Docent Educator Logo

Packing Trunks with Learning

Please don’t touch the artwork!” is the cardinal rule of art museums everywhere. But, at the Fayetteville Museum of Art we break that rule every day— and in many ways. Using our custom-made art trunks, the Museum’s education department has created nine art education programs that integrate hands-on experiences into the learning process. Each of these programs uses an art trunk to focus on an age-appropriate theme that dovetails with students’ abilities and interests. The hands-on learning process includes discussion of the theme, visual and tactile exploration of artwork and artifacts related to the theme, and individual creation of a project related to the theme.

By using the art trunks as an educational resource, the Fayetteville Museum of Art has been able to bring the world of art to a broader segment of its community. In just the past year, these hands-on art experiences have reached 24,600 people. Each year our art trunk programs grow, with two new programs added last year and three more new programs this past fall. All of these programs are available free of charge to the pubic and are supported by grants from community agencies.

A major factor contributing to this growth has been persistence in “getting the word out” to the community about the programs and the educational benefits of exposure to art.

What Is an Art Trunk?

An art trunk is exactly what it sounds like — a trunk with art in it. The art, however, is not placed randomly in a trunk. Items are placed in a specific trunk because they correspond with the trunk’s theme. A trunk can be built around any theme.

At the Fayetteville Museum of Art, we have created two sets of art trunks. The first set is designed for pre-schoolers. The pre-school trunk themes include: “Folk Music,” “Folk Art,” and “Textiles and Masks.” Each of these trunks contain theme-related books, prints, artwork, and artifacts. Some of the items in our “Textiles and Masks” trunk are: masks from Guatemala, Africa, and Japan; a Mexican sombrero and Native American youth bonnet; an Indian batik silk scarf; a Mexican poncho; cotton, wool, and denim fibers; five books, including Aunt Flossie’s Hats and Abuela’s Weave; and prints by Catlin, Holbein, and Corot.

Each trunk also comes with a teacher’s manual. This resource booklet introduces the trunk theme, describes each item in the trunk, gives ideas for hands-on projects related to the trunk’s contents, and discusses the importance of using art as a teaching resource.

The other trunks we’ve designed are for use in K-12 classes. These art trunk themes include: “Art that Tells a Story,” “I’m a Good Looker: Abstract Art,” “Cultural Connections,” “North Carolina Arts,” “African Art,” “Classical Art,” “Medieval & Renaissance Art,” “Americana,” and “World Cultures.” These trunks have a similar assortment of books, prints, artworks, and artifacts related to the theme.

Using Art Trunks at the Museum

One way to use an art trunk is in museum programs designed to educate children about art. Trunks can provide young museum visitors with hands-on experiences of the museum’s exhibitions. Artwork that is usually only viewed and talked about in a museum tour can now be touched and manipulated. During a recent portrait exhibition, educators at the Fayetteville Museum of Art used the “Art that Tells a Story” trunk to present the portraits in an age-appropriate manner. By first using the trunk items to introduce the concept of artwork telling a story, educators had a natural lead into talking about the portraits in terms of the story each one had to tell. After learning about these stories, students drew self-portraits that told stories about themselves.

Museums can also use trunks to build an entire cultural unit that integrates various community resources into the art education process. Using our “African Art” trunk, our museum coordinated an African Cultural Celebration that taught all segments of the community about African art, culture, history, and people. During this celebration, everything the museum did focused on African culture. Our exhibition featured “African Artifacts from the Permanent Collection,” which meant that the gallery walls and pedestals were filled with African masks, instruments, clothing, sculptures, and utilitarian objects. After visitors viewed these artifacts, they were able to try on the masks and play the various drums contained in the “African Art” trunk. Pre-school through high-school age students were then able to create their own African masks, bringing the hands-on experience full circle.

For students who could not travel to the museum, we were able to take the African Art trunk to their schools and present an educational program about African art. Because the trunks are portable, museums can provide their communities with offsite programs. Using art trunks for such outreach programs ensures that a greater number of people are exposed to works of art, and this exposure generates an appreciation for the arts that in turn enhances community support for the museum and its programs.

Using Art Trunks in the Community

By using art trunks as a resource in creating outreach programs, museums are able to instill an appreciation for art in even the youngest community members. The Fayetteville Museum of Art uses its art trunks in six programs designed to expose young children to artwork and the artistic process. Our “Teen Mom” program beings the world of art to teenage mothers and their babies. Moms and their children, from newborn to three years, explore trunk items and create hands-on art projects together. This program provides a positive environment for moms and their children to spend meaningful time together. The program emphasizes the benefits of doing art with your child and models how parents can provide an educational environment using art at home. Moms practice playing with their children using items in the “Folk Toys” trunk and then work together to create their own toys out of everyday household items. Our “Mommy and Me” program provides a similar art experience for parents and their three-to-five year old children.

Art trunks can also be used in partnership programs with other community agencies to enhance the education of children in pre-school settings. Our “Music Box” program is a partnership between the museum and the music department of a local college. During the school year, the college provides a musical lesson to children of six pre-school classes, and the museum provides an art lesson to complement the music lesson. For example, when students learn about rhythm with the music teacher, a museum educator will take the “Folk Music” trunk to the pre-school setting and let students play the four different drums in the art trunk. While students practice tapping out rhythms, they also discuss the different drum shapes and colors and textures, what materials the drums are made of, and why they sound different from one another. Students then use a salt container, markers, crayons, textured fabrics, and glue to create their own drum. The “Music Box” program is so successful that the museum has formed a partnership with the county library to provide pre-school classes with a “Read to Me” program. Beginning this year, the program will use a similar format to enhance the reading and art education curricula in day care facilities throughout the county.

Museums do not need to limit art trunk educational programs to a classroom setting. The trunks can be used as a creative resource during art camps, as well. Each summer, the Fayetteville Museum of Art conducts two art camp programs at various sites around the city. The summer camp programs provide a fun learning experience for children in need of structured activities when school is not in session.

When museum educators take the art trunks out into the community, they not only educate students about art but also educate teachers and parents about the importance and fun of integrating art into the learning process. Pre-school teachers are excited to discover that they can teach their students how to interact with one another by using the dolls in the “Folk Art” trunk for role-playing activities. The teachers also discover that while the children are using the trunk’s dolls to learn necessary social skills, they can also learn about different cultures as they explore how dolls from North Carolina, Chile, Japan, and Africa are the same or different. Outreach programs are a wonderful way to increase a museum’s visible presence in the community it serves. Such off-site programs also generate interest about the art trunks with a community’s teachers and parents, and this exposure often jumpstarts a museum’s efforts to train others to use the trunks in their educational settings.

Training Others to Use Art Trunks

There is perhaps nothing more disheartening to an educator than to have wonderful educational resources available that nobody uses. The way to avoid this experience with art trunk resources is to train as many educators as possible to use the trunks on their own.

A successful art trunk program depends on the widespread use of the trunks throughout the community. The Fayetteville Museum of Art offers “Trunk Training” to educators in the area. This free training familiarizes teachers and parents with each trunk, shows how the trunks can be used in conjunction with educational programs, and demonstrates hands-on activities. Last year, 659 parents and 524 teachers learned how to use the art trunks with preschoolers in their homes and classrooms. Pre-school teachers who attend “Trunk Training” receive contact hours from the state. These training sessions also familiarize trunk users with responsibilities involved in using the trunks. We have several of each pre-school trunk available, and teachers or parents can check out trunks for a two-week period free of charge. To ensure accountability, both the museum and the user follow a consistent inventory control process and complete a contract outlining the terms of use.

Art Trunks in the Future

As a community’s demand for art trunk use increases, the museum’s supply of quality, innovative art education programs must also increase. This has been our museum’s key to success. What began five years ago as a small program with vaguely defined needs assessments and goals has developed into a network of well-defined, user-friendly programs that integrate hands-on experiences into the process of art education.

Just this fall, we have begun three additional art trunk programs. Already mentioned was the new “Read to Me” partnership with the county library. Another new partnership has been formed with the city’s technical college. This “Pre-Trunk Training” program will introduce students in the college’s day care provider classes to the art trunk/art education concepts. Our new art trunk venture is a “Senior Art- Literature” program that brings hands-on experience of art trunks into nursing homes and retirement centers. Our art trunk programs continue to expand because the museum consistently informs the community of how the art trunks can be used as educational resources. When a community knows that the art trunks are available, and understands how to use the trunks as a creative educational resource, the possibilities for successful hands-on art education programs are unlimited.

So, we encourage you to go ahead and break the cardinal rule of art museums everywhere. Create your own art trunks and tell everyone in your community to “Please, touch the artwork!”

Elizabeth J. Mouw is an education coordinator at the Fayetteville Museum of Art in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She teaches the museum’s “Teen Mom,” “Mommy &Me,” “Read to Me,” and “Senior Art-Literature” programs.

Mouw, Elizabeth J. “Packing Trunks with Learning,” The Docent Educator 8.3 (Spring 1999): 10-12.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *