The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Reading Between the Lines: A Q&A with Massillon Museum

Massillon, Ohio

A living history interpreter teaches children how to play marbles at Massillon Museum's Big Read kick-off event. Photo courtesy of Massillon Museum

One of the interesting characteristics about The Big Read is that all kinds of not-for-profit organizations take part. Libraries are of course the most common organizations, but this year we also have theaters, universities, and museums taking the lead in planning their community?s Big Read programs. One of this year?s grantees, Massillon Museum, collects and exhibits the best in local and regional art and historical artifacts. Massillon?s The Independent asked Jill Malusky, educator and Big Read coordinator, why she felt literature and museums worked well together. She explained that the museum is dedicated to giving the community the opportunity to see and interact with all forms of artwork. ?Literature is a type of fine art, but it?s different from two-dimensional art, like a painting, or three-dimensional art, like a sculpture.? We spoke with Malusky to learn more about Massillon Museum?s 2011 Big Read.

NEA: This is your community?s fourth Big Read. How do you continue to attract new community members to the program?

JILL MALUSKY: The Big Read in our community has continued to grow and attract new members because we keep reaching out to new partners and tying different themes into our events. For example, for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we wanted to do activities in the great outdoors, like Tom would have done. We worked with the YMCA, rec center, and parks service to cross-promote some of their events, including a community bike ride on a park trail and a fishing derby, and then offer our Big Read materials and free books to their participants. We also handed out free books at the YMCA fitness centers, rec center, and park welcome centers, introducing the program to new audiences.

We always try to incorporate a wide variety of themes to have something for everyone; this year we included visual art, history, music, theater, physical fitness, and natural science. This attracts a lot of attention from the press because of the unique collaborations and activities, which helps us reach even more people who have never participated before but happen to read about it in the newspaper or online. We receive many phone calls and visits from the positive press we receive, many of whom turn into new Big Read participants. We also establish a visual presence in the community through our partners, with Big Read banners and other installations. For example, this year we placed fences on the lawns of Massillon Museum, two libraries, and a school, which we painted white with participants. We hung a banner on the signs talking about The Big Read and saying free books were available; we had many people come in off the street wanting to participate because of this.

NEA: Why did you feel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would be a good pick for your community? How do you decide on a Big Read book?

MALUSKY: The city where our museum is based is a canal town and we thought that this fit well with maritime themes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain?s life. We knew that we would have a lot to call upon for exhibitions and topics. We also liked the idea of incorporating the great outdoors and physical fitness and knew that we would approach new partners for this. Last year we did The Shawl which is a very powerful book with serious themes that was more appropriate for teen and adult audiences, so this year we wanted to try to balance that out with something that was more child- and family-friendly.

To select our books, we try to keep a balance between the audiences we serve and our partners will be on this project. Since the museum is the main coordinator and we tie in a majority of our programs, we also look at our exhibitions schedule to see what the themes are and to see what books they might fit with. For example, for 2012 we are doing a very different sort of history exhibition about unique and unusual objects in our museum?s collection, called Odditorium. We thought that this display would work well with themes in Edgar Allan Poe?s short stories and poems, so we selected his work for our 2012 Big Read application.

Community members help whitewash Tom?s fence on Massillon Museum?s front lawn at The Big Read kick-off. Photo courtesy of Massillon Museum

NEA: What Big Read event were you most looking forward to this year?

MALUSKY: The kick-off---we always make this event really busy with a lot of different activities to choose from. We had the free book giveaway, Southern food to sample, living history interpreters as canal boat captains and Tom Sawyer, fence painting on the museum?s front lawn, a quartet from the local symphony playing music of the 1840s, an art exhibition about the Underground Railroad opening in the main gallery, Mark Twain memorabilia and photos on display in other parts of the museum, staff from the park service sharing information on canal history and their programs, the keynote address, and a bluegrass concert---all on the day. It was fantastic and everyone who came, of all ages, had a great time. People stayed for hours because there was so much to do, which we were able to offer because of all our partners.

NEA: You have involved community groups in interesting ways, from having the Canton Symphony Orchestra perform at your kick-off to having the local high school?s drama department perform one-act plays inspired by Twain?s work. What has been your community?s reaction to The Big Read?

MALUSKY: Our community gets very excited when The Big Read happens. This didn?t happen in the first year, as people had never heard of it and didn?t know what to expect. It?s taken us time to build up to this level, but now people are asking year-round, ?When is The Big Read coming? What?s the book this year?? The schools were the biggest challenge to break into---getting busy administrators and teachers to want to take time to let us explain the program and share what we had to offer. But now that we?ve broken that barrier, and raised the profile of the program overall in our community, it?s pretty easy to get people to participate. It takes a lot of time and work to coordinate it all, but it?s definitely worth it. The positive feedback we get from organizations and individuals who are so thankful to receive books and excited to participate in events shows us again and again how this program is valued by our community.

NEA: Any last words?

MALUSKY: I am so thankful to have this program here in our community. I was an avid reader as a child and it has gotten me to where I am in life. To be able to create that spark in someone else, to facilitate this experience, is moving.

Massillon Museum?s Big Read continues through May 24. For more information, visit Massillon Museum?s website. For more information about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, including a radio show featuring Ken Burns, Anne Fadiman, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, David Ives, P.J. O'Rourke, Ron Powers, Richard Rodriguez, and readings by Sam Elliott, visit The Big Read website.

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