How do you get 45 elementary students to sit still and pay attention on a Monday morning?
For Doris Duke Theatre manager Taylour Chang, the answer is simple: give each of them a thaumatrope—a 19th-century toy that creates a rudimentary version of the same optical illusion made by film projectors. In seconds the students go from squirmy to transfixed as they twist two pieces of string connected to a paper disk that has an image printed on both sides. The result is a moving image powered by their own hands. The 5th grade students from Kalihi Elementary on last Monday morning’s STEAM at the Museum guided school tour got a thaumatrope depicting an orchid lei on one side, and La Grande Pénélope, the large bronze sculpture on the stage in Central Courtyard, on the other. As the pictures flip they create the cinematic illusion that the sculpture is encircled by the lei.
At this point in their tour, the students have already visited the actual La Grand Pénélope. While in Central Courtyard, they learned about viewing distance and vanishing points by gazing down the long peristyle corridors. And in the galleries surrounding the courtyard, the students explored works ranging from ancient Greek vases to Alexander Calder’s modern hanging mobile sculpture—works that demonstrate how science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) interact in a museum setting.
In the theater, Chang and projectionist Conor McGivern use in-house technology to explore the relationship between light and art, starting with a discussion of impressionist paintings. Chang paces across the stage in front of her slide show shouting, “Pointillism! Can you say pointillism?” into her hand-held microphone.
She uses the example of the thaumatrope, which takes its name from the Greek words for “wonder” and “turn,” to present the cinematic concept of persistence of vision—the “motion picture” phenomenon created when film strips zoom past the projector’s light.
“That gets the kids to realize how film speed works,” McGivern says, “and how film is tricking your eyes. Film is an art form to help create emotion—it’s moving you via the moving image.”
“We want them to see how invention and technology make the magic of film possible,” Chang says. “In 30 minutes, using basic language and demonstration, we compare film and digital, examine how a camera and a projector work, and illuminate how the play of light through film constitutes the most powerful magic trick the world experiences today.”
To the right of the stage, McGivern fires up the theater’s old 16mm projector, showing students how filmstrips run through spools before each frame is stopped for a millisecond in front of a light source, which casts the exposed film image through a lens and onto the wall. From that demonstration, Chang segues into a discussion of film history that includes a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s silent film Modern Times, in which Chaplin gets sucked into a factory machine’s cogs—“like a strip of film going through a projector,” McGivern says. The kids all laugh, hardly aware of how much they are learning.
Chang sees the theater’s segment of the STEAM tour as a philosophical metaphor. “Our theater is physically underground, and it’s the perfect realization of Plato’s cave—you submerge into the earth, experience the art of light and shadow play, and re-emerge into the world with a new sense of yourself and the world you live in,” she says. Putting herself in the shoes of children on the STEAM tours, Chang recalls seeing her first black-and-white film, Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa. “That changed my world,” she says, “and my passion for film grew exponentially when I learned about the technology of film. Sometimes we think that learning how things work—the Wizard of Oz effect—leads to disillusion, but it did the exact opposite for me…it equipped me in the construction of my identity, which evolves like technology itself.”
While she can only hope that this tour had a similar impact on the Kalihi Elementary students, Chang knows when she’s ignited a spark. “You can tell when you have the student’s attention and imagination captured,” she says. “There’s just that feeling in the room when you know you’ve got ’em. That’s a good feeling.”