Seventh and eighth graders are a tough audience to please, but 50 of them from Norman, OK, had plenty of fun with an innovative program from the University of Oklahoma’s library and art museum. So much fun, in fact, that they may not have even realized they were also getting a grounding in critical thinking and art appreciation.
The students came to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art under the auspices of ArtEDGE, a collaborative program between the museum and the Helmerich Collaborative Learning Center at the university’s Bizzell Memorial Library. Instead of touring the entire museum, the kids were introduced to one object: a 700-year-old Tang horse sculpture. “We wanted to find an object that was visually interesting, and the horse is beautifully modeled and painted in a colorful gaze,” says Melissa Ski, the director of education at the museum. Even more intriguing, it was used as a funerary object in ancient China. “We wanted students to feel familiarity but also push them beyond immediate associations,” she added.
Close looking is key
For the first hour, the kids practiced “close looking,” noticing and discussing all the details of the horse. Then came a creative writing exercise, where the tweens were encouraged to imagine what would happen if they took the horse out of the museum and, say, to the moon. This helped the kids develop a more personal relationship to one work of art—and think about how the object’s environment can shape interpretation.
Next, came a visit to the Bizzell’s maker space, Innovations at the Edge. In a session led by Matt Cook, the emerging technologies coordinator, small groups of kids sat at virtual reality workstations to manipulate a scanned version of the horse in truly high-tech ways. “The kids were able to scale up the horse so they could fly their spaceship avatars into a hole in the horse’s belly, then travel inside the horse and look out its eyes,” says Cook. “They could turn it upside down. They could shrink it so it was tiny enough to hold in the palm of their [virtual] hand.”
Cook printed out a small version of the Tang horse on a 3-D printer for each of the groups. The final stop was the school of visual arts. Under the tutelage of a sculpture professor, the kids were assigned to make a physical environment for their horses using cardstock and clay. The only restrictions were size—the “world” had to be the size of the original pedestal—and time. The limit was two hours.
In the process of brainstorming what kind of world these horses would live in, the middle schoolers learned how to think like scientists and engineers, working creatively with their classmates to solve a problem, says Ski.
Then there were the critical thinking skills. The common thread among all these activities was the close-up examination exercise. “Instead of just walking through the museum and then saying, ‘That was nice. Let’s get McDonald’s,’ the kids got to sit down and see the object in the museum in a new way and then manipulate the object outside the museum, so it was no longer a static thing or a stereotypical museum experience,” says Cook.
The students also got a lesson in collaboration—not only with one another but modeled between university staff and departments. “We also exposed them to different career possibilities, work you can do in the museum, in the library. Matt’s position, for example, is relatively new in the library world right now,” notes Ski.
Perhaps most importantly, the kids had fun. A few squealed with delight, others sighed in wonder, and one even said it was the best day of school he’d ever had. The museum is displaying the kids’ handiwork, and there are plans to replicate the program with the school of architecture this fall. Instead of a work of art, kids will look at the museum’s structures—a mix of 1970s and 2000s buildings.
Cook urges all librarians to use their maker spaces if they have them. “If you have a 3-D printer, see what you can do with what was once a static art object in the school library or local museum.”
Ski, who worked in a public library before she began her museum career, insists that, in general, collaboration is the linchpin. “Think about partnering with local museums and universities. There are great resources out there,” she adds.
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