Merging art and science to create a new arts-centred science programme for South Africa

By W. Taylor, A. Sephton, C. Browning, A. Carnegie and G. Alard

 

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Figure 1: One of the Puppet Planet theatrical sets used in the filming of the pilot TV episode.

 

Iziko aims to help learners understand South Africa’s proud natural legacy – including our amazing geological, fossil and anthropological records, preserved in the collections and unlocked through the research done on them. Sadly, the role of geology and palaeontology in the current school curriculum is woefully inadequate, and a reliance on museum’s exhibitions and innovative educational programmes are essential to meet this aim.

“… and, in doing so, becomes a celebration of South Africa’s natural heritage, Iziko’s collections and the professional and amateur scientists who study, teach and unlock the past.”

Puppet Planet was born to address this need for novel geoheritage education. It is supported by a close collaboration between the Iziko South African Museum, local palaeontologists, and Cape Town-based Jungle Theatre Company. This fledgling partnership aims to create children's theatre shows and facilitate workshops at Iziko, using puppetry; and, in doing so, becomes a celebration of South Africa’s natural heritage, Iziko’s collections and the professional and amateur scientists who study, teach and unlock the past.

The programme is, at its heart, a theatrical production. Puppet Planet’s pilot shows are developed in collaboration with Iziko staff, including preparators, scientists, collection managers, educators and designers. Using their invaluable experience, Iziko’s Puppet Planet team assists in the development of effective South African-centred stories, while ensuring scientific accuracy. Puppets are developed based on animals represented in the museum’s collections, and are created with the aim of bringing fossils to life.

 

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Figure 2: Puppet Planet puppets visit Sibusiso Mtungata and Claire Browning at the Karoo Palaeontology Fossil Preparation Lab at the Iziko South African Museum.

 

The programme draws on South Africa’s diverse cultural heritage and finds moving ways to connect people to their environment and shared humanity. The puppeteers, and most crew, have a long association with the Jungle Theatre Company who produce original interactive African theatre productions for children and youths. The style of puppetry does not hide the black-clad puppeteer, and the puppeteer becomes a kind of “soul” of the puppet – allowing maximum freedom for characters to interact.  

“Stories are uniquely human. They make the educational experience richer and more meaningful. Telling stories with puppets can enhance this offering further by sparking the imagination of learners through creative drama.”

Iziko believes the use of puppetry as a vehicle for geoscience storytelling is a powerful combination that can help to make our geological history come alive for learners. Stories are uniquely human. They make the educational experience richer and more meaningful. Telling stories with puppets can enhance this offering further by sparking the imagination of learners through creative drama.

There is a wealth of evidence indicating that puppets have a unique way of engaging with children, and their use is already well established in many primary schools – specifically in subjects like drama and social education. However, the use of puppets in science education, and particularly for telling the Earth’s story, has barely begun. There is huge potential for captivating students with exciting tales of fierce dinosaurs, flying reptiles, and other giant creatures who roamed and hunted on Earth for hundreds of millions of years.

 

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Figure 3: Puppet Planet main characters, Thandi and her dog Oogies, and puppeteers Naledi Tlailane and Joce Engelbrecht interacting with an Iziko visitor on Heritage Day 2021.

 

“There is huge potential for captivating students with exciting tales of fierce dinosaurs, flying reptiles, and other giant creatures who roamed and hunted on Earth for hundreds of millions of years.”

Over the past several years, there has been a push in many countries to incorporate lessons and activities that use STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art, and maths. This enquiry-based approach encourages students to work in teams where they engage in hands-on activities that use artistic expression and creativity, as well as scientific and mathematical principles, to explore new ideas or solve problems. Using this approach helps remove inhibitions (for example the fear of giving the wrong answer), fosters innovation and engagement, and makes science far more welcoming, especially to those who are often intimidated by these subjects. The STEAM approach can be a very effective means of teaching science to young learners, particularly if combined with the power of storytelling.

 

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Figures 4 & 5: Puppet Planet’s Lystrosaurus and puppeteer Siyawandisa Badi interacting with Iziko visitors on Heritage Day 2021, (left). Iziko South African Museum live on Puppet Planet’s Youtube channel (right).

 

“Using this approach helps remove inhibitions, fosters innovation and engagement, and makes science far more welcoming, especially to those who are often intimidated by these subjects.”

Puppet Planet is a new project that came about through seed funding from the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences in 2020. Support was received to develop a pilot TV show for children, create a website with free online teaching resources as well as run a pilot show at Iziko on Heritage day 2021.

Due to the digital divide that most South Africans struggle with, our shows are broadcast free of charge on Cape Town TV (CTV). CTV is a non-profit, community-based television station aimed at the greater Cape Town metropolitan area and averages over three million viewers per month. The channel naturally has a strong viewership in the Western Cape, but its presence on DStv satellite television also gives it large audiences in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The videos are also hosted on YouTube and are freely available through the Puppet Planet and Jungle Theatre Company websites.

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Figures 6 & 7: Puppet Planet main characters, Thandi and her dog, Oogies along with Lystrosaurus puppet, exploring a fossil Lystrosaurus on their farm in the Karoo (left) and then going back in time to meet him alive (right).

 

“The first episode follows Thandi and Oogies, who live on a farm in the Karoo, as they travel through time and explore what their home was like millions of years ago. They investigate the ancient landscapes and find themselves in exciting situations as they meet very strange, extinct plants and animals.”

 

The main show characters are Thandi, a nine-year-old girl and budding scientist and her magical dog, Oogies. Other characters include a Lystrosaurus (“cow-like” reptile of the Permian), Proterosuchus (South African carnivorous reptile) and a giant Cretaceous frog (based on the fossils of Beelzebufo from Madagascar).

The first episode follows Thandi and Oogies, who live on a farm in the Karoo, as they travel through time and explore what their home was like millions of years ago. They investigate the ancient landscapes and find themselves in exciting situations as they meet very strange, extinct plants and animals. The show’s main audience is children between six and 10 years of age, but both younger and older audiences enjoy it too. Planned future shows will focus on topics of interest to South Africans, such as recent high-profile discoveries and important topics of local interest.

“This exciting new collaboration is finding innovative ways to showcase South Africa’s world-class natural and cultural wealth. The country’s unique natural heritage spans billions of years and offers us a captivating window into the evolution of our planet.”

The lifelike behaviour of Thandi, Oogies and the friendly (and not-so-friendly) creatures they encounter are achieved using highly detailed rod puppets and shadow puppets. These were designed and made by the well-known local artists/designers Angela and Sean MacPherson of the Cape Town Carnival. Innovatively crafted sets, including a shadow theatre, allow for quick changes between three different environments in time. A trilingual script (English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa) and original songs were developed with members of the Jungle Theatre Company cast for Episode One.

This exciting new collaboration is finding innovative ways to showcase South Africa’s world-class natural and cultural wealth. The country’s unique natural heritage spans billions of years and offers us a captivating window into the evolution of our planet. Up until very recently our role as humans has been a small part of this cosmic narrative, but now the impact of our actions is central to the continuing habitability of the planet. We are excited to use this offering to help a new generation of learners navigate this difficult future and fall in love with our past. Stay tuned for exciting new opportunities to get involved in the programme!

Images courtesy of Robyn Symons (Figs. 1, 3, 4) and Puppet Planet/Jungle Theatre Company (Figs. 2, 5-7).