Storytelling with Stuff

by Kim Sheahan, Assistant Director of Education, Spurlock Museum, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL


Keywords: elementary education, middle education, secondary education

Though acquiring its new name and building in 2002, the Spurlock Museum has been celebrating world cultures through artifacts for nearly 100 years. Programs and tours are offered five days a week to groups from 5 to 105. Most of the school groups come in conjunction with their classroom studies in History, English, Art, Sociology, and Rhetoric.

As part of the expansion of exhibits and programming that came with the new building, the Education Section added storytelling in 2000. Some of the telling is performed by the Museumís Assistant Director of Education, who is a professional teller. Some is performed by tellers brought in for special events. Event tellers have included Gayle Ross, Olga Loya, Eth-Noh-Tec, Janice Del Negro, LaíRon Williams, Taffy Thomas, Elizabeth Ellis, and Dan Keding.

The storytelling done by the Museum can be placed into five categories:

. In-house tours: Visiting groups are taken into the galleries for a discussion of highlighted artifacts and the telling of a folktale related to the artifacts. Often, the program ends with the visitors taking home a craft they have made in the Learning Center. Example: As part of the Stories Around the World tour, elementary school students go to the East Asian Gallery to talk about objects found in a scholarís study and are told The Boy Who Drew Cats. They then visit the Learning Center to make a painted scroll.

. Outreach programs: A Museum educator goes to the school, library, meeting place, etc. with objects from the Museumís Teaching Collection for the discussion of artifacts and the telling of related folktales. Example: The Cinderella Around the World program includes the telling of versions of the Cinderella tale combined with a look at shoes from four different cultures.

. Collaborations: A Museum educator has worked with the director of a local planetarium and the environmental educator from an area park and historic mansion (who also is a professional teller) to create two programs presented both to the public and to school groups at the planetarium. The programs combine folktales of the sky with a discussion of the scientific theories behind these phenomena. Example: Dusk to Dawn includes tales and talk on the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the Northern Lights, the Moon, and the Sun.

. Extravaganzas: These events are held most often in conjunction with the topics discussed in the Museumís rotating exhibit gallery. Students are invited in for a morning of performance and gallery exploration, including small group discussion with the performer. Past extravaganzas also have included performances by musicians. Example: Olga Loya was invited to perform in conjunction with our exhibit A Celebration of Souls: Day of the Dead in Southern Mexico.

. Performances and Workshops: Tellers are brought to the Museum for concerts in the Museumís Knight Auditorium, workshops for local tellers/educators, and performances at school assemblies. Some of the concerts are part of annual series; others are stand-alone events. Example: The Museum has an annual American Indian storytelling event called Winter Tales. Last yearís performers, Little Wolf and the Wolf Pack, were led by Northern Cheyenne drummer, teller, and dancer Larry Lockwood.

Because the Museum focuses on world cultures in its exhibits, it is a perfect fit with the stateís sixth-grade world history curriculum. Traditionally, the majority of school groups that come to the Museum are of middle school students, and special tours have been created with their curriculum in mind. Through the addition of storytelling programs and events that are available to all elementary students, the Museum now is seeing a great increase in the number of K-third grade classes that request outreach programs or come to the building for guided tours and events. For these younger children, folktales combined with artifacts provide an engaging and low-stress introduction to how museums work.

Adding storytelling programs also has helped the Museum serve its growing home school community. Most home schools wanting to visit the Museum serve a wide range of ages (often K-8) in a small number of children. None of the programs offered by the Museumís educators fit this wide range. Even a storytelling program would have difficulty in capturing the attention of all the students all the time. Our solution to this has been to divide the groups into sections and do a storytelling tour with the younger section.

However, storytelling in the Museum has not been limited to the primary grades. The Greek and Roman Mythology tour adds a new dimension to a visit by middle school students. Adult-only ghost story concerts have brought in University students. The workshops have helped cement the Museumís relationship with the local storytelling guild.

Currently, all but one of the Museumís outreach programs and guided tours for primary-age classrooms is story based. Over time, more non-storytelling programs can be added to the Museumís offerings. At that point the Museum will be able to gather data on how much of the growth in visits by primary-age classrooms is based on the general increase in offerings to this audience and how much can be credited to the specific addition of storytelling themes.

Severe cuts in area school district budgets have caused some schools to cancel long-standing annual tours of the Museum. Even with these concerns, our storytelling tours have continued to increase in number every year. Educators recognize the value of these programs. One teacher writes a grant every year to ensure her studentsí visit and showed her continued support by requesting the creation of a new program that combined folktales and fabrics. Called A Tapestry of Stories, the programóincluding a loan box with artifacts and story books for five pre- and post-visit lessonsódebuted in spring 2007.

Kim Sheahan
Assistant Director of Education, Spurlock Museum
600 S. Gregory, Urbana, IL 61801
(217) 244-3355