The Petrie Museum, University College London: Using comics to bring ancient Egypt to life
This is the first of a series of posts supporting my article on comics in the classroom, which appears in the June 18th curriculum supplement to the New Zealand Education Gazette. Find more posts on comics and education under the comicsedu tag on my site.
One of the most exciting comic book education projects I’ve discovered takes place in the Petrie Museum, where University College London holds its collection of archaeological findings from ancient Egypt.
It can be a tall order attracting children and young people to an academic museum, especially with a capital city’s attractions on your doorstep. Since 2010, artist and educator Kel Winser has run workshops at the Petrie, using ancient Egyptian culture as an inspiration for children and young people to create their own superhero characters.
Kel and the Petrie Museum’s education officer Debbie Challis joined me to discuss their innovative use of comics as an education tool.
What activities can students expect from a comic book session at the Petrie?
Kel: First we use the museum as a starting point to get some inspiration. A half-hour to an hour is spent on visual research. I let the students use their imaginations to think about what some of the ancient artifacts/objects were used for, how and why. Debbie will give a talk during this first hour about some of the images etched into stone tablets and tell tales of the key gods in Egyptian mythology. We will then use what we have seen and heard to create our comic strips over a three to five day workshop. I will help with guidance and support along the way and we provide a lot of source material. It takes time to produce three or four pages of a comic story, so I am quite loose and allow students to take their time.
What do the comic book workshops bring to the Petrie?
Debbie: We are part of a university, and one audience we should reach but are almost impossible to get into what is a very academic ‘dry’ museum are teenagers. Another key target audience is local people from areas such as Camden. This has become even more important with the introduction of top level tuition fees. The workshops are the only thing non-school related that have brought young people into the museum of their own accord.
The comic book workshops bring a different way of seeing and exploring both the museum and the world of ancient Egypt. We’re always trying to experiment with different ways of doing that to keep the ancient world alive in peoples’ imaginations. We’ve also made a QR trial linked to the blog so people can download more info on ‘Supergods’ as they go round the museum.
What do you see as the benefits, and challenges, of using comics in education?
Kel: Not only do kids love comics and relate to the bold colours and dynamic design, but you can often ask a child afterwards to recount the story and they do remember them.
The fact that a lot of comic book genres out there are becoming more and more adult oriented (in the sense that they tackle adult issues, have swearing or some violent tones which are inappropriate for younger readers) helps to engage adults too. There are themes that male and female readers would enjoy, as well as young and old…as we get older, I believe it is in our nature to seek out more learning opportunities even if we don’t mean to.
If someone discovers comics in their forties for example, there will be something available to their age range and interests. A lot of adults who don’t read comics are missing some of the greatest, funniest, saddest, most surreal, and joyful stories ever committed to the published page. I see it as my responsibility to bring that to people, and show them something different.
Your project uses Egyptian gods as inspiration for modern superheroes . How do you see the relationship between comic characters and ancient myths?
Debbie: The myths of antiquity are great stories and the best comics tell great stories. The ancient world tells these stories through various forms – text and visual image – and again so do comics so there are connections in narrative and form. The gods, particularly the Egyptian gods, have attributes that mark them out as different or bearing some kind of special power or meaning – again I think this has a ‘super hero’ element to it that makes for a good transference.
Kel: These are all inventions of the human imagination. The brain is such a wonderful tool to be able to think of scenarios, places times and characters that become as real to us as anything else. We believe they actually happened.
What’s your advice for museums, libraries and other institutions considering using comic book approaches to education?
Debbie: It’s quite rare to find an art teacher like Kel who is also very knowledgeable about the world of comics, but if you can find someone like Kel, I think the museum’s job is provide support to the arts educator with information, allowing them free reign to engage the children creatively.
Kel: I’d boil it down to five points for educators who want to use comics in this way. In no particular order:
Go to the local comic shop and have a sift through their stock. Buy a few things that you find interesting (not just best sellers) and form some lessons around that. If you are in a library or museum, work to the strengths of the venue. I have done workshops for an Egyptian museum and a Museum of Working Life in Norwich, UK called ‘Dragon Hall’ which was all about medieval knights, fare maidens and fire-breathing dragons! Your venue will write your course content in a manner of speaking!
Create a good PowerPoint display or a laminated handout with lots of images for kids to be inspired by as well as tons of books and comics for kids to read and use as inspiration. You can engage them through sheer imagination but for only so long before you need to have some prepared material to hand!
Give it a go yourself…find out how time consuming it is, but also where the limits of comics storytelling is…you will find there is none, except your own imagination! If you can also show kids that you are willing to give it a go, then you will capture their imagination better.
Don’t worry too much about equipment
There is no one true way to make comics. Of course, a good starting point is pencils and paper, pens, brushes and inks, but truth be told, you can use whatever equipment you have laying around. It can be drawn on lined paper with a blue biro. Sure, the mainstream publishers would never accept a comic submitted this way, but it’s art and art has a certain exploration element to it, so explore, experiment and find out what way works best for you.
Get ideas from the kids
Okay, so this one you won’t be able to do in your first workshop…but it’s good planning for the next one! Find out what the kids are interested in and use that in your practice. Kids are really willing to share their experiences of comics and are often really open to telling you why they like something. It’s not just the bright colours and bold lines that draw a kid to a comic, it’s the fact that a character with a jelly-fish for a head has come back in time to avenge his father’s death by way of the most enormous ray gun ever – and that can be brought to life on the page!
Find out more about Supergods at the Petrie Museum website.
Find out more about Kel’s work at his website.