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Weaving Artifacts into Stories

The Early American Museum is a historical museum in East Central Illinois that focuses on life in the 19th century. Our education program is largely centered around central Illinois’ farm life in the 1800’s and currently serves about 5,000 children throughout the year, encompassing public, private, and home schools.

The Early American Museum has a strong history focus in its educational programming. In order to broaden curricular opportunities, we developed a program with the dual focus of history and creative writing. “Gnagey Days” was named for Larry Gnagey, a local storyteller and author, who has written children’s stories tor years, including several series for the Early American Museum.

During the first 45 minutes of this 90-minute program, Larry entertains the children and explains how to write a story based on fact, but fictionalized, using artifacts other than those the students use in their assignment. In the second part, students view three artifacts, learn about their past use, and talk about how to weave these artifacts into a story.

The artifacts selected for the pilot semester (Fall 1998) included a pair of ice saws used on Lake Michigan near Chicago, an 1860’s Wheeler and Wilson sewing machine, and a steer horn chair owned by a local cattle rancher. Not your everyday story stuff!

Ice harvesting was a massive industry in the 19th century, employing over 60 kinds of tools to complete the process. The absence of refrigeration in the 1880’s is known to most grade schoolers, but the concept of ice being a luxury is difficult for them to understand. Consequently, the ice saws have proven to be the hardest artifact for the children to write about.

In 1860, Godey’s Lady’s Book called the sewing machine the “Queen of Inventions.” This invention had a tremendous impact on life in the late 1800’s. The Wheeler and Wilson machine is reported to be one of the first in our area.

During the mid-to-late 1800’s, interior decorating with mementos of the wilderness was a popular fad. Benjamin Harris owned a vast cattle ranch near Mahomet, IL, and on a trip to Texas in the 1880’s, he purchased a steer horn chair. It is a Victorian, upholstered chair, incorporating four Longhorn steer horns — two as arm supports and two curving along the top of the back, with hooves serving as feet.

Children were provided with paper, pencil, writing board, and “story starters.” The story starters included facts about the artifacts arranged in “people,” “places,” and “times” categories. Students could use any of the information they found relevant in developing their stories.

Although specific pre-visit preparation is not required, classes that incorporated this program into an in-depth, language arts unit produced the most exciting stories. Teachers are responsible for ensuring that the students’ stories are completed, and for sending the museum the three they consider best. All participating students receive Gnagey Day pencils. All submitted stories are returned with ribbons and stickers, and those judged the best from each class earn their authors a one-day family pass to the museum. A random selection of stories is displayed on our bulletin board.

One advantage to the Gnagey Days concept is its adaptability to varying audiences. The program can be easily targeted to school children of nearly all grades. Stories can be created orally or written at length and the artifacts can be selected with ages and interests in mind. Junior high school students tended to place familiar, modern day products, occurrences, and language in their stories (such as Nike shoes and the prom). Their stories were openly expressive and often of a personal nature. High School juniors came up with stories that demonstrated their considerable grammar and vocabulary skills through character development and plot. Their stories even evoked reader reaction and involvement.

We extended Gnagey Days to the next level, presenting the program to an art class of elementary education majors at the University of Illinois. The combination of history, art, and writing made this a terrific college experience. Their pre-Gnagey Day preparation included a study of 1800’s architecture in Champaign, with special attention to the Sholem Building, which originally housed the shoe collection that their stories centered upon. An added requirement for this audience was to sketch the shoes they chose for their story.

Of course, the most stringent test for an educational program like this is your peers. In September 1999, at the Illinois Association of Museums conference, a group of museum professionals were engaged in a shortened version of the program. The feedback was very positive, and many were excited to begin integrating their own version of Gnagey Days into the institutional programming.

So far, students from 2nd grade through college, and adult audiences on two occasions, have experienced this program. Integrating writing activities with your museum’s area of specialization works. It’s fairly easy to accomplish, takes little in the way of material resources, and allow you to make the museum visit an active learning experience.

The most challenging part of recreating this program may be finding a storyteller who will work with you. We are extremely fortunate to have Larry Gnagey volunteering his talent and time. Try contacting your local libraries and bookstores or even small publishing companies for leads to storytellers. Once found, your new program is well on its way. I wish you success and fun!

Sandy Osborne is the educator at the Early American Museum in Mahomet, Illinois. She attended Clarion State university in Pennsylvania, earning a B.S. in Elementary Education and an M.S. in Science Education. For ten years prior to taking the educator’s position at the museum, Ms. Osborne worked in several central Illinois public school districts as a substitute teacher.

Osborne, Sandy. Weaving Artifacts into Stories,” The Docent Educator 9.4 (Summer 2000): 16-17.

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