the same table, and through all of these facets we, as modern scholars, can really explore the internal and external components of an object.  


OK, so why ceramics?  I think clay is a very interesting medium for this kind of focus.
.  It is one of the four natural elements and it exists all over the earth, right there in the ground.  And, when it is combined with fire – another natural element – we get a hard-bodied vessel, plate, sculpture, building material.  The possibilities are, and have been, endless.  The Rijksmuseum’s ceramic arts collection contains examples from a wide range of time periods, cultures and aesthetics.  And, the ceramic objects are nestled in among all the other, sometimes louder, media.  Considering them closely is an opportunity to spend time with some very beautiful gems.  

What can visitors expect from the new programme? Who is the programme aimed at?


Visitors will take a journey through ceramics of the past 1,000 years.    We will look at porcelain from China and then European porcelain from the beginning of the 18th century, we will follow the trail of faience, or majolica, through the Middle East, into Southern Europe and then Northward to the Netherlands.  We will examine how developments, both on the other sides of oceans and the other sides of feudal territories, complimented and encouraged each other.

Because the tour is specialised and somewhat focused, it is for visitors who are looking to go deeper into the context of the ceramics of the Golden Age (and its preceding eras).  It can be a natural compliment to the time that a visitor had previously spent at the Rijksmuseum, or for the visitor who intends to look at the larger collection at a different time.  

What is your favourite object in the new programme and why does it appeal to you? What makes you keep coming back to it?


I am very fond of the Monkey who sits in the case with the other life-sized porcelain animals made by the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory.  The figure is so playful and focused and present.  I am partial to these animals because they were made at the tail end of a completely manic drive to crack the code of porcelain in Europe.  They are examples of a technical tour de force that are equal parts stunning and ridiculous.  

How does your work as a conservator influence your work as a museum docent?


I’ve always said that it is hard for me to walk through a museum’s galleries and not look for damage.  It is, unfortunately, wired into my approach to art – how is this object doing, how has it fared these five centuries since it was made, are we taking good care of it so that future generations will be able to marvel at its artistry? But when I push this sometimes distracting focus to one side and let in appreciation and wonder, I find these all make a good team.  I have had the great privilege of being able to touch many works of art.  I have looked inside the cavities of bronze sculptures with my own eyes and a flashlight, with a borescope, with x-rays.  I have spent quiet hours with a terracotta bust, encountering the hands of the artist through the fingerprints left behind in the hardened clay.  I have marveled at an Egyptian alabaster vessel from 1400 B.C.E. Its walls so even, its surface so smooth.  I know how to look, how to be careful, how to let objects tell their stories, and I look forward to sharing some of these experiences in the galleries.
You can find out more about ‘Ceramic Arts in the Golden Age’ here.

6 Steps to Stress-Free Museum Visiting with your Kids

I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about how and when you should introduce your children to museum-going. Museums can seem quite daunting places for families when you are unfamiliar with them. So, before you visit, do some planning and get the most out of your visit:

1. Do your research.

Choose your museum carefully. Ask your children where they want to go. Look online to check transport links, admission prices, layout and facilities. Find out if you can take refreshments and a sandwich to eat there (the Rijksmuseum has a picnic room, for example) or if there is a museum cafe. Find out how large the museum is, how many floors there are and what the lift access is like. Look at the collection and scan to see what parts interest you and what you think would interest your children. Talk to your children about the visit before you go to trigger their interest and curiosity. Tell them the name of the museum and ask them what they think they are likely to see there? Make it a game!

2. Time your Visit Well

Plan when you want to go – some of the larger museums can be extremely busy in peak times and frustrating for families. If you have to spend time queueing for tickets and the cloakroom before you’ve even seen a single object, the kids will start getting restless. If you can buy tickets online, do so!

A visit at opening time or later in the afternoon is the best time of day to go. If you do choose to go in the middle of the day, opt for a less busy part of the museum (the hidden galleries rather than the Gallery of Honour, for example) or go to a less well-known museum instead.

3. Limit bagage

Take as little as possible with you. Backpacks are generally not welcome in museums because they can cause damage to objects, so take a small shoulder bag instead. Anything you don’t need can go into a locker or a cloakroom. Check you have change for the lockers! And remember to use the toilets before you start..

4. Use their educational facilities or book your own..

Check before you go to see if the museum has a family audio tour (the Rijksmuseum has a good one) or a children’s activity trail. Some museums have a dedicated room where you can go and create artwork or take some time out (check out the Family Lab at the Stedelijk). Join a guided tour – most museums have an agenda or calendar on their website with what’s going on. There are usually guided tours that you can sign up for in advance or at the information desk when you get there. Plenty of museums are now doing family tours too. Book a private guide or museum educator, particularly one that is specialised in working with families and children to get even more out of your visit. There are a variety of companies out there specialising in designing private museum programmes especially for families which involve a variety of educational activities and interactive exercises for children of all ages. If you go with one or two other families, this can be a fun and educational option that ensures both children AND parents have an interesting time.

5. Bring your own fun

I started off taking my children to museums with a small notebook each and a pencil. I just told them that whenever they saw something they liked, they should make a note of it either with a drawing or by writing. As they are now older, they get to hold the maps and decide where we are going. When we get to the art work or object, you can ask some very simple questions to get them talking ( ‘What do you see?’ ‘What do you think is going on?”‘What are you still wondering about?’). You don’t need to give them lots of facts and information, concentrate on getting them to look and observe and making up their own minds. You can let them take turns in using a camera and taking selfies with the artworks or objects. You could also bring a pair of binoculars or magnifying glasses to let them explore everything in detail!

6. Set a time limit

With museum cards and free entry in some countries, you really don’t need to see the whole museum in one visit – that just leads to museum fatigue! For the first visit, start with 45 minutes to an hour and see how it goes. You can then increase it from there. Bear in mind that most children will start to lose interest after 90 minutes without a break (or a very interesting activity to keep them amused).

A few simple steps ensure that your museum visit is stress-free and focuses on enjoying the art and museum objects rather than finding the toilets and buying the tickets. Happy museum visiting!



More than a Strategy: Building a Culture of Thinking

I was recently talking to a fellow museum docent about how they were given a 10 minute training on how to use thinking routines (from Visible Thinking) in another museum. A few routines were enthusiastically explained to them and they were told that these routines could be inserted ‘ad-hoc’ into tours to inject a little more participation and conversation. Whilst this may provide a quick-fix for those moments when you want to enliven a tour, this is not how thinking routines are intended to be used nor how I personally envisage their use or potential for use in the museum.

When we give in-depth training to museum educators and docents, we stress that the use of thinking routines is more than a strategy to use as and when required in the museum. Before selecting a routine to use with a work of art or an object, it is first important to establish the type of thinking that you would like to elicit from the participants and then to choose the correct thinking routine for that task. This allows different types of routines to be used around the museum and to specifically focus on certain types of thinking with different objects.

Thinking routines provide a structure for making meaning and give participants an introduction to the process of thinking slowly and carefully about art and objects. What separates thinking routines from other thinking skills programmes and routines is the way that these routines enculturate a disposition to think. That is, when used regularly and as part of the learning fabric of the environment, these routines help to develop what Ron Ritchhart calls a ‘culture of thinking‘.

We believe that to fully immerse yourself in using this method in the museum, attention needs to be paid not only to the routines themselves but also to documentation, the language of thinking and group work.

1. Documentation
4446069876_8340b115a1_z Documentation of the learning journey is an integral part of Visible Thinking, literally making the thinking visible. This can take many forms – such as the use of charts of tables, mind maps or lists, audio or videotape and photographs. Sometimes the museum teacher will write down the thoughts of the participants, whilst at other times, the participants themselves write down their thoughts (on a post-it, in a journal etc). This can also take the form of a visual display (a thinking or wonder wall) which shows the process of learning rather than the end-product. In the museum you can carry around a portable whiteboard, use post-its or video the conversation as it is taking place.
With school groups, we often give the documentation to the teacher at the end of the session to enable further discussion back in the classroom based on what has already taken place in the museum.

2. Language of Thinking
imagesThe language of thinking can be simply defined as words that describe and evoke thinking. The aim is to develop and encourage a rich language of thinking; where one hears words like reason, conclude, opinion rather than think, guess and feel as using these precise words actually helps people to think better.
The use of thinking routines alters the way that museum educators and docents interact with their groups; attention is paid to modelling the language of thinking and to encouraging its use within the group (‘I see you made a connection there’ ‘What theories can we come up with?’).Regular and repeated use of thinking routines has been shown to help build this language of thinking, encourage the use of conditional language (‘might’ ‘could’ etc) and help people to externalise their thoughts more clearly (for more information, see here) In our training sessions, we devote time to working with educators and docents to develop and use this precise language of thinking and in the art of using non-judgemental feedback with groups.

3. Group work
images-2 As, according to Ron Ritchhart, learning is chiefly a social and collaborative endeavour, it makes sense to use thinking routines in spaces where visitors get together to learn, namely in a museum environment. When museums fully incorporate thinking routines into their organisations, they are taking full advantage of the benefits of group work where ideas are explored through group discussion and dialogue.
The process of using thinking routines extends the conversation as everyone feels at ease offering thoughts to the discussion. As all comments are received non-judgementally by the museum docent or educator, a more balanced discussion takes place where everyone feels they can take part. The process of using a routine also teaches participants to respect and listen to other’s opinions. Everyone profits from the ‘distributed intelligence’ of the group as individuals are able to use and build upon other’s experience and interpretations. This way of working, where a group reasons together out loud, puts forward new ideas, responds to and builds on the ideas of others and generates further questions is known variously as collaborative learning, a community of enquiry, ‘collegiality’ as it is termed by Arthur Costa, and also a ‘culture of thinking‘ in Visible Thinking. Ritchhart defines this as a culture where thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted, not just in one department but across the whole organisation. It is this ‘culture of thinking’ that distinguishes this approach from other methods.

Using thinking routines is not just a new way of working or quick fix for those quiet moments on a group tour; it is about embracing an entirely new culture of thinking and learning in the museum. Emphasis is placed on how the group interprets a select group of objects through open-ended questions facilitating lengthy discussion. Value is placed on gaining new perspectives and knowledge from the students themselves. The aim is to be inclusive and include everyone in the discussion regardless of age, ability of background. Ultimately the goal is to foster and encourage a community of learners that all feel happy, willing and able to contribute to the discussion taking place.


Teenage Kicks at the Stedelijk

Teenage Kicks at the Stedelijk

In August I was asked to lead a private tour for a group of teenagers at the Stedelijk, a museum of modern and contemporary art and design in Amsterdam. This was to be a small group of participants aged between 11 and 18 years old. All of the group were German, but some lived in Amsterdam and went to a local international school, whilst others were visiting from Berlin where they attended a bi-lingual secondary school. The tour would be in English but all of the group were non-native English speakers. Two of the group would also need help with translation from other members of the group. I had no further information about the group – whether they liked modern art, for example, or even wanted to come and visit the museum.

This was my task – to put together an exciting tour of the museum that appealed to a diverse age-range and non-native English speaking group of teenagers. No mean feat. Luckily, I like a challenge, particularly one in a museum.

Since the Stedelijk has re-opened, with it’s wonderful and sometimes controversial new bathtub extension, I have visited many times. I love the ground floor with its chronological layout of modern (pre-1950) art and the wonderful and often-overlooked design collection. However, I was drawn to the defiantly non-chronological layout of upstairs and decided to base the majority of my tour with the post-1950 collection here, with some time later to visit a temporary exhibition in the Design wing and a final creative exercise in the Family Lab. So far, so good.

At this point, I should mention that my group was accompanied to the museum by a large group of parents and extended family, who were were taking part in a wonderful private art history tour at the same time as my tour. Our tour of the Stedelijk was to be slightly different. I use thinking routines and inquiry methods to enter into discussions with my groups. We always start with some slow, careful and quiet looking at the object or artwork in front of us. Then I like to ask the group to describe what they are seeing, before we move on to trying to interpret the object or work of art. At different works, I use different routines depending on the kind of thinking I am trying to elicit. As and when necessary, I sometimes add contextual information to extend the discussion. The aim is to always use open-ended questions to open up the discussion and make the whole group ready and able to contribute.  It’s like a mini-culture of thinking for the duration of the visit. How was this achievable? Let’s look at some of the art works that we got to know…

dan flavin

instead of giving the group an introduction, I asked the group what they already knew about the Stedelijk and what they would like to know. From their prompts and questions, we talked about the renovation of the building and re-opening of the museum. I asked them to look closely at and touch the handrails on the famous stairs of the old part of the building. We talked about how these were the only things that had been untouched in the whole renovation of the building. They then came up with reasons as to why they hadn’t been replaced with new ones. They also asked about the wonderful neon lighting and we discussed the mood it created and the intended tribute to Mondriaan by the artist Dan Flavin.

We walked to look at the Sol LeWitt wall drawing and spent some time appreciating just how large this work really is. After describing the work in detail (What do you see? Can you describe it more? What else is going on?), I told the group a small amount of information about conceptual art and how LeWitt wrote a set of instructions for each wall drawing which were then handed over to assistants to complete the work. 


This led to an animated discussion within the group about who the artist is – is it the person who comes up with the idea? Or the person who constructs the work of art? Does the artist have to make their own work? Is it still art if someone else makes it? We then took a vote as to who was the author of this work.

I then walked the group into the large room containing Barnett Newman’s Cathedra and set them a challenge as to how long we could spend discussing what is largely a blue painting with two stripes on it (their words). Although this painting can be ‘seen’ very quickly, it is only when you spend time looking that you can appreciate it’s impact. Again, this is a strikingly large painting, with hidden depths of colour that cannot be appreciated with a short glance.


This painting also has a very interesting history as it was attacked in 1997 and was painstakingly restored for more than 4 years. This led the group to an interesting discussion as to why anyone would attack a painting and in particular this painting? (In the end we spent 15 minutes here, discussing Cathedra which surprised the group).

By now, the group were well in their stride and excited to see the next artwork. I wanted to show the group some photography too and the group were drawn to the Rineke Dijkstra photographs of children and teenagers in lush park settings. They immediately noticed the facial expressions of the subjects (rarely smiling). We also visited the Allan Sekula triptych that were newly on display following the artist’s death in August. Three photographs are mounted on the wall, supposedly telling a story. The group was divided into three and each group had to describe their photograph and tell the story. What the group was unaware of, was that the table and chair in front of the photographs is intentional and the red book on the table is in fact an essay by the photographer revealing possible meanings of the photographs and their relation to each other. One member of the group started to read the essay and share some of the information with the group. This led us to think about what photographs actually reveal?

3.12-Rineke_Dijkstra-Vondelpark-June_101                                             Allan Sekula Meditations on a Tryptich

The group had worked really hard to get to this point and had all contributed (even the two non-English speakers) but I could tell that it was time for a change of pace and mood. We went downstairs to the fantastic and mesmeric Touch and Tweet exhibition in the Design wing of the Ground Floor. This comprises three interactive installations, Dune by acclaimed designer Daan Roosegaarde and two by London duo Hellicar and Lewis. Dune is an interactive corridor of light that responds to movement and touch and delighted the group. Feedback is an interactive mirror-based installation, much along the lines of a hall of mirrors. The software changes and manipulates your image in response to your movements which generated a great deal of dancing from the group!

A final activity to ward off museum-fatigue took place in the Family Lab where I handed out instructions for every one to create their own Sol LeWitt wall drawing as a memento of their trip. As they worked away, I chatted to them about their thoughts on the tour. I had worked hard to put together a tour that looked at a large variety of art works in different ways. I wanted the group to feel they had worked together as a group to make the tour what it was and above all, I wanted them to feel excited and inspired to return again to this or other museums.

Thankfully, all of the group were overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. They loved the museum, loved the art and loved being able to talk about their thoughts about what they had seen. All of the group left with a page of links to info, apps and interesting videos about some of the artwork they had seen. At the end of the tour, one of the grandparents came into the Family Lab and heard about what we had been doing for the last 90 minutes. As he left the room, I heard him say, “I wish I could have been on your tour…!”

If you are interested in booking a bespoke private museum tour for corporate, school or personal groups, please contact 


Thinking Routines in the Museum


As routines are part of the classroom, so they are also an important part of the museum experience. Every museum has rules or guidelines to keep visitors and the collection safe. Students and teachers are reminded of the correct behaviour as they arrive at the museum. These rules help students to understand what to expect and what to do.

Imagine the benefits then of a routine that would help students adjust to the museum learning environment and to make sense of the objects or art works in a memorable and engaging way? Imagine what would happen if a museum used such routines to invigorate their practice and facilitate open-ended discussions with student groups?

Thinking routines are such a routine. They are short and easy to remember. They are grouped into categories according to which type of thinking you want to elicit and can therefore be used easily around the museum to specifically focus on certain types of thinking. Their flexible nature allows the docent to add factual or supplemental information as and when required by the group where appropriate. They can also be adapted or modified to suit the needs of the group or educators can even create their own routines based on the Visible Thinking ones.

We know that learning is a social and collaborative endeavour (Ritchhart 2007), therefore it makes sense to use routines in spaces where students get together to learn, namely in a museum environment. Thinking routines extend the conversation in the group as everyone feels at ease offering thoughts to the discussion. This allows a level ‘thinking-ground’ (as opposed to a level playing field) where there are no right or wrong answers and students become open and receptive to all comments. These routines also teach students to respect and to listen to other people’s opinions – really useful skills that are transferable to other environments.

Thinking routines are more than just a strategy; they provide a structure for making meaning and give students – young or old – an introduction to the process of thinking and how it applies to learning. Although largely unknown in many museums, certainly in the Netherlands, thinking routines are ideal for encouraging the exploration of ideas, sparking curiosity and provoking debate.

A great read on this subject: Ritchhart, R. 2007. ‘Cultivating a Culture of Thinking in Museums.’ Journal of Museum Education, 32(2), pp.137-154.

Available at:


A Brief Guide to Thinking Routines

As I wrote in my last post, I have spent the past year developing a new programme at the Tropenmuseum using thinking routines from Visible Thinking as a method of engaging and interacting with museum objects. The resulting programme ‘Stories Around the World‘ uses these routines  as the structure around which students can explore objects in the museum in a slow, careful and detailed way.

 images                            010

Focusing on thinking routines is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to start working with Visible Thinking. A routine is simply defined as a sequence of actions or pattern of behaviour that is regularly followed or rehearsed. Thinking routines are tools specifically designed to help, support and guide student’s mental processes or thinking. They consist of short, easy to learn and teach steps that get used in a regular fashion. No training as such is required before starting working with these routines. With habitual use, teachers can modify and use the routines as needed for different applications and students are able to cue the steps of the routine themselves. They have catchy and appealing names too – See-Think-Wonder or Think-Puzzle-Explore – to help students learn them by heart and recall them independently when required.

Thinking routines can be used across a variety of contexts and environments from schools, universities, private institutions and corporations and , of course, museums. They are also not subject-specific either – thinking routines have a wide appeal and application across a variety of disciplines including arts, history, maths and science contexts. Their flexibility means that they can be used on an individual as well as a group basis.

Unlike other strategies designed to cultivate thinking skills, thinking routines are short and memorable with only a few steps based on carefully crafted questions – ‘What do you see?’ ‘What do you think about that?’ ‘What does it make you wonder?’. These routines loosely guide the analysis of a wide variety of materials such as photographs, documents, newspaper articles, museum artifacts and so on.

There are currently 21 thinking routines (although the number is growing…) divided into 3 categories: Introducing and Exploring, Synthesising and Organising, Digging Deeper. Each routine encourages certain types of thinking and the name of the routine helps to guide the student as to the type of thinking required – for example, observing closely and describing, reasoning with evidence, making connections, perspective taking etc. In order to be effective, it is first important to establish the type of thinking that you would like to elicit from the students and then choose the correct thinking routine for that task.

In my next post, I will look at how thinking routines can be employed and applied within the museum environment. In the meantime, if you want to read more take a look at the links below! Happy reading.

Further Reading:


Stories Around the World



Yesterday was a very proud moment for me. Over the past year I have been developing a new programme at the Tropenmuseum for international primary schools using thinking routines as a method of engaging and interacting with museum objects. We invited teachers from international schools all over the Netherlands to come to the museum yesterday to find out more and experience a taster of the programme for themselves.

There are two types of international schools in the Netherlands – private and so-called community schools. The latter receive a generous subsidy from the Dutch government which ensures school fees stay low. Community schools have an emphasis on students connecting and integrating into Dutch society and students receive regular Dutch language classes to help achieve this. The main language of instruction for approximately 13,000 students is English.

Therefore, when it comes to choosing a suitable museum visit, options are rather limited. At a focus group last year with several teachers, I found out that international schools are generally offered either a standard museum guided tour with an English-speaking guide or a translation of an existing worksheet. Teachers also remarked on frequently creating their own activities for the students to do at the museum. International schools tend to repeat the same visits year-in year-out because they know they ‘work’. English-language resources were also largely unavailable – teachers wanted information to prepare for visits and to follow up afterwards but found that access to educational resources involved supplemental hours of translation work.

With my own children at an international school in Amsterdam, I was also concerned that they were not experiencing the full potential of the many excellent museum learning initiatives out there. They were returning from museum visits to highly respected institutions remarking that the visit was ‘fine’, ‘ok’ or even ‘just someone talking at us’.

The Tropenmuseum wanted to develop a new programme for international schools – not least because of the reasons mentioned above, but also due to the fact that they both share an international outlook. That is, perhaps, a deep sense and awareness of other peoples, cultures, countries and customs. The Tropenmuseum’s collection spans many continents and focuses on contributing to the knowledge and understanding of different cultures. The Tropenmuseum is also part of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), a knowledge institute for international and intercultural collaboration. Internationals schools themselves offer a small representation of the world and their students can teach us about their own cultures.

The new programme needed to reflect this shared outlook and offer a common link between various curricula on offer in international schools. The International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IB PYP) are both pedagogically progressive curricula focusing on a skills-based approach using transdisciplinary units of study, with the aim of developing adaptable and resilient globally-minded learners.

The resulting programme ‘Stories Around the World‘ focuses on all of the above elements. The theme chosen for the programme, stories and storytelling, reflects the need for a broad, flexible topic that is applicable across the primary years and across different curricula. There is an accompanying Teacher’s Pack available for every teacher providing detailed information and resources in English. I have also developed a new teaching method Stop! Look! Think. for the programme over the past year which aims to encourage slow, detailed exploration of objects using thinking routines from Visible Thinking. Expect more information about the method in future posts soon…

The initial response to the new programme yesterday was wholeheartedly enthusiastic and  positive. So, I am feeling proud today – pleased to have developed the first museum programme specifically for Dutch international schools using thinking routines.