A world away from the hushed, reverent and exclusive tones of dry educational texts and equally distant from overblown glossy coffee table books that may look shiny, but which don’t set aflame your curiosity, spark courage to debate nor draw you out into laughter, Ingram and Stoten’s Arnold’s Extraordinary Art Museum makes a subject which could seem alien to many instead feel approachable, inclusive and very exciting.
One day, during the summer holidays, Arnold invites his friends round to visit the art museum he’s set up in his house. They walk through a series of rooms, viewing a small number of pieces of art. The friends ask questions, they have fun together, they even try out an art technique or two and before they know it, it’s time to meet their parents and carers and return to their respective homes.
A simple and not unfamiliar premise, perhaps; many children love to stage shows or exhibitions for which they sell tickets to willing parents and other visitors. And yet Ingram and Stoten’s story is original and refreshing.
For a start, to enter this different, awe-inspiring place where Arnold has collected together a varied and select collection of real art (photos and full bibliographic details can be found at the end of the book), including painting, sculpture, costume, photography and ceramics, mostly from the 20th century you have to enter via a hidden lift inside the fridge in Arnold’s kitchen. Lucy Pevensie, Coraline and even Mr Benn all tell us that magical doorways often lead to the very best of adventures, and so too here.
Clearly this isn’t going to be like any other art museum we may have come across. Surprises continue with the very first item on display. This exploration of what art can be doesn’t begin with Rembrandt or Renoir, but rather with a tin of poo. But don’t be fooled by this scatological intro; what Ingram and Stoten have pulled off is a book which has real kid appeal and yet never patronises the intelligence and curiosity of its readers.
This is partly due to the visual impact of the book. Comic-strip / graphic novel techniques (including panelling and speech bubbles) create pace and energy in the narrative, whilst vibrant colours and exuberant lines that remind me somewhat of 1960s and ’70s illustrations bring further buzz and a sense of animation. A terrific and surprising cast of characters enables readers to find someone they feel is a little like them, whether it’s boffiny, bossy Arnold, the cool dude skateboarder who gets driven around in a pink limo by his socialite mother, the soulful somewhat doleful teenager who takes the little sister character under her wing, or Arnold’s best friend who has a crazy fashion style and happens to be a champion flute player. Through the honest, direct questions and responses these different young people bring to the art they’re looking at, we experience that its ok to be confused by art, that all questions about what we’re seeing are good questions, and that what (great) art is really about is how it makes people feel or what it makes them imagine.
Alongside subtly introducing these meatier issues, Ingram’s text is peppered with fun facts (such as how effective spit is for cleaning artworks!) that will make readers smile and want to know more. There’s enormous amounts of humour and any worry that art is something rarefied or reserved only for those in the know is quickly dispelled. Die-cuts on several pages bring another dimension to the storytelling; they’re not just there as a novelty, but bring focus to details and make the reader enjoy looking again and again.
Ingram has form when it comes to writing accessible and intelligent art history in (partial) graphic novel format, with monographs on Dali (illustrated by Andrew Rae), Warhol (also illustrated by Andrew Rae) and Pollock (illustrated by Peter Arkle) to her name. Her skill for revealing excitement and wonder in the place of dry facts, along with the verve and playfulness of Stoten’s illustrations ensure that Arnold’s Extraordinary Art Museum is a very special book – perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of 2016 for children and young people.
Learning from Arnold’s Extraordinary Art Museum about the Bauhaus Metal Party of 1929, where guests wore costumes made from spoons, frying pans and tin foil, we were inspired to give metal costume designing a go. Channelling our inner magpies we gathered all manner of shiny objects from kitchen cupboards and jewellery boxes; safety pins, toast racks, napkin holders, chains, vegetable drainers, sieves, broken light fittings, wire cooling racks, slinkies and more soon materialised on the table.
First the girls dressed me up…
…and then each other, before we put the music on and had a party!
Whilst we made our metal-themed costumes and danced we listened to:
Other activities which might work well alongside reading Arnold’s Extraordinary Art Museum include:
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher, Laurence King.