Picturebooks in museums and galleries: an under-used resource?

It’s not unusual to find picturebooks in museums and galleries, but they’re often present in a fairly low-key way – finishing a session with a wind-down storytime, for example, or loosely theming a venue trail around a character. But there are other more dynamic ways of using them, from quick-fire object-focused interventions to large-scale multi-partner projects, and adding a selection of well-chosen picturebooks to gallery activities can deepen everyone's engagement - staff included!

Before founding Cast of Thousands, I worked in a creative R&D role with the Learning Team at Seven Stories, the UK’s national centre for children’s books, where exciting exhibitions and events bring the world of children's books to life for visitors of all ages, so I'm used to putting picturebooks at the heart of learning in a gallery (and just about everywhere else!) and am always keen to discover new ways of working with such a wonderfully engaging and adaptable resource. When I was offered the chance to take on a mini research consultancy with the Little Dragons group at the Oriental Museum in Durham last year, I jumped at it.

Can picturebooks change the way young children view and engage with museum objects?

Could picturebooks change a museum’s approach to learning opportunities for everyone?

The Little Dragons are a group of Under 5’s together with their parents and carers who meet at the museum for stories, activities and fun. Inspired by objects in the galleries, their sessions are delivered by Charlotte Spink (Learning Coordinator at Durham University Library and Collections) who was keen to refresh her knowledge and practice around books. 

Little Dragons session, Oriental Museum, Durham University

Learning and Engagement Manager Ross Wilkinson brought his enthusiasm and insight to the project, and we agreed on a flexible, light-touch approach. I would observe sessions and work with Charlotte to identify ten key objects before choosing a book to accompany each one. Then I would create a gallery toolkit around these titles and support Charlotte as she tried out new ideas. 

Would my input add value to the Little Dragons’ gallery experience? Would Charlotte notice any unexpected benefits? And how would my own thinking and practice be affected? We planned an in-depth debrief and appraisal, but would take the time we needed to get there – we wanted to give the books (and new ways of interacting with them) the opportunity to settle in and show their worth. It’s fun to share all kinds of books, but a really good picturebook in a museum or gallery does something unique. Even when a subject seems complex or challenging, the right picturebook can add a 'special something' that deepens engagement, stirs up questions, prompts responses and creates an inclusive space where everyone can get involved. Picturebooks often work their magic quickly, too - which is a huge advantage when you’re trying to structure an effective learning experience in limited time.The Little Dragons meet in a modern open-plan gallery on the ground floor of the museum, which houses wonderful collections including a carved Chinese bed, embroidered dragon robes, Tibetan hangings, Mughal miniatures and an exquisite Burmese chest covered in gold lacquer, as well as everyday objects such as shoes, pottery animals and teapots. Everyone made me feel very welcome, and it was a pleasure to see the children and their adults interacting with the exhibits.

Some of the objects on display for families to explore at the Oriental Museum  

While Charlotte created her wishlist, I searched for picturebooks to link with the themes and objects she wanted to address. This was exciting, but also slightly daunting: not only was I setting out to find books capable of introducing, framing or extending the Little Dragons’ interactions with these objects, I wanted to do so in a way that encouraged lots of voices to contribute and be heard. I don’t have lived experience in this field, but many of the museum’s visitors and staff do, so I wanted these books and activities to create a space that could be owned and used by everyone. And I wanted to include books addressing broader issues, too: why we collect and care for special objects, for example, or how we look after them – and each other – when we’re visiting a gallery. 

Eventually we settled on ten outstanding titles and I created resources to support Charlotte's exploration of these books.They were a diverse and exciting bunch, from non-fiction titles with a clear connection to gallery objects, to less obvious titles bursting with possibilities.

For example, Teatime Around the World by Denyse Waissbluth and Chelsea O’Byrne (Greystone Kids) was a natural choice to deepen engagement with the museum’s collection of teacups and pots, as well as being visually stunning, and Jamal’s Journey by Michael Foreman (Andersen Press) opened doors to sensory exploration and ‘gallery journeys’ both active and imaginative when paired with a huge ceramic camel.

“Walk, walk, walk. That’s what camels do…” Look at the picture showing the camel train, where each camel is following the one in front. Pretend to be camels like Jamal and his family, walking carefully through the desert, then take children on a ‘follow my leader’ trail through the gallery to find a special object…’

And we chose Mr Brown’s Bad Day by Lou Peacock and Alison Friend (Nosy Crow) because it explores key questions for musuems – why do we care about special objects, and how should we look after them? - in a fast-paced story that suggests all sorts of active and imaginative ways of engaging with it.

"Put a teddy, a blanket and a storybook in a small case. Open it when you reach the right point in the story. Ask children why Mr Brown cares about these things. How does he look after them? How do staff at your museum care for the objects in your collection? Ask families to find three things in the gallery that they’d like to keep ‘extra-safe’, like Mr Brown…"

Once the project was underway I gave Charlotte time and space to discover what worked for her. I knew she was excited by the books, but would the families enjoy them, too? And would they have any impact on wider museum  practice in the longer term?

Interim feedback arrived. The project was praised for delivering “practical gallery-focused ideas rather than abstract ideas", and the books and new approaches were going down well with the Little Dragons and their adults. Reflections on the process also gave it a thumbs-up, particularly the light-touch aspect, the hands-on way we’d chosen the books, and the time allowed for exploring and embedding new ideas. 

Some of our chosen books

Like many educators, Charlotte doesn’t have much time to visit shops and often chooses books online, so the opportunity to explore a handpicked, relevant collection ‘in real life’ made a big impact. Her feedback reminded me how challenging it can be for busy professionals who don’t have much time or specialist knowledge to browse newly published titles and discover what’s actually available, let alone find that all-important but elusive ‘right book’. 

By the end of the project, the new techniques Charlotte had acquired were helping to “make books less intimidating for families who aren’t into using them all that much,” and both Ross and Charlotte had noticed an increase in her confidence and storysharing skills.  “I’m using books in a more flexible way,” she said, “and I’m more inclined to use books as starting point for introducing a topic, or use a picture from the book to start a discussion, rather than just read the story for the last ten minutes of the session.”

Charlotte had also started transferring these skills. “I’ve taken the techniques we talked about and applied them to other books we already had, so that’s helping us make the most of our existing resources and budget.” This was good news, and reminded me how every interaction with a book informs the next, and how quickly knowledge, intuition and confidence can develop once you start working with a strong collection of titles. 

"Books can do so much more than we're allowing them to do"

It was great to hear Ross describe the project as “a really nice immersive way of embedding early-stage creative thinking through books and literature” but it wasn’t until the three of us met for an in-depth reflection that we began to appreciate its wider potential. If these approaches to text and images were working for Under 5’s, what about SEND groups, or adults living with dementia? Could the right picturebook create a compelling new focus for a schools’ session? And what role could they play in getting local people involved, particularly around issues that could present a challenge? Perhaps a mixed-age ‘community of enquiry’ could be formed around a picturebook, with all sorts of wider benefits.... Charlotte’s new skills weren’t just being transferred within the remit of the project, they were about to bubble over and start informing practice elsewhere, too. 

One light-touch project has left Ross and Charlotte with so much to unpack, and I can’t wait to hear what happens next. I’ll be following their journey with interest, and hope to join them again soon. But until then, I’ll leave the final word to Ross.

“The thing I find lovely about this project is that you’ve taken what would seem to be one small aspect of working with Under 5’s, and by changing the way we engage with that, it’s changed the way we can deliver an entire session. (With the right book) you can turn a session on its head and let the book drive the whole thing. And that is quite transformative.”If you’d like to discuss consultancy work or staff CPD in museums and galleries, libraries, schools or other venues, please get in touch HERE

The Oriental Museum in Durham is open to all. Visit the website for more information at dur.ac.uk/oriental museum/ 

And if that ‘mixed-age community of enquiry’ idea has got you wondering, here are some picturebooks you could explore. Do get in touch with your thoughts and recommendations, I’d love to hear from you!  

The Dam by David Almond, illustrated by Levi Pinfold, published by Walker Studio
The Dam is a featured book on Cast of Thousands, click HERE for more information and activity ideas 

The Visitor by Antje Damm, published by Gecko Press
The Visitor is a featured book on Cast of Thousands, click HERE for more information and activity ideas

Migrants by Issa Watanabe, published by Gecko Press
I wrote about Migrants for Teach Primary Magazine, click HERE to read the article (includes activity ideas)

Another gallery favourite, and great for sparking observation and discussion! 




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All Dressed Up

Thu 04 Mar 2021



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