Friday, March 08, 2013

Enchanting Museum Education: The Wee Faerie Village at the Florence Griswold Museum

Museum Received an Honorable Mention (3rd Prize) in the American Alliance for Museum's 2010 Brooking Paper Competition on Creativity in Museums

This is an edited re-print of the white paper the Museum submitted to AAM after the success of the first Wee Faerie Village in 2009.
Outfitted with sparkling pink wings, a feathered tiara, and a glittering tutu, the little girl stands beneath a canopy of golden autumn leaves holding her faerie village map in one hand and her cell phone in the other. “Listen mommy,” she says, tilting the cell phone towards her mother while peering into the fallen log decorated with tiny furniture, miniature paintings, and a teeny easel.  “You have reached the studio of Luna, and I’m not here right now because it’s probably daylight and I prefer to work at night, by the light of the moon. But… if you stay on the line – I’ll let you in on a secret … Do you know the artist Childe Hassam? Well it was me – “moi” – who inspired his artistic talents and made him famous!”
While listening to Luna’s narrative, the girl and her mother scans the faerie dwelling made out of bark and shells and moss held together with beeswax in search of all the details Luna was describing, including the driftwood “spire” which echoed the steeple of Old Lyme’s Congregational Church that Hassam made famous in his paintings. After hearing Luna’s secret “magic” word, they begin their search for the next faerie dwelling.
This little girl and her mother were only two of a record-breaking 10,672 visitors (including an equal number of little boys and grown men) who toured the first-ever "Wee Faerie Village" at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, during its three-week run in October of 2009. Nestled in the nooks and crannies of the Museum’s nearly 12 acres of historic gardens and grounds were over two dozen faerie dwellings, miniature habitats made out of natural or found materials and scaled for a winged faerie three inches tall or less.
The "Wee Faerie Village" project was designed to encourage visitors to explore, literally, every inch of the intimate campus as part of the Museum’s "Year of the American Landscape." This thematic approach underscored the interconnections of several major projects being coordinated by different departments at the Museum. The theme encompassed art exhibitions, the transformation of a historic barn into a landscape center, and the commissioning of "The Rambles," an original “stickwork” sculpture by North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty. The finished sculpture, made of woven saplings, resembles a large-scale faerie castle, and served as inspiration for the smaller creations.
The idea for the Museum’s faerie village came from the annual Fairy House Garden Tour held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and organized by children’s book author and faerie house aficionado, Tracy Kane. The Museum however, decided to link their faeries directly to the history of the Lyme Art Colony, indeed the core interpretive story of the institution. Instead of generic faeries per se, the Museum’s village would be inhabited by wee faerie muses who inspired the original painters of the art colony that stayed in the Griswold House when it operated as a boardinghouse for artists.
To create the faerie dwellings, the Museum contacted over forty individuals affiliated with the Museum to ask if they would be interested in donating their time and creativity for such a challenge. This list included several traditional artists, such as landscape painters and sculptors, but also featured people with diverse backgrounds, skills, and interests. The final roster included college professors, librarians, curators, architects, landscape designers, naturalists, children’s authors, interior decorators, docents, gardeners, and exhibition designers, each of whom would bring their own distinct twist to a faerie dwelling. The dwelling architects then selected one of the historic artists represented in the Museum’s collection before choosing a building site. For the most part, the faerie architects worked independently over the summer, constructing their houses and filling them with miniature furniture fashioned out of pebbles, acorns, and bark. They combed the nearby forest for moss, stumps, and fungi to create miniscule gardens, parapets, and pathways. Some created skinny ladders out of dried stalks and fences with pencils and twine. They arrived with loads of pinecones, shells, and stones, and installed their playful creations during the first week in October, only a few days before the village opened to the public. Indeed, several of the wayfinding signs were still being installed on the morning of the opening day when the first car arrived, followed by another, and another, and another.
To begin their enchanting adventure, visitors received a "Wee Faerie Village Map" and a ring-jingle – a simple bracelet of beads and bells. The bracelet served as a ticketing device, and its jingle was to warn the faeries of a visitor’s approach. Because the faerie event was geared towards families with children, many of whom the Museum anticipated being first-time visitors, this map provided a family-friendly introduction to the history of the site and the "Wee Faerie Village" in order to set the stage for their enchanted exploration.
Many families read this aloud to their children as they headed outside in search of the first faerie dwelling, while the children (as well as mom and dad!) shook their ring-jingles to warn the faeries that they were on their way. As part of the introduction, families learned about the availability of a cell phone tour in which the faeries would explain about their house and the artist they inspire.
The map listed the faerie dwellings along the route using faerie-sounding place names such as "Far Far Far Away" (located in the far corner of the property), "Marshymellows" (located on the banks of the salt marsh), and "Water Fall Downs" (located at a drop in the small babbling brook). It also listed the wee muses by their faerie names, such as Whisp, N, Rusty, or Tweed, witty monikers that were often wordplays on some aspect of the historic artist or their art. The faerie Hazel, for instance, was linked with Bruce Crane, a painter whose ethereal images were often veiled in a light mist or haze, and the faerie Moo worked for the artist William Henry Howe, who was famous for painting cows. Lastly, the map included the numbers for the Guide by Cell phone tour.
The range of artistic expression in the faerie dwellings was truly astounding. For instance, the faerie Harpa’s dwelling was conceived as a painter’s studio complete with easel and miniature canvases built in a cigar box outfitted with a trap door and a ladder made from harp strings. This was attached to the top of one of the columns of the Griswold House and best viewed through the upstairs gallery window looking out. This faerie’s artist had painted the portrait of Miss Florence playing her harp that hangs in the main hallway of the boardinghouse.
The dwelling built for the Moo used a cow’s skull attached to a large tree with baling twine. The eyes sockets were transformed into windows glazed with twigs and the translucent petals from a money plant. The mouth became the front door, complete with a small gateway and porch reached via a rope and stick ladder (Moo claimed to be big-boned and not always capable of flight). Because this faerie helped an artist known for his hundreds of paintings of cows, this domicile made a great deal of sense.
Indeed, the only thing missing in each of the magical creations were the actual faeries. It was believed that invisible faeries would best spark the imaginations of the visitors. Instead, the missing faeries could be experienced through their recorded faerie narrative via the cell phone tour. Most of these narratives began with why the faerie was away from their home and invited the listener to look more closely. The faeries enthusiastically explained the connections between their houses and the artists they inspired. They also suggested where in the Museum the listener could see the real works of art by the artists during their visit. For instance, when visitors found themselves at the small farmhouse shingled with pumpkin seeds in "Vegetable Valley," they could call the faerie and hear the following:
"Hello! My name is Iris, like the beautiful flowers in Miss Florence’s garden. Sorry I am not home right now. I’m out harvesting seeds. Please feel free to look around my house. You’ll notice my house is made of a box of artist’s pastels that I found on the bank of the Lieutenant River..."
The spirited narratives were written to give each faerie their own personality. Students a the Lyme-Old Lyme high school who were enrolled in a musical performance class recorded them. Indeed, the students' involvement in the faerie project became a point of pride for them as well as for their teachers, families, and friends. Interestingly, the combination of drama and technology made the faerie village "cool," even for a high school-aged audience.
By the end of the first frantic week, the Museum recalculated and quickly ordered 5,000 additional maps. By the second weekend, it was clear that faerie-mania had struck! Indeed, the faerie dust never settled for three weeks and the crowds kept growing. Cases of jingle bells were over-nighted to the Museum to meet demand. The ticket line filled the lobby and snaked out the door. Other town organizations offered up their parking lots to accommodate the overflow. Museum members worked tirelessly to direct traffic, explained cell phone tours, and assisted in popular hands-on craft projects. Staff and volunteers spent their evenings making hundreds of ring-jingle bracelets. The Museum’s shop reordered faerie-related magnets, puzzles, wings, dust (glitter in glass bottles), and books. The faerie magic was infectious: a professional photographer documented the dwellings gratis, a local chanteuse lead the Halloween parade, and the ice cream parlor in town offered cones of Huckle-Faerie ice cream.
The general attendance for the "Wee Faerie Village" was up 662% over the same three-week period of the prior year. For the entire event, including the special evening tours and school group visits, the Museum tracked a total of 10,672 ticketed visitors to the village, just under 20% of the total Museum attendance for the whole year. Moreover, many of the faerie village visitors returned to the Museum after it closed to enjoy late-fall programming and holiday activities, exceeding all year-end attendance projections.
Despite the surge in attendance numbers, however, the real indicator for the success was the overwhelming positive feedback from our visitors, young and old alike, during the experience, all of who seemed to hover several inches off the ground with faerie-induced enthusiasm. Many stayed for hours and even made their own faerie house out of found pinecones and sticks in "Beyond the Beyond," a special woodsy area designated for this activity. Indeed, each day scores of new houses appeared, playful evidence of the impact the faeries were having on the families. One young visitor named Miranda echoed the reaction of many when she wrote in the comment book: “The fairy houses were amazing!” To that her friend Sarah added: “They make me want to build one when I go home.”

David D.J. Rau is the Director of Education and Outreach at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

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