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The Art Bridge: Boosting Confidence through Visual Literacy

The Art Bridge: Boosting Confidence through Visual Literacy

Today, I’m thrilled to be chatting with Sofie Vermeiren, about The Art Bridge, a long-term collaboration between Museum Leuven and a local school, exploring how art can boost children’s self-confidence and visual literacy.

Sofie Vermeiren is Head of Public Mediation at M Leuven. Sofie sees art as a tool for inspiring creativity and challenging traditional perspectives. She believes that art plays an important role in education by teaching people to view the world critically and openly.

Sofie is also a national correspondent for ICOM CECA Belgium. In this role, she supports and helps share innovative mediation practices from around the world to her national museum colleagues.

In 2023 at the annual ICOM CECA conference in Singapore, Sofie was awarded the ICOM CECA Best Practice Award with M Leuven’s multi-year collaborative project The Art Bridge

The Art Bridge had considerable social impact. It showed that by engaging with art, children can learn how to express themselves, think creatively, develop social skills, and become more critical thinkers. This newfound confidence strengthened their sense of belonging within their community.

In this episode we’re exploring how The Art Bridge got started, it’s objectives and how it worked to support students and teachers at the Mater Dei School in Leuven over a 6 year period. We explore the different types of workshops and programmes that different age groups were involved with and the Visual Literacy Model that they used to help students look at images and their surroundings in a different way that reduces the emphasis on language which can often be challenging. We talk about the outcomes from the project and what the museum learned as a result of this long term collaboration.

Listen to the episode or read the transcript below.


Art Engager 123

Claire Bown: Hello and welcome to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art, objects and ideas to life. So let’s dive into this week’s show. Hello and welcome back to The Art Engager podcast. I’m your host Claire Bown of Thinking Museum and this is episode 123.

Today I’m thrilled to be chatting to Sophie Vermeiren about The Art Bridge, a long term collaboration between Museum Leuven and a local school exploring how art can enhance children’s self confidence. But before that, in our last episode, I was chatting to Dr. Tasha Golden about the Arts on Prescription field guide.

We explored how museums can get more involved with social prescribing activities in their communities. If you haven’t checked it out yet, head back and listen to episode. And don’t forget that The Art Engager has over 100 episodes to choose from. Take your pick from the back catalogue of different episodes to brush up on your skills, be inspired and learn new techniques.

And if you’d like to shape future episodes, Do get in touch if you’ve got a question for the show, want to suggest a topic, or even a guest. Don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m always happy to hear from you, especially if you’re an educator doing innovative work with engagement around art, objects, audiences in museums and Heritage. And if you’d like to support this show and help it thrive in 2024, consider treating me to a cup of tea on buymeacoffee. com forward slash Claire Bown. Okay, let’s get on with today’s show. My guest today, Sophie Vermeiren is Head of Public Mediation at M Leuven. Sophie believes that art plays an important role in education by teaching people to view the world critically and openly.

She sees art as a tool for inspiring creativity and challenging traditional perspectives. Sophie is also a national correspondent for ICOM CECA Belgium. In this role, she supports and helps publicise innovative mediation techniques developed abroad and in Belgium to museum educators worldwide. And last year, in 2023, Sophie won the ICOM CECA Best Practice Award with the project The Art Bridge, which I was lucky enough to see her present in Singapore.

The Art Bridge was a project that had considerable social impact. It showed that by engaging with art, children can learn how to express themselves, think creatively, develop social skills, and become more critical thinkers. This newfound confidence strengthened their sense of belonging within their community.

So in today’s episode, we’re exploring how The Art Bridge got started, its objectives, and how it worked to support students and teachers at the Mater Dei School in Leuven over a six year period. So we explore the different types of workshops and programmes that different age groups So across the school we’re involved with.

And we also talk about the visual literacy model that they use to help students look at images and their surroundings in a different way, reducing an emphasis on language, which can sometimes be challenging. We talk about the outcomes from the project and what the museum learned as a result of this long-term collaboration.

So if you’re interested in the intersection of art, education and community engagement, this episode is for you. Here’s our chat.

Hi Sophie and welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Sofie Vermeiren: Hi Claire, thanks for inviting me and having me for this podcast. It’s really an honour to be here today.

Claire Bown: You’re very welcome. Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do and perhaps where you do it?

Sofie Vermeiren: Okay. Well, I’m Sophie Vermeiren and I’m Head of Education at M. Leuven. That’s a museum in Leuven, a city in Belgium. And our museum is well known for its trans historical collection. So we have a collection of old masters. but also a collection of contemporary art, which is very nice to work with because then you have two sides that stands together.

And the key words in our museum are trans historic, as I said, participation, empowerment, but also visual literacy. And I’m in charge of the public mediation team. And we love, of course, the art and the public. We try to build bridges between them. And we do that by developing programs and projects for target groups.

But we’re also in charge for participation and outreach programs. And we also develop the mediation in the galleries itself in the museum.

Claire Bown: Sophie, I invited you here to talk about The Art Bridge. I was lucky enough to hear about this amazing project at the ICOM CECA Conference in Singapore last year.

You received the best practice award for this project and I really wanted to bring it on the podcast. So perhaps you could tell us a little bit about what The Art Bridge is and how it got started.

Sofie Vermeiren: Yes, we were very happy with the best practice awards and very happy that we could share all our insights at the conference in Singapore

Well, The Art Bridge was a long term project in which Our museum and the Mater Dei School, a school in Leuven, worked together very closely for six years. we wanted to build bridges between our two houses, because we share the same vision, because we really believe in the empowerment of art education.

It’s good to know that Mater Dei is a super diverse school in Leuven, in the middle of the centre. It has a lot of nationalities and they also welcome during the whole year a lot of new people who just arrived in Belgium for all kinds of reasons. They see that as a strength and not as an obstacle.

I think that’s very important. And they have a special vision, they’re committed to artistic education because they see it as an engine for language stimulation It’s a different way of talking to each other, not on a linguistic level, but on an artistic level.

And in M we were very keen to step in a project with the school because we are also involved in this visual literacy and of course we also believe in this power of education, and that’s why we sat together with the school And we submitted a project proposal to the Queen Paola Foundation here in Belgium.

And we were very happy and very lucky that they approved the project. And not only for one year, but for six years. And it was the beginning of a very great adventure with the school.

Claire Bown: Thank you for explaining that. It gives us a little bit of the background. So You must’ve had some, Objectives, some goals.

What were the goals for The Art Bridge?

Sofie Vermeiren: Yes, the aim was to find out whether art can help to give children more self confidence. And we worked, it’s important also to know, with the whole school, with every class, with every teacher, everyone was involved in the project, the board, the directors, was very important for us to engage everyone.

And more specifically we wanted to know if art can strengthen the social integration of children in this highly diverse school. And we did it in many different ways. One of these was working step by step to empower children to art and culture by visiting the museum, by presenting workshops, by working with an artist, for instance, but also on the level of the teachers.

 Now, it helps, of course, that the school has a vision of arts education and people and the teachers are really involved in this vision. But we find it very important to support them also in this project and to coach them.

Another way of Working on the social integration was also to try to make meaningful connections with society with the school, the museum, but also with the neighborhoods and with the parents of the children, because they’re really an important part of the community also. So we have big goals, but we had six years and we did it step by step in different ways.

Claire Bown: Now that we’ve got an idea of the partnership between you and the school and the goals of the project, shall we dig into how The Art Bridge works in practice?

Sofie Vermeiren: Yeswe used the Theory of Change to set a program of activities for different age groups. So we started off with a program for the youngsters from six to eight years old. We call them Key Stage One uh, where we really worked on the self awareness and self confidence in the museum of these children.

We did this by interactive tours and workshops in M and in the school. It was a way to learn to know the museum, the house, the art, each other, on a really, in a really safe climate. And then the next step were the the children from Key Stage Two. These are children from eight to 10 years old where we.

We went a step further and we worked on the relational connectness and interactions with peers. And we did this by project with artists as well as M and in the school of a long duration, not only one day, but sometimes one, two or three weeks even. And they also had project weeks in M where we focused really on the talents of children.

And then the last step are the children from Key Stage 3, they’re 10 to 12 year olds. And there we went a step further because we let them participate and connect with the museum context by Guiding in the museum and by giving guiding tours in the museum at their parents and at the museum staff, but also by participate in the mediation in different exhibitions in M.

For instance, when we had a an exhibition about an old master, they can tell what they think about it. They can think about a story and we shown that also in the exhibition in M. So that the public also learn to know how the children of Mater Dei looked at the arts.

Claire Bown: I love that there’s a progression from the youngest pupils, 6 to 8 year olds.

They have these interactive workshops following up with the next year group, working with artists in residence. And then The 10 to 12 year olds, that they actually get guide training, that they give tours. Yeah, so how did that work? What did the training entail for this age group? How did you train them up to become interactive tour guides in the museum?

Sofie Vermeiren: For us, it was a process which we grew also in during the six years.

 they got four or five workshops where they learn to look at the artworks, where they chose their favourite artworks and where they, chose their own talents to tell something about the artwork. That could be in a song, it could be in, in a theatre play, or sometimes they just want to tell, or ask the visitors questions about it.

And during this training, we also trained how to speak for a group. They had these breath exercises to stay calm. And also the children of the 6th grade, so the 12 years old, gave a try-out to the children of the 4th grade, the 6 years old.

During, I think the first or second year we planned it all on one day, but it was. too much for these poor children. So we split it up. For instance, on Monday, they do the try-out and on Thursday, we invited the parents and the museum staff to do the premiere and to give the guide guiding tours.

 they all received a certificate for their guiding training. And our director of the school held this ceremony. he always came during these six years to present the certificate at these children. And, of course, it made them very proud to be a part of this community

Claire Bown: I love it and very comprehensive training as well working on skills, but also on soft skills as well and how to look and all these sorts of things that we talk about for adult training when adults are working and giving interactive tours. You mentioned also that you have a visual literacy model in the museum, so how do you help students to look closely at images?

Sofie Vermeiren: Yes then I go back, way back to 2017 where we worked together with ENViL Network, and ENViL stands for the European Network for Visual Literacy. And we developed a model especially for the museum where our aim was to activate and stimulate our visitors in closely looking at the artworks at our artworks.

The model focuses on four different looking competencies, who are all equal for us. It’s about visual perception, the observation, about visual imagination, then visual language and also visual theory. And we use this model in our educational tools, especially for the Mater Dei, but also, in the presentations in the museum itself.

For example, we made a presentation where M (M Leuven) makes visitors aware of the short or longer time they look at an artwork on the title, Take Your Time or another presentation focus on rituals, on processions. And there we show next to our Catholic collection images of all sorts of rituals in the world, in history to contextualise these images.

So we try to not only use it in the educational way, but also, all the presentation in the museum, which I think it’s very nice, of course.

Back to the model and your question about Mater Dei. Now it’s important to know that we use this model as a guideline and a method for looking closely.

But we work very flexibly with it. It’s not so that we only focus on one competence, and then we go up to the next, and then the next, and the next. it depends a bit on the activity, and of course also about the age of the youngsters we are working with. But for instance, in key stage one where the little children of six to eight had the workshops and the guided tours in the museum, we really focused on the perception and the imagination.

We do that in all kind of different exercises. for instance, look for 30 seconds at an artwork, then turn around, try what you see, and then come back. Or you have a little detail, and you have to look for it In the museum where you can find it.

And what we saw is that observation stimulated, their imagination. They were concentrating on how they feel, what they think about it, fantasising, inventing stories with it. It was very nice to see. And it made the children also, I think, more confident because it’s not a cognitive thing, not from which year is this, or what Bible study is represented here, but what do you think, how do you feel with this painting or picture or statue, in the museum. So that was really nice to see that it worked in different ways. And I have a nice example of a little girl that arrived two days ago from Greece when she visited the museum

And the teacher was saying she hasn’t spoken her words during these two days. She’s very shy. We can’t connect with her, but They took her, to the museum to participate, and they were visiting an exhibition with medieval art, and the guide gave them all a little detail to look for, and that was for her The motor to start engaging, not by talking, but by pointing out and ‘I find this’ and ‘I looked at this’ and I think that’s such a nice example of how art can empower and stimulate people and work for a connection. So that was, I think it’s one of my favourite examples to tell.

Claire Bown: I love that because observation does create this level playing field. I find that everyone has an entry point through which they can then engage with the artwork. And as you say, that doesn’t have to be through talking.

It can be through gesture. It can be through drawing or writing or whatever, but it creates this very nice, level playing field where everyone can participate.

Sofie Vermeiren: Yeah, that’s true. And also what we did then in the older years in Key Stage 2 and 3, there we went a step further and we we focused on the competences from the model of analyzing and conceptualizing.

By working, for instance, with an artist, you engage with them, you talk with her or him, and you learn to express your opinions, not only with the artist, but also with the other children. We really worked on sharing their feelings with each other and with their peers. And in that way, we focused, of course, we focused on the non-linguistic skills there also, but also on this linguistic skills, writing, speaking and listening. And what we saw happening, and that’s what mainly the teachers told us because they’re observed it also in school, is that their language approves it. went better with this. So they saw really grow them through this way of working, not only in the museum, but it’s also the way they work in the school itself.

Claire Bown: So…enhance their vocabulary or did it improve their written or their spoken language? Or was it a bit of both?

Sofie Vermeiren: A bit of both, but mostly I think the spoken language. Yeah. So increasing confidence.

Claire Bown: Yeah. We’ve touched a little bit on the visual I’d like to talk as well about the teachers, because you didn’t just focus on the students, but you worked with teachers and supported them throughout the project too.

Tell me what role teachers played in The Art Bridge.

Yes, I think one of the most important thing of the success of The Art Bridge was that one of the teachers of Mater Dei, Connie, she worked for six years long one day in the museum in our team. So she was really part of our staff and she was literally the bridge between the teachers of Mater Dei and the museum. And we all learned so much from her. She was really dedicated. And then we also had in our team, Charlotte, And on a regular basis, she or I, we went to the school to inform the teachers about the artistic and educational programs.

Sofie Vermeiren: And of course, Connie, informed the teachers too, but she also coached them to work in the museum, to work in the class with the content of M and with the exhibitions and the artworks. So I think the most important thing was to stimulate and to work together.

 What we also saw happening is that the teachers went from observers to participators. When we had this guide training at first during the two or third year, they just observed, but in the end, they were really helping Charlotte to train the children.

So the teachers became more self-confident to participate in the museum and to give the training themselves. Interviews, for example, also revealed that they learned how art can enrich and broaden their own life worlds. And they really want to pass that to their pupils. And The Art Bridge also made clear to the teachers that they don’t have to be experts in arts and culture But that the project also made them dare to guide their class around them themselves.

Claire Bown: Yeah, and a change in attitudes as well about how they needed to be in the museum, how art education might work, and how it might not need to know a huge amount, even if they did, about art to be able to create conversations about it.

Sofie Vermeiren: Yes, and also an insight in their students themselves, because I like to quote Marlies, she’s a teacher in Mater Dei. After a workshop, she followed with her pupils in M. She’s told us, ‘it was amazing how well the students can look at art. During the activity at the museum to learn how to look at art, surprising answers emerged.

Children were coming with insights I hadn’t seen myself.’ That was very cool. It was also very nice for those children to discover an extra talent of their own. In other words, again it’s not about the historical story, but it’s really about engaging with the art, about looking, and about being more self confident in that looking.

Claire Bown: Yeah, we absolutely agree on this podcast. So you mentioned research there and feedback. I’d love to dig into that a little bit. So there was research carried out in the project 2018 2019. So what

did you discover?

Sofie Vermeiren: I was very happy with this research because it confirmed a bit what we observed. But a researcher did an in-depth qualitative research with the children in interviews.

She observes and she interviewed. And that showed that the artworks had a positive impact on the children’s attitudes toward art and self-confidence. And it also gives them a better understanding of the importance of working with peers. They concluded that the collaboration with M contributed strongly to achieving objectives such as working in self-assurance, learning to work together, and a positive attitude toward art.

And it’s very nice to read all these little sentences of the pupils that they are telling about during the interview. Yeah, it keeps a smile on our face when we see how they really enjoyed the project. Especially working together with the artists in residence that was in the guiding tours.

I think that’s one of the two biggest hits when they’re talking about the project.

Claire Bown: Yeah, so amazing positive feedback there, that they felt more confident, they learned to cooperate with others, and they had this, yeah, much more positive attitude towards art as well. What did you learn as a museum as a result of this project?

Sofie Vermeiren: We learned that the A good network is really important. That’s like I said, the success of the project was mainly that we had this ‘teacher in residence’ to connect with the school. We also observed that the children learned to look more closely. to the work and more critically. That’s what also the teachers told us and that they learned to express themselves in different ways.

So that was very nice for us to hear, especially because we really invest in visual literacy where looking at images is something you can practice and learn. And then from looking more consciously, associating, fantasizing, conceptualizing follows very easily.

It’s just natural if you teach it in the right way, I think.

And I think also what I learned is that a museum is the ideal place to start this with, to learn about these images, to look at it, to build up self-confidence, but I hope we can encourage them to apply it not only with the artworks but also with the images they they see in their daily life. That they look more critically at a movie on the news or on the internet,

So not only in the museum, but also in their daily life. I think that’s important.

Claire Bown: And what’s your plans for the future? So after a six year project with one school, what happens next?

Sofie Vermeiren: For Mater Dei, of course, we now have a very close connection. The project is embedded as well in the school, as in M, and we keep a direct line. We still go to the school to inform them. If they are asking for an extra coaching, we’ll take care of them.

That’s how we stay connected with each other. And then we made a publication and a video about the whole process where we really like to inspire other museums or theatres or whatever to work together on a same level with a school because it really deepens your relation and you really learn a lot from each other.

And at the moment we are working with youngsters from a youth club. So we invite them to the museum, we work together with them, we look at the artworks, we look at their talents, and then we have these special nights like museum night or festivals during the summer where they can show their acts they’re making. It can be music, but it can also be poetry and then we, yeah, we give them a floor to engage with the public and we learned a lot about this guiding training with a six year old pupils from Mater Dei. So we take these methods and now to this project with the youngsters from the youth club to to do something similar, but not as a guiding training, but as a searching for talents and as a way where they can share their vision about our artworks with other people. So that’s something we’re working on now.

Claire Bown: That sounds fascinating. You mentioned also a video and a publication. So perhaps you could share some ways that listeners can find out more about The Art Bridge and get in touch with you and find out more about M.

Löwen as

Sofie Vermeiren: Yes. On our website, M Leuven you can find the video, you can download the publication in which we share the whole process and research. I also wrote an article for the best practice award for ICOM CECA.

So on their website, you can also download this publication to, learn more about the project.

Claire Bown: Great. We will include links to all of those in the show notes and to you, Sophie, and a big thank you. Thank you for coming on the podcast and sharing all this information about the Art Bridge.

Sofie Vermeiren: Thank you very much, Claire, for having me.

Thank you to Sophie for joining us on the podcast today. I hope you enjoyed our conversation. Be sure to check out the links in the show notes to find out more about The Art Bridge, M. Leuven, and Sophie’s work. And do connect with Sophie on LinkedIn too. That just about wraps up this episode.

Thank you for tuning in. Until next time.


Claire Bown: Thank you for listening to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my website, thinkingmuseum. com. And you can also find me on Instagram at Thinking Museum, where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share with others and subscribe to the show on your podcast player of choice. Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time.