By Dara Armsden, Head of Education & Learning at the Art Gallery of Alberta

Image 1: At the opening of the BMO World of Creativity: Time Travel to the Cubular Galaxy, March 2019. Image credit: Author

Image 2:  An installation shot of student mural. Image credit: author


As a long-standing feature gallery at the Art Gallery of Alberta, the BMO World of Creativity is an interactive, hands-on space where families can explore their creativity. This space encourages connections to other current exhibitions, art experiences, and programming that is accessible, relevant and engaging. Through activities such as play, story-telling, searching, close looking, art production and movement, families are encouraged to explore and talk about art in a fun environment.

In addition to welcoming a variety of general AGA visitors and families, the space also plays an active role in expanding our educational and interpretative goals at the AGA. The space is used consistently for a variety of programs including School Programs, Art Classes and Camps as well as Family Programs.

Past galleries have been designed by AGA staff, local artists and designers. In 2018, we took a different approach. In partnership with AGA Staff, grade 4 students from Mount Royal School, an arts-core elementary school in east-central Edmonton were invited to co-create the next iteration of the BMO World of Creativity that opened in March 2019. Students participated in a wide variety of activities including: gallery visits, brainstorming discussions and design charrettes aimed at broadening their understanding of art, exhibition design, and curatorial practice.

Inspired by their chosen keywords: Future, Space, Pixel, students created several evolving 2D and 3D prototypes, using traditional and non-traditional art materials, as well as beta testing and critical thinking strategies to refine their ideas. This child-led process culminated in a design plan for the AGA team to implement.


We developed a series of goals that aligned with our hopes for the project and linked back to the Alberta curriculum:

  1. Engages children in the design and creation of spaces made for them.
  2. Create diverse learning opportunities that elucidate the connection of art to life.
  3. Offers a variety of in-gallery and studio learning experiences that strengthen core competencies including critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and innovation.
  4. Provides learning opportunities for students to build visual literacy skills.
  5. Creates unique learning experiences that connect AGA exhibitions and interpretive messaging to the Alberta Education Programs of Study.


Image 3: Example of 3D models created by students. Image credit: author


In November 2018, Mount Royal students spent an immersive week with AGA staff at the Gallery working to develop a conceptual model of their exhibition.


  1. Visit to the AGA

Leading up to our design week, Mount Royal students were invited to the AGA for a morning tour to view current exhibitions and to see the current children’s gallery exhibition and the space they would be transforming. The purpose of this trip was to introduce students to the AGA; have them consider the role of an art museum and learn about the job of a curator and/or exhibition designer. Throughout the tour, students were asked to observe and articulate their thoughts about how exhibitions are created and displayed, observe the choices curators make to communicate their ideas about art and artists. Near the end of the tour, the project was introduced including some initial outcomes and target audience.

Who has been to an art gallery/museum before? What things stood out? What is your favourite memory? How did it make you feel?

– What is the role of a curator and/or exhibition designer?

– What characteristics/features does an exhibition need to be memorable?


  1. Design Thinking (At Mount Royal School)

On the first day of our design week, we spent the day with students at their school to introduce the project more in depth. During the overview, we introduced new vocabulary, re-articulated outcomes using the PISEC criteria (multi-user, accessible, multi-outcome, multi-modal, understandable, & relevant) and introduced a design thinking framework. I brought images of previous exhibitions and we viewed exhibition design examples from around the world. To practice elements of design thinking (idea generation, iteration, prototyping, feedback and evaluation) and to encourage an attitude of experimentation & play, we facilitated projects that resulted in a suite of images (made into accordion books) and a paper prototype of an object that ‘makes our lives easier’. This initial day was the only day that was fully developed as a lesson plan and acted as scaffolding and the foundation for all of our future thinking.

– What is design? What types of design can you think of? What does design do?

– What is valuable about the design process? What did you learn that might help us design this exhibition?

  1. Design Charrettes (At AGA)

For the remainder of the week, students were bussed to the AGA where we worked in one of our Education studios and participated in a series of design charrettes. We approached the questions of an exhibition space from different angles including mood, theme, audience, safety, etc. Each day, students worked individually and in teams to create several iterations in a variety of 2D and 3D mediums as we refined our concepts.  Throughout the week, members of our curatorial design team and prep crew met with students to discuss ideas, offer advice and support ongoing prototyping and beta testing. We ended each day with a group reflection and use this opportunity to further discuss ideas & concepts to motivate our work the following day.

By week’s end, the AGA was left with a vast array of conceptual models and artworks to build out the ideas and built the final design.

– What is our big idea? What will we use to tell our story?

– Who is our audience? What elements do we need to ensure our target audience engages with our exhibition?

– What will our completed exhibition look like?

– How have we been able to incorporate the PISEC model in our own design while staying true to our theme?


Images 4: Time Machine & Alien Spacecraft, Details from student drawings. Image credit: author

Images 5: Time Machine & Alien Spacecraft, Details from student drawings. Image credit: author


To be active in this project was exciting, enriching and transformative. It reinforced for us the importance of student-led inquiry and the equally important role museums and galleries play in building capacity for authentic learning experiences.

An incredible and meaningful experience doesn’t come without some notes for the future.

  1. Increased timeline

This project was conceptualized, organized and executed in a compressed timeline. Factors impacting the timeline included a return from Maternity Leave, the school calendar and existing exhibition schedule. A longer timeframe would have allowed for an expanded incubation period between charrettes with opportunity to engage the wider school community and gallery membership.


  1. Increased participation

We just scratched the surface of possibility. In the end, the students left the gallery with only an inkling of what the exhibition would become. They did not see the final version until the opening in March 2019. For the future, we’d love to see students participate in all aspects of exhibition design and production.


  1. More student work/prototyping in gallery

Alongside increased participation, we would ensure more evidence of the process is worked into the final design. The most exciting element for the students was seeing a collaged mural of their drawings on the wall.

Image 6: Students iterating a life-size installation of the exhibition design outside the Education Studios. Image credit: author


Alongside discussion and brainstorming sessions with friends and colleagues, we accessed the following resources to inform our process, shape our ideas and develop our framework:

Biesta, G. (2013). The Beautiful risk of education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

D’Acquisto, L. (2006). Learning on display: Student-created museums that build understanding. Danvers, MA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jensen, K & Grøn, K. (2015). The Kaleidoscope of culture: expanding the museum experience and the museum narrative by inviting visitors into the curatorial process. Museum & Society 13 (3)

MacKenzie, T. & Bathhurst-Hunt, R. (2018). Inquiry mindset: Nurturing the dreams, wonders, & curiosities of our youngest learners. City unknown: ElevateBooksedu

O’Donnell, D. (2018). Haircuts by children and other evidence for a new social contract. Toronto, ON: Coach House Books

Rahm, J. (Date unknown) Project-based museum-school partnerships in support of meaningful student interest and equity-driven learning across settings Canadian Review of Art Education 43 (1)