Blue Badge Guide Sarah Ciacci tells us about her special tours for young people.
“I remember the first time I visited a museum,” says Sarah Ciacci. “I was five years old, and my family drove up to London from our home in Wimbledon. It was a great adventure as we followed the river Thames up to the West End and parked next to the Natural History Museum. We walked through the entrance and there was the famous skeleton of ‘Dippy’ the dinosaur. I was awestruck.”
Sarah spent a lot of her childhood in museums. Her father, Gastone is a veteran London Blue Badge Guide who nurtured his daughter’s interest in art: “When I was 14, Daddy took me to visit the Tate and showed me the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. I was entranced by their beautiful shapes and colours and was inspired to study art at school and university.”
After taking a degree at UCL in history of art, Sarah followed in her father’s footsteps and qualified as a Blue Badge Guide. But she had no plans to work with children: “I was scared of kids. I didn’t have any or know any. Teenagers intimidated me with their cool bravado, and I didn’t know what to talk about with the little ones. “Then one day I got a call from a desperate agent asking me to do a job with some French teenagers at the National Gallery. I was in at the deep end: they had been expelled from mainstream school and when I met them in the foyer they were bored and listless. I asked if they had ever been to a gallery before, No. Did they have any favourite artists? No. Did they know any artists? Silence.
“There was no way they would listen to me for two hours, so I turned it around and started asking them questions about what they could see in the paintings and how they thought the characters felt. By the end, they were really interested and enthusiastic. This taught me that anyone can engage with art.
“The National Gallery is a great museum for small children. With little ones, I talk about the animals in the paintings to draw them into the stories. The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello features lots of horses. We discuss what it would have been like for a horse in battle. “Some kids worry about the dragon in Uccello’s St George and the Dragon painting, they think he looks sad. But they love the fluffy dog in theVan Eyck Arnolfini Portrait, Piero di Cosimo’s lugubrious dogs and the playful cat by Pintoroccio. “Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne is full of fascinating characters. The painting is a love story, and if you look closely at the cheetahs pulling Bacchus’s carriage, they are also lovestruck. There is a snake in the picture and mischievous satyrs: half child, half goat, a fascinating concept for a youngster.
“With little ones I talk about the animals in the paintings to draw them into the stories”
“With small ones at The Tower of London, I ask them to imagine they are medieval soldiers attacking the castle. How do we get past the moat? How can we get over the walls, and what would that be like wearing a full suit of armour? I tell them about undermining – digging a tunnel and setting fire to a castle’s tower – and they love discovering how words began. “We look at the murder holes, gaps in the archways where defending soldiers would pour down boiling water onto enemy troops – never oil, it was too precious. At the Tower, they would use Thames water, but if they ran out there were vats of urine to tip onto assailants. “A lot of kids like the idea of executions and prisons. These are difficult stories, and I check with the parents before to see what we can talk about it. Two wives of Henry VIII were executed in the Tower, and I bring images of the wives, so we can see what they looked like. I don’t use a tablet as many parents don’t want their children to have yet more screen time. I give kids the background context, so they can understand why poor seventeen-year-old Katherine Howard was executed. “The story of the medieval menagerie is always a winner.
There are animal artworks around the Tower to remind us of their lives there: from monkeys to lions. They enjoy discovering the creatures and can’t believe there was once a polar bear in the Tower. “A tour of The British Museum explores the story of human civilisation. Ancient Mesopotamia seems so remote to our modern life. But when kids discover that they built the world’s first cities and invented agriculture, astronomy and writing, they are fascinated.
“I started asking them questions about what they could see in the paintings and how they thought the characters felt. By the end, they were really interested and enthusiastic”
“The museum has some beautiful Mesopotamian friezes: one features a lion hunt, which brings up questions how animals were treated in the past and today. Another shows Assyrians swimming over the river using inflated pigs bladders: 4,000-year-old water wings – bringing the ancient world closer to our own. “The highlight of a British Museum visit is the mummies. I show my groups how the Egyptians made a mummy: from removing the brains to the weighing of the heart and the removal of the internal organs. Most kids love this kind of gory stuff. “It’s great to explore London beyond museums. One of my favourite tours for young people is a Shakespeare themed Bankside walk. We see the reproduction of The Globe Theatre and hear about the bloodthirsty Tudor sports, such as bear baiting. The reproduction of the Sir Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hinde transports us into the world of seafaring, as well as many kids’favourite subject: pirates”.
Sarah has a new inspiration for her children’s tours, her three-year-old daughter Bertha. So will she become the third generation of Ciacci Blue Badge Guides?“By the time I have taken her to every inch of London’s museums, she may hate history and art. But I hope, like me, she is inspired by it.”