Anyone who has read E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler fondly recalls the “behind-the-scenes” view into the Metropolitan Museum of Art provided by Claudia and Jamie’s extended sleepover there. Published in 1967, this book is often one of the ways children first become aware of and excited about the Met. Over 40 years later, it is still one of the most asked-about by children visiting the museum.
Sesame Street’s “Don’t Eat the Pictures,” which took the entire cast of characters on a field trip to the Met, is another example. With its launch in 1969, Sesame Street marked a milestone in the use of media for education, and this special episode, which aired on PBS in 1983, continued that mission, exposing and introducing young viewers to the wonders of the Met’s collections.
As 21st century mass media culture has continued to develop, more and more people have realized the power of literature and/or films to engage children in learning and exploring new subjects or new places.
As part of this evolving tradition, film distribution companies, publishing houses, and other purveyors of children’s media and entertainment have begun to forge partnerships and leverage connections with institutions of culture, blending popular culture phenomenon with history, art, and experiential learning, and representing new collaboration between the business world and that of non-profit educational enterprise.
In this spirit, Metropolitan Museum of Art leveraged the success of a children’s literary best-seller, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians and the corresponding film adaptation of the first book, “The Lightning Thief” in 2010. Set in New York, the series begins with main character Percy’s discovery that he is a demigod during a school field trip to the Met.
The ensuing adventures bring Percy into the world of the Olympians, where he encounters the full Greek pantheon as well as a plethora of ancient heroes and mythological monsters. To allow fans the chance to walk in Percy’s footsteps and meet the characters who inspired the book, the Met created a special guide to the gods and heroes as they appear in various works of art within the museum. Following the film’s premiere in February, the Met also hosted Riordan for a talk in March, as part of a full-day teacher workshop, “Gods, Monsters, Myths: Exploring Greek and Roman Art through the Eyes of Percy Jackson.” In addition, Peggy Fogelman, the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education at the Met, uses the Percy Jackson books as the basis for other learning programs at the institution.
Riordan’s most recent series, The Kane Chronicles – whose third and final installment comes out this May, also features the Met as the backdrop for key sequences, this time the Egyptian wing.
A former middle-school English and history teacher himself, Riordan explained his repeated choice of locale: “The Met is such a powerful place for me because it’s a natural connection between the ancient world and the modern world. And when you’re dealing with ancient mythology, trying to put a modern spin on it, you really can’t do much better than to call on the Met. It’s this vibrant cultural institution right in the middle of New York which I always considered the pulse of American society. If I were a god, whether Greek or Egyptian, that’s where I would want to make my headquarters, (Wall Street Journal, May 2010).”
Another recent case in point, Brian Selznick’s latest best-seller Wonderstruck, which chronicles two children’s lives 50 years apart as they embark on individual journeys of discovery, leading them both to New York City and the American Museum of Natural History. As part of teachers’ materials created for the book, last month Scholastic launched a new website for in-class use that takes its young viewers on a virtual field trip inside the Museum. Hosted by the author and the Museum president, Ellen V. Futter, “Teaching with Brian Selznick” guides children through three exhibits featured in the book – the Wolf Diorama, the Ahnighito Meteorite and the Giant Anopheles Mosquito – and offers additional information and activities for each stop on the tour to help students and teachers further explore the subject matter.
Across the pond last June, Nick Jr. UK took this idea one step further with the premiere of their four-film series called “I Heart Art” in collaboration with London’s National Gallery. Aimed at giving preschoolers the chance to understand and appreciate famous works of art, each film features two preschoolers visiting the Gallery and looking at the paintings as they become animated. The children are then transported into the painting and allowed to explore and have adventures inside while, in some cases, parts of the paintings are transported into the real world. Four paintings from the Gallery’s extensive collection serve as the inspirations for the films: Henri Rousseau’s “Surprised,” George Seurat’s “Bathers,” Jan Gossaert’s “The Adoration of Kings,” and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Umbrellas.”
Helping bring history and art to life, these collaborations foster an appreciation for cherished cultural institutions in our youth while promoting new ways for both physical and virtual visitors to interact with and explore them. These instances mark a deeper awareness of the ability to encourage and engage children’s interests through cooperative synergies between public and private entities dedicated to them, and point to an exciting future ahead. In an economic downturn, when federal and state funding for educational programs has been limited or cut, the proliferation of this type of collaboration demonstrates an encouraging willingness of partners to make use of available pooled resources and acknowledges the vital importance of innovation in the education of America’s children today.
by Nicole Adams