Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, the Massillon Museum talks about creating universal spaces, challenging its community through literature, and sparking conversations that extend beyond last chapters.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
For 85 years, MassMu has not only been the keeper of Massillon’s story, but has shared stories of regional, national, and international import. While a majority of the Museum’s visitors hail from Western Stark County, we serve audiences throughout Northeast Ohio. With a collection of over 100,000 artifacts and artwork, MassMu preserves local history, culture, and art while connecting these stories to contemporary life in Stark County through well-researched exhibitions and meaningful educational and outreach programs.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
The pages of MassMu’s story are bound together by the support of the community in which it resides. The Museum’s annual exhibits, programming, and effective outreach continue to enrich the lives of the people of Massillon, as well as tell the story of Massillon, Ohio, to the world. Additionally, the Museum has a commitment to creating universal spaces for visitors from all walks of life. Our goal is to learn from everyone we meet and grow as an institution, while at the same time creating awareness that the Massillon Museum is a resource committed to serving its community through education, inclusion, and inspiration.
Poster contest winner Taen Proir, from Glen Oak High School, meeting artist Charles Vess. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
What makes your NEA Big Read unique?
There are numerous answers that reflect the many ways in which this program is special for all communities who participate. Just today, while distributing books at a meeting we attended, several people responded with disbelief that they would be given a book, at no cost to them; they understand that books are treasures, and appreciate them for what they are: reflections of our humanity that foster greater understanding, portals to other worlds, and inspiration for new ideas.
“[T]hey understand that books are treasures, and appreciate them for what they are: reflections of our humanity that foster greater understanding, portals to other worlds, and inspiration for new ideas.”
Massillon Museum’s NEA Big Read is electric; it has grown and evolved to include new partners every year, while continuing to maintain and engage those collaborators who have been with us since Day One, like the Massillon Public Library. This year, we were delighted to add Massillon Middle School students to our partnerships, by offering a fantasy poster contest, a fantasy writer’s workshop given by Ohio-based author Mindy McGinnis, and a curated field trip experience for fifty 7th and 8th graders. We have also forged wonderful partnerships with local universities who provide amazing programming such as the current exhibit at Walsh University, Magic to Dragons: A Timeline of Major Achievements in Fantasy Literature, and engage college-aged students in the NEA Big Read events every year through book discussions, internships, outreach, and onsite programming.
Shary Williamson leading children’s programming for the companion “Little Read” title, The Woodland Elves. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
Author Mindy McGinnis (right) speaking to an audience member at the NEA Big Read book distribution table. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea follows the early life of young Ged, a boy from a remote village whose magical powers, intelligence, and determination get him accepted to wizard school where his pride causes dire consequences to Earthsea and himself. Hoping to repair the damage he has caused, the chastened Ged embarks on a series of journeys around Earthsea—and eventually beyond the known world.
In all the years Massillon Museum has hosted the NEA Big Read, a fantasy novel had never been featured. MassMu feels a duty to serve and challenge its community through new genres of literature and A Wizard of Earthsea met these goals whole-heartedly. The novel weaves fantasy and deep themes that allowed for broad and diverse programming.
Never before has an NEA Big Read book selection engaged such a diverse range of ages in its programming. Everyone from toddlers to seniors have participated in activities; the fantasy worlds of A Wizard of Earthsea allowed the Museum and its partners to explore references to the natural world, hosting Stark Parks to educate audiences about kestrels, and leading programs at The Wilderness Center where participants could learn about native Ohio plant species and their practical applications. In A Wizard of Earthsea, plants, both real and fantastical, play a role in the story. Programs like these allow readers to more fully digest and retain the book contents, appreciating them at a deeper level and relating them to real-world experiences.
Chris Craft leading a show and tell with students on a class field trip. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
Activities for the companion “Little Read” title, The Woodland Elves. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
What aspect (event, discussion questions, audience outreach, etc.) of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
This year we are delighted to have developed an original exhibition entitled Earthsea Imagined by Charles Vess to coincide with our NEA Big Read book selection. Fifty-four original illustrations by renowned fantasy artist, Charles Vess, will be featured in the forthcoming 50th-anniversary edition of A Wizard of Earthsea this October. Vess gave the keynote address this year, and connected with 130 students from Massillon Washington High School through a unique, all-day field trip experience.
The Museum staff members and partners were saddened by the news of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death on January 22, 2018. With most Big Read program plans already developed, we embraced them, in light of this news, as a celebration of Le Guin’s life, and a tribute to her pioneering efforts and influential body of work. Charles Vess wrote a beautiful, and quite touching, introduction to his exhibit which shared insight into his personal correspondence with Le Guin over the course of developing his illustrations for the 50th-anniversary edition. Sadly, Le Guin would never see the edition come to fruition; but she did have the opportunity to see Vess’s drawings electronically as they were in the process of being created, and exchanged feedback with the artist.
By the end of April, over 500 students, (elementary-aged to high school), from the local school system will have toured the exhibition through thoughtful, docent-led discussions, reviewed major themes in A Wizard of Earthsea, such as Taoism and the concept of good vs. evil, and have explored descriptive literacy through art making. As previously mentioned, local high school students will have the exceptional opportunity to meet with Vess himself, engage in various book talks led by local librarians from Massillon Public Library and view the anime film, Tales from Earthsea, post-tour, at the historic theater in downtown Massillon.
Artist Charles Vess at the keynote reception for the exhibit, “Earthsea Imagined.” Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
For Massillon Museum, successful programming is relatable, accessible, and educational through partnerships. When planning for the NEA Big Read, MassMu works effectively with community partners to create diverse programs for various ages, developmental abilities, and local and regional demographics. Collaborating with our local organizations provides insight into what our community needs and desires, as well as utilizes fabulous resources that might otherwise go unnoticed. Massillon Museum is pleased to work with so many incredible partners: from Kent State University to the Massillon Public Library, from local businesses to local artists, educators, and Museum trustees willing to lead book discussions and art-making classes. Their engagement is really key to helping make our NEA Big Read a success.
History happy hour with Kent State Professor Ann Martinez. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.!
A dragon-making event at the Massillon Public Library. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Public Library.
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
The Museum is always determined to create an NEA Big Read kick-off experience that is more than just a book distribution date. This year, there were activities for all ages: one could make an Earthsea candle, drink from our potions table (complete with dry ice for effect!), enjoy wizard treats and refreshments, and engage with a live harpist. On view were the Earthsea Imagined by Charles Vess and middle- and high-school Fantasy Poster Contest exhibits. Visitors small and tall could pose in front dragon wings for a fun photo-op or check out our fantastical plant life, created by a student intern that adorned the lobby.
Having been a staple of our NEA Big Read programming since its inception in the Massillon community eleven years ago, the NEA Big Read one-act plays were initially performed at the historic Lincoln Theatre, across the street from the Massillon Museum, and the playwrights had more directorial input. However, this program has evolved to provide the students a greater sense of agency and, in our minds, a more in-depth, hands-on learning experience. The students are directors, actors, and stagehands, and the local community shows its support in attendance, with 150 joining us this year! This tradition has evolved to become the official closing event for the high school’s drama club season and integrates a reading of the Library’s poetry contest winner during intermission plus a Thespian Award Ceremony following the performances.
Harpist Brenda Ellcessor speaking with an audience member at the NEA Big Read kickoff. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
High school students performing the NEA Big Read one-act play for The Wizard of Earthsea. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
Edgar Award-winning author and assistant teen librarian Mindy McGinnis spoke at our monthly Brown Bag Lunch lectures; in addition to writing and library work, McGinnis runs a blog for aspiring writers at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, which features interviews with agents, established authors, and debut authors. Her topic was “Building a Complex Fantasy World,” and it differed significantly from the art and historical topics we have had at the museum in the past. McGinnis was an excellent speaker, quite witty and funny, and really welcomed her audience into her process; for those attendees who do not typically read fantasy, the mention of blood-drinking plants and giant, killer tabby cats had them both riveted and horrified. But this is precisely what we feel the NEA Big Read is designed to do – introduce concepts in literature to audiences who might not normally experience them, which invites dialogue. And, for those who know the book or genre particularly well, we aim to provide opportunities to rethink the content and its relationship to the world around them.
Another notable experience relates to the attention Charles Vess’s exhibition has garnered from throughout and outside the state. Charles Vess’s original post about the exhibit at MassMu of his drawings has been shared on Facebook 43 times! Among the comments on his page was from a man who had traveled more than two hours from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to view the Earthsea Imagined exhibition: “My wife and I drove about 2 1/2 hours from home to Massillon to see the exhibit. It was WELL worth the drive…the artwork is amazing. I’m not sure how I’m going to last until the book is published in the fall; I may start chewing on table legs!”
Author Mindy McGinnis with an audience member. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
Audience gathered in the “Earthsea Imagined” gallery. Photo courtesy of the Massillon Museum.
Lastly, what is your favorite line from your reading selection?
“In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves; it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.” –Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
“Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping. Thus to Ged, who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given him that gift that only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakeable trust.” –Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea