Crocker Museum's Art Ark brings culture to classrooms

10/23/2012 12:00 AM

10/22/2012 7:42 PM

If you show a kindergarten student an ornate wooden mask from Africa, you're bound to get some interesting thoughts on what it was used for.

"Clothes?"

"A sword?"

"Pointing?"

As you go over other displays of art from Africa and New Guinea, there is bound to be one off-topic thought shared aloud.

"My sister made something out of clay, and it was a snowman," said a girl, matter-of-factly.

And, as students move around the Crocker Art Museum's mobile education center, there is bound to be a teacher smiling.

"This is fantastic," said Julie Bills, a kindergarten teacher at Loomis Basin Charter School. "It's hands-on."

Recently, the Art Ark parked at the school in Loomis for a week, during which all 400 students at the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade International Baccalaureate campus took turns visiting the mobile museum with their classes.

Crocker's Art Ark has been on the road since 1980, bringing an interactive museum experience to local schools at a minimal cost. Every two to three years, the 52-foot trailer undergoes a transformation as a new exhibit is brought to life.

For nine months, Crocker's staff designed and built this year's recently launched theme called "Form & Function: African and Asmat Art." Sculptures, musical instruments, masks and textiles are set up in each of the three partitioned rooms inside the trailer, giving students an opportunity to learn about African communities and the Asmat people of New Guinea.

A Crocker museum educator guides a class of students through a one-hour tour of the Art Ark, from group discussions meant to orient kids to the geographical area they are exploring to assisting with hands-on activities, like using stamps to understand symbols.

"It's important to bring new experiences to our kids," said Erika Sloane, director of Loomis Basin Charter. "It's a great extension of their units."

Conversations are adapted to each age group entering the Art Ark, which is open to pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade students. Art Ark educator Sharon Hanson goes into more detail with older students about the history of pieces, such as a mask made by the Gelede cult in southwest Nigeria and neighboring southeast Benin.

With a group of kindergartners, Hanson points to another mask made of beading, cloth and shells, telling students the mask's name is Woot, which prompts the youngsters to repeat the name Woot with a smile.

When third-grade students are sent to explore the Art Ark on their own, they initially gravitate to a room with three artificial mangrove trees. There are holes in each tree, into which students reach and try to describe the object they are touching.

"Are these real inside? You swear they're not?" said Paris Abhat, 8. "This is so scary."

"This is pretty cool," added Lillie Winger, 9, looking around what she dubbed "the jungle room." Unfortunately, several activities in the room were out of use because a handful of items were stolen from the Art Ark during its stop in West Sacramento earlier this month.

In another room, Deven Chakarbarti, 8, and several friends played drums while dressed in brightly colored African clothing. The boys attempted to coordinate their beats for a rhythm as gaggle of girls giggled nearby.

"The Art Ark came two years ago, and the kids remember it," said Patty Fletcher, a third-grade teacher at Loomis Basin. "It's great to have it on campus. It helps us teach about being open-minded. We want them to respect other cultures and make connections."

Just as quickly as the Art Ark set down, a freight truck picked it up to head to its next locations, from Roseville to North Highlands to Carmichael. The Art Ark charges $1,600 to $2,000 for a visit of 41/2 to 81/2 days. A third of the schools the Art Ark visits are awarded scholarships to bring down the cost or provide the experience for free at low-income schools.

Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick, director of education at the Crocker Art Museum, estimated that nearly a half- million students have visited the Art Ark since it began its school tour.

"We want to transport kids from their communities into the larger world," Shelnut-Hendrick said. "We try to put things on the Art Ark that allow children to connect to things on a global level."

If you ask kindergarten students what their favorite part was from their hour-long lesson, you are bound to get honest feedback.

"Playing with the drums."

"Wearing the clothes."

"Everything."

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