Using Museum Objects to Inspire Art and Storytelling

Students with a painting
Tagged: art, inspiration

The MUSA Young Artist Award is a yearly art competition run by the Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA). This year the competition explored how to tell stories though art. All of the 791 entries are on display at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews until 3 September 2017.

During February and March, staff from the museum ran a range of competition workshops in the museum and in schools. The workshops were inspired by artworks in the museum collection and encouraged students to think about the different ways to Image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Museum Collectiontell a story. For example, the P4-7 workshop looked at the painting Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay by John Duncan (right). The artwork was used to prompt a discussion of how to include multiple parts of a story in one image. The painting presents Mary the night before her execution with her ladies-in-waiting. However, Duncan has included a hint of what will happen next by including a scene of violence and a figure holding a sword in the tapestry above Mary’s head.  

The intended outcomes from the workshop were for students to create their own character or story using what they had learnt. This could be translated into an artwork which they could submit to the competition, ideally inspired by the museum collection and what they had learnt through the workshop activities. 

The workshops were available free for nursery to S3 pupils and a total of 1130 pupils took part in this year. A further 316 pupils watched a live draw-along with Beano illustrator Jim Glenn. The draw-along was inspired by an 18th century cartoon in the museum’s collection and is still available for you to watch on GLOW.

Below is an outline of the workshops to inspire you to use museum objects and artworks as tools for cross-curricular learning around the theme of storytelling. Although the workshops often use the same museum object or artwork, the activity is adapted to suit the needs of each age group. 

Nursery-P1 Workshop

The workshop started with a story, usually a reading of Alan’s Big Scary Teeth by Jarvis. As the story was read, the group thought about the characters and their emotions and how this was shown through the pictures. The intended learning outcome for the workshop was to explore events and characters in stories, but also to learn about emotions and how we show how we feel. 

The children thought about the characters and their emotions and how this was shown through pictures

Next, the groups headed into the gallery space and followed a story which used objects in the museum to spark their imagination. The story featured a range of objects on display in the galleries, such as a king on a throne (a chair), a bull (a small figurine), a magic wheat grain (a botanical model), an invisibility cloak (academic gown) and a dragon (student costume). Each object had been photographed and laminated, and the children collected the pictures as each object popped up in the story. Then the group sat down and the laminated objects were laid out in a communal picture that illustrated the story they had just heard. As the story was retold, links to prior learning were made. The group would then take a moment to look at the picture and museum staff made it clear to the group that they were artists (like the one who drew our story about Alan) because they had made this picture which tells a story. The intended learning outcome for this activity was for pupils to recognise that they could communicate ideas through pictures. 

This was followed by the song If you’re happy and you know it, with additional verses for different emotions. In the final stage of the workshop the children created puppets to express different emotions and which they could use at home to create their own story. 

P2-3 Workshop

The workshop started by looking closely at medieval maces. The maces are intricate and covered in decoration, and the discussion of these objects focused on the things or items included in the artwork which told us more about the person or story. One mace was about the Easter story, so discussion explored the different symbols and how these related to the story of Jesus.

The class then looked closely at an 18th century cartoon of a science experiment (left) and were told to act as detectives to decipher what was happening based on the clues in the picture. Discussion explored how the artist had depicted emotion and gesture through exaggeration. Based on this discussion, in pairs the group then picked a character and wrote a speech bubble about how they thought the character might react to the action taking place. This activity would work well as a prompt for creative writing, especially to encourage pupils to think about characterisation.

The aim of the next set of activities was to get the pupils to create their own characters. One activity, which was always popular with pupils, was ‘musical emotions’. A variation on musical statues, when the music stopped an emotion - happy, angry, grumpy, sad, scared, excited - was called out and the pupils would strike a pose for that emotion. This game really made the pupils think carefully about the gesture, facial expressions and body language of the character they were then asked to draw. Each pupil was asked to draw a shape, then add arms, legs and a face to create a character. When feeding back to the group, pupils were asked to create a story to explain why their character was feeling that particular emotion. 

P4-7 Workshop

The P4-7 workshop also started with a discussion of the medieval maces. Following this, the groups played a find-the-character-game around the gallery. The museum staff described someone to look for, such as a character who likes books, and the pupils would look at the paintings, photographs or sculpture to find the person described. A question often posed throughout this session was 'how do you know that?' with the aim for the pupils to articulate verbally what they had identified in the picture or object which had told them about the character or story.

Next, the P4-7’s explored the painting of Mary Queen of Scots, followed by the speech bubble activity and the musical emotions game. The aim of these activities was for pupils to understand how emotion, character and action can be represented in artworks. It was hoped that this would give pupils ideas of the different methods and styles of pictorially telling a story, and that these ideas could be used in their own artworks. 

In the drawing activity for this age group, each pupil was given a character card with a job written on it. These included an explorer, a wizard, a zoo keeper, a teacher, a scientist and so on. This final drawing activity dovetailed the other tasks in the workshop and reinforced prior learning. Each pupil was asked to draw their character, but to draw them expressing a particular feeling or emotion and to include items to tell us more about them. Usually, when feeding back to the group, each child had imagined a story to explore their character’s emotion and role. Again, this activity would work well as a springboard for further creative writing.

S1-3 Workshop

The workshop started with a mind map of the words associated with the term “stories”. Usually fairytales were mentioned, and cross-curricular links were formed by posing the question of how they would respond to the same word during an English lesson. The class then looked closely at a copy of the 18th century science experiment cartoon (above) and the discussion of the image was structured around the setting, plot and character. The use of exaggeration in the cartoon and what purpose it served was also explored in detail. In the cartoon a man is farting, his trousers have blown open and plumes of smoke are billowing out. A number of characters are responding to this scene with exagerated gestures; one lady has thrown her arms above her head in disgust and shock, and several men gasp for air and cover their noses. 

Students were asked to choose one scene from a fairy tale and exaggerate it as much as possible

This discussion led to a drawing activity using the traditional illustration technique of pen and ink. The pupils would choose a fairytale which had previously been mind mapped and were asked to draw one scene from the story and exaggerate it as much as possible. Emphasis was placed on choosing an important turning point in the story or a scene with heightened emotion, as these were the best points of the story for exaggerate. For example, one student drew the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood with huge, oversized eyes looking down at a tiny Red Riding Hood, to represent the line from the story "what big eyes you have". Other students exaggerated scenes from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, with icicles hanging off the coldest porridge, and fire and smoke coming out of the hottest. Students used more contemporary references too, and had paparazzi flocking to Cinderella's carriage as she arrived at the ball to show how beautiful and glamorous she was compared to all the other guests. 

The class then explored the painting of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay together. Again, discussion focused on the setting, the plot and characters. Attention was drawn to the tapestry in the back of the painting and discussion around what is meant by foreshadowing. The aim of the discussion was to remind pupils that, as artists, they control how the viewer interacts and experiences their artwork. They can manipulate their viewer by encouraging them to draw associations within the different scenes or elements included in the picture. Pupils would return to their picture and were asked to add to their picture something which tells us about another part of the story they had chosen. For example, those who had drawn Cinderella might include the clock striking 12, or add foreboding to Little Red Riding Hood by hiding an axe within their picture. 

The final activity in the secondary workshop was inspired by the Edinburgh Book Sculptures. The book sculptures were chosen because they can be used to explore how the pupils creatively respond to the theme of books and stories. Again, the group discussed the sculptures together as a class and links were drawn with the painting of Mary Queen of Scots, as both show multiple parts of a story in one artwork. Pupils were then given strips of paper, masking tape, wire and glue and asked to choose a key object from their ink-drawn picture to create three dimensionality.

MUSA YAA Winners 2017

For more information on the workshops and how they linked to the Curriculum for Excellence, visit the teacher’s page on the MUSA Young Artist Award website.

Following the workshops, schools were given free rein to respond to the competition theme of Telling Tales in any way they wished. The entries for the competition were incredibly varied and ranged from three-dimensional pieces to cartoons to hand-drawn books, illuminated letters and collages. The selection of winning artworks can been seen at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews or on the YAA Gallery webpage.

Image of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay and Scientific Researches - New Discoveries in PNEUMATICKS courtesy of the University of St Andrews Museum Collections

Hannah Sycamore

Hannah was the Learning and Access Curatorial Trainee at MUSA and now works at Scottish Book Trust