Centralizing Imagination in Museum Curriculum Design: A Black Odyssey

By Gillian Judson (Executive Director, Centre for Imagination in Research, Culture and Education, CIRCE [pronounced sur-see])

In 2013 I employed the principles of Imaginative Education (IE) to design a curriculum guide for the Smithsonian Institution’s travelling exhibit Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey. The curriculum guide I created uses the cognitive tools of Imaginative Education to engage students with Homer’s text and Bearden’s art. I aim to engage imagination as the primary tool for learning, with lessons involving a range of cognitive tools including vivid mental imagery, the story-form, metaphor, humor, and the connection of knowledge to human hopes, fears and passions. To maximize learning, my design continually seeks to create opportunities that evoke the emotional dimensions of the topic and that ignite the imagination.

The Fall of Troy

The curriculum guide offers a wide selection of student activities focusing on the following three themes and corresponding with three main sections:

  1. Collage: Experiencing Bearden’s Art
  2. Heroism and Seeking Home
  3. Improvisation

Each section concludes with student extensions, designed for independent work. The activities are designed to be readily adapted to fit the needs of students from different age levels. Most could be taught before or after a visit to the exhibit, supplemented with online images and tools for additional virtual visits. (The curriculum was also designed to help students meet many of the College and Career Readiness standards. See a list of those standards at the end of this post.) The curriculum guide concludes with cumulative learning activities evoking a range of cognitive tools including an activity entitled Curator for a Day that offers students an opportunity to learn a topic in depth.

Using example activities from the curriculum, this post gives a glimpse into how cognitive tools can shape student engagement in museum learning. Each activity is meant to be done by visitors/students and is written directly for this audience. (The full outline of activities is included at the end of the post.) You can see Bearden’s artwork and hear the narrated story with an app free for download called “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey A Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition” (Google it!)


Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey was organized by SITES in cooperation with the Romare Bearden Foundation and Estate and DC Moore Gallery. The exhibition and its related educational resources were supported by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The intention was that even if a visitor couldn’t see the exhibition personally, the curriculum would still be of use with visual support materials accessed via website and apps (including audio tour and collage app) downloaded free of charge.



Theme I

Collage: Experiencing Bearden’s Art

Battle with the Cicones

The Color of War

[Corresponding images: Battle with the Ciconesand Land of the Lotus Eaters]

One of Bearden’s tools for evoking meaning is color. His challenge is to use color to represent very complex, personal, and emotional experiences.

In this episode with the Cicones, war is raging. Think for a moment about war. Imagine the devastation of a blood-soaked battlefield. Taste the fear of a soldier under attack. Feel the palpitations of a soldier’s racing heart and the deep, aching grief experienced for lost comrades. Through language we can evoke some of the emotional meaning of war. At best, though, we can only offer a glimpse of what war is like for those who experience it. Evoking meaning withoutwords offers additional challenges.

Consider what colors you visualize when you think of war. Now examine Bearden’s Battle With Cicones. Describe as vividly as possible the colors you see—not just “brown” or “red,” but the hue or potency of each color. In this collage Bearden uses “warm” colors. What do these colors symbolize? What patterns do these colors create? What emotional responses do the colors evoke for you? Why does Bearden use these particular colors? What might he be trying to convey by pairing red, black and green with red, white and blue? What is the effect of the two-thirds red, one-third blue background?

Compare the colors of war in this image with a very different scene from The Odyssey. Jump to the next episode, The Land of the Lotus Eaters. Make a list of “cool” colors here and compare the mood produced by the colors used in each collage. Which scene do you find most alluring? Most troubling? Most memorable? Why?

Land of the Lotus Eaters

Dream vs. Nightmare

[Corresponding image: Land of the Lotus Eaters]

The Dream

The lotus is a legendary plant whose fruit is said to cause a dreamy forgetfulness and an unwillingness to depart. Before focusing on Bearden’s art, think more about how you are a lotus-eater. Are there times when you get distracted from your goal? Have you ever had an experience in which you are both asleep—too relaxed to move or even to care to move—and yet also awake? Have you ever been really, really tired? Now think about the impact of the lotus plant for Odysseus. Think about this event as a drug. How does this image make you feel? Consider what you might smell, touch, or hear if you were in the land of the Lotus Eaters. How does Bearden translate the experience of this “seductive realm” in the visual format? Looking closely at Bearden’s image, make a list of all aspects that evoke a sense of dreaminess.

The Nightmare

What is dangerous about the seemingly dreamy place and its inhabitants? What might have alerted Odysseus and his crew to the dangers they faced? In what ways might he and his men have been unable to identify these signs of danger? Alongside your list of features of Bearden’s art that indicate the dreamy, identify clues that all is not right. This episode speaks in some ways about the dangers of temptation and, ultimately, about addiction. What tempts Odysseus’ men, exhausted after ten years of war? Why is the loss of memory attractive to them but a nightmare for Odysseus? How is the addiction of the crew a potential obstacle to Odysseus’ quest for home? What temptations keep people from their goals? Draw parallels between the events of this episode and the modern world. What distracts us today? To what are we addicted?

Write a 30-second advertisement for lotus fruit, including the warning list of possible side effects.

Theme II

The Hero’s Journey: Notions of Heroism and Home


Circe’s Domain

Front Page News

[Corresponding images: Circe’s Domain, Circe Turns a Companion of Odysseus into a Swine, Odysseus Leaves Circe, Realm of the Shades]

Imagine you are a journalist. You have been asked to report on different features of Odysseus’ encounter with Circe. As any journalist knows, you need to make your account emotionally engaging. You also need an engaging headline for the episode to attract a reader’s attention.

Look closely at Bearden’s representations of this series of events from The Odyssey. The current title of each of Bearden’s images may not reflect the emotional significance of the event. Your job is to write a splashy headline that captures the wonder of each episode. Here’s an example from another episode: “Design For Delay: 20 Years Of Weaving.” Can you guess which episode this title describes? Or “Dangerous Beauties: Bones on the Beach.” What’s your guess?


[Corresponding images: The Return of Odysseus, Odysseus and Penelope Reunited]

The Return of Odysseus


Odysseus and Penelope Reunited

Examine The Return of Odysseus. This image, more than other images, gives a real sense that somethingis about to happen. Look closely at this image and the other images in this series. Identify clues that a bloody battle is coming. Identify signs of tension. Create three columns on a page. In the first, identify the visual clues you believe suggest impending conflict. In the second column, beside each clue, indicate why you consider this feature ominous. In the third column ask questions. You are a CSI detective. Unlike most crime scenes you investigate, however, this time you have a “before” the massacre image. What is happening? What might different features of the image (e.g. the bird) represent? What seems incongruous? Why, for example, is Penelope’s hand deformed? Create a list of your questions. Imagine that as part of your investigation, you will interview Bearden. What questions might shed light on your interpretation of this scene?

Another interpretation of Odysseus’ arrival home is that finally, after more than twenty years, order can be restored. Look for visual signs of peace in the collage Odysseus and Penelope Reunited. Create another table. Repeat the process outlined above but this time with peace and order in mind. How does Bearden’s art indicate a restoration of order? Conclude by juxtaposing Odysseus and Penelope Reunitedwith The Return of Odysseus. If you were not aware of the story behind the images—and not aware of the massacre that takes place soon after—would you feel one is more ominous than the other? Why?

Theme III

Improvisation: Investigating the Story Form and Issues of Visual Interpretation

The Sea Nymph

Sweet-Stepping Ino

The Sea Nymph 

Consider how Homer describes Ino:

The daughter of Kadmos, sweet-stepping Ino called Leukothea, saw him. She had once been one who spoke as a mortal, but now in the gulfs of the sea she holds degree as a goddess. She took pity on Odysseus as he drifted and suffered hardship, and likening herself to a winged gannet, she came up out of the water and perched on the raft and spoke a word to him. (V, 333-339)

View Bearden’s representation of Ino in this collage. As O’Meally describes:

Bearden’s Ino is a beautiful diver a la Matisse. Here the work’s flat surface is a turbulent water-world where colors ripple across, up, and down. Beneath the sliver of sky, where the raft falters and sea birds (in whose form Ino first appeared to Odysseus) fly, the multicolored sea divides into fourths: shapely Ino (whose form echoes Circe’s in Odysseus Leaves Circe) dives through the clearest quadrant, a soft purple. Odysseus is drawn down by the twisting currents and tentacle-like flora of the sea’s lower depths, which threaten to engulf him—and which recall the deadly pumping of Charybdis.


Use your body to represent Ino. In what ways can you somatically(using your body) express meaning? What are your tools? Observe how you position your body to evoke the sweetness of Ino. Practice the kinds of gestures she might demonstrate. Now somatically represent a character you consider to be very different from Ino. Without making any sound, try to capture the essence of each character. Notice the differences in how you pose and the gestures you employ. Recreate the actions in this episode through movement—what dance results? What story is retold through your movement?


Home to Ithaca

Telling Stories

[Corresponding image: Home to Ithaca]

Look carefully at Bearden’s collage Home to Ithaca. How did he improvise the telling of this episode?

As you explore the episodes in the exhibit, consider the imaginative stories we weave—childhood adventures in the magic of our back woods or in the mysterious corners of dark closets. Consider contexts in which we create a fiction, whether to escape retribution or for some other purpose. When we blur the lines between fact and fiction to suit our own purposes, are we telling stories or are we lying? What’s the difference?

Athena considers Odysseus’ ability to tell stories one of his strengths. What do you think? On several occasions in The Odyssey, it is by telling stories that Odysseus manages to escape harm. At other times Odysseus’ storytelling gets him into trouble. In this episode, Odysseus weaves an elaborate story to explain his appearance on the island—all part of his scheme to ensure his wife has been faithful during his absence. Do you think it was necessary to weave this tale? Similarly, rather than reveal his identity to his father, Odysseus weaves a tale to ascertain his father’s loyalty. How do Odysseus’ stories serve him? Do you think Odysseus’ storytelling (lying?) is justified?

Culminating Activity: Curator for a Day

Overview:   Each student becomes an expert on a chosen theme found in Bearden’s A Black Odyssey and Homer’s The Odyssey through an in-depth investigation.

While a museum curator might physically collect and organize works of art, in this activity students become curators who collect and organize information. Students curate information related to a particular topic or theme in A Black Odyssey andThe Odyssey by Homer. By exploring a topic in depth, students develop their expertise in relation to both epic works. (Suggested topics are provided below.)

Students may choose to begin by creating a simple chart that lists examples relating to the selected topic. Ultimately, students will organize their collections in a way that is meaningful for the imagined audience, refining the charts as needed. As a final demonstration of learning, each student will expand the chart into an engaging presentation, as would a curator, to reveal the significance of the topic and the collection of information representing and supporting it.

Possible topics for investigation:


How does Bearden visually represent themes from the epic? For example, consider the symbols he uses to identify war/peace, home/exile, or self/other. What other themes run through the epic and how does Bearden evoke them?

Opposites (This post talks more about the Abstract Binary Opposites cognitive tool.)

Before viewing the exhibit, brainstorm the oppositions at play in Homer’s epic. The oppositions might be themes (e.g. home/exile or hero/villain) or they may describe different aspects of specific events (victory/defeat; strength/weakness; power/vulnerability). Collect more as you explore Bearden’s visual representations. Take note, too, of howthese oppositions are portrayed in his artwork.


Odysseus manages to outwit many opponents over the course of his quest. What makes him the ultimate survivor? Which stories does Odysseus weave to assist in his various ruses and, ultimately, his survival? Find examples of his cleverness and cunning behavior. How does Bearden portray these strategies?

Extremes  (This post talks more about the Extremes & Limits cognitive tool.)

The Odysseyand A Black Odysseycontain multiple examples of extremes of experience and of weird, wild and wonderful things. What are some “mosts” in the epic? Before viewing the exhibit’s images, create a list of possible superlatives. For example, note the most serene moment, the most peaceful take-over, the goriest battle, the most hopeful encounter, the most ferocious creature encountered, etc. Consider, too, extremes in visual representation. For example, find Bearden’s most incongruous image, the most dramatic use of color, the most harmonious group of shapes, etc.


In The Odyssey and A Black Odyssey, Odysseus meets several monstrous creatures. Identify these creatures and take note of the features that make them fearful. What makes each scary? In what ways do the monsters in this epic exist in between the human and the non-human? Explore how Homer describes these monstrous creatures and how Bearden depicts them visually.

Mentors (This post talks more about the Heroic qualities cognitive tool).

Who are Odysseus’ mentors or guides in his quest? Who both guides and protects him? Identify those who help Odysseus in his journey and describe their qualities. What patterns or similarities do you notice? How does Bearden portray the mentors?

Differing Interpretations (Learn more about Revolt & Idealism and Identifying Anomalies as cognitive tools.)

Bearden’s A Black Odysseydiffers in significant ways from The Odysseyby Homer. Identify these moments of differing interpretation and how Bearden reveals his interpretation visually. Also collect examples of where your understanding of the epic does not correspond with Bearden’s interpretation. Try to identify the source of the difference or incongruity. To what human hope, fear, or passion might the difference be attributed? You might also consider other interpretations of this epic tale—what other examples of this famous narrative exist and how do they compare?

Depictions of Home

Whereas a “house” refers to the physical structure in which one lives, a “home” has emotional significance for us—a home involves belonging and evokes a sense of comfort and security. One moves into a house that, with time, experience, and relationships can become home. Using both Homer’s text and Bearden’s representations, collect examples of textual references to or visual representations of home. Identify emotional dimensions tied up with the depictions of home. Which most resonate with you?

Morals of the Stories

Look for the meaning or lesson of different episodes and identify the features of Bearden’s art that support your interpretation. Identify features of the images that may be unclear to you or that could, possibly, be interpreted in different ways. Despite the questionable features of the work, what makes you think Bearden intended to convey the meaning you find in the image?


Several collages in the collection show that Bearden did not simply illustrate Homer’s The Odyssey. He remixed and improvised on Homer’s work in both obvious and subtle ways. Identify several examples. How would you evaluate Bearden’s individual remixes of parts of the story? How do Bearden’s changes add meaning to Homer’s epic? Which changes do you like best? Overall, how do Bearden’s changes affect the meaning of the epic as a whole? Imagine you have been hired to re-mix A Black Odyssey. What changes would you make to the series and why?

Love and Heartbreak

Consider how Bearden’s art evokes the powerful human emotion of love. In what ways does Bearden represent love visually in these collages? Now identify two episodes in which hearts are broken—where love is rejected or where people are emotionally hurt. Identify the character you think has the most painful heartbreak of all and why. Identify how Bearden evokes lost love; find visual cues for the heartbreak.


Concluding Thoughts 

And there’s a quick glimpse into a rich curriculum that taps into the unique features of learners’ imaginative lives. I want to thank and acknowledge Marquette Folley from the Smithsonian for her support in the original design process for this curriculum and her permission to share it with the CIRCE community. I hope it sparks rich conversation! 

Please send me your comments, thoughts, and insights below. I would love some examples of how you use cognitive tools to enhance learning in museums and other cultural environments. We have a specific community led by Dr. Leslie Bedford that looks at imaginative learning in Museums and Cultural Context here. Get in touch to find out how you can get involved in our activities.

To learn more about all of CIRCE’s initiatives visit our website. We are CIRCE–not the mythical Circe you read about here, but definitely infused with the same imagination. We love the connection!


Curriculum Guide Table of Contents (Full)

Part I: Collage: Experiencing Bearden’s Art

  1. In the Artist’s Workshop
  2. Examining the Art: Collage as Medium
  3. Evoking Mental Images from Words
  4. Discovering Bearden’s Story
  5. Collage: Extensions Linked to Specific Episodes

Fall of Troy/Gore and Glory

Odysseus Leaves Nausicaa/A Makeover

Battle with the Ciconesand Land of the Lotus Eaters/Color of War

Land of the Lotus Eaters/Dream vs. Nightmare

Poseidon, the Sea God/Masks and Collage

Part II: The Hero’s Journey: Notions of Heroism and Home

  1. Defining Hero
  2. Heroines
  3. Feelings of Home
  4. Redefining Home in the Digital Age
  5. Whose Home Is It, Anyway?
  6. The Hero’s Journey: Extensions Linked to Specific Episodes

Battle of Cicones/What’s the Moral of the Story?

Circe’s Domain, Circe Turns a Companion of Odysseus into a Swine, Odysseus Leaves Circe, Realm of the Shades/ Front Page News

– Odysseus Meets His Father/Place-Making

– The Return of Odysseus,Odysseus and Penelope Reunited/Foreshadowing

Part III: Improvisation: Investigating the Story Form and Issues of Visual Interpretation

  1. From Homer to Jay-Z: Rhapsode to Rapper
  2. The Soundtrack
  3. Recreating Episodes: Act It Out
  4. Oscar Winner
  5. Illustration vs. Improvisation
  6. Improvisation: Extensions Linked t Specific Episodes

Poseidon, The Sea God—Enemy of Odysseus/Music of the Archenemies

Sirens’ Song/As Sweet as Honey

The Fall of Troy/The Paradox of War

TheSea Nymph/Sweet-Stepping Ino

Home to Ithaca/Telling Stories

Scylla and Charybdis/What Makes a Monster

Circe’s Domain, Circe Turns a Companion of Odysseus into a Swine, Odysseus Leaves Circe, Realm of the Shades/Representing Circe

The Cyclops/Assigning Blame

Odysseus Leaves Circe/Speak-Sing

Calypso’s Sacred Grove/A Bird’s Eye View

Part IV: Cumulative Activities

1. Curator for a Day

2. Questions & Answers: Interview

3. Make a Difference

4. Your Personal Epilogue

Common Core State Standards: A Black Odyssey IE Curriculum

Anchor Standards for College and Career Readiness in English Language Arts


Key Ideas and Details

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.8Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.



Text Types and Purposes

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.1Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.2Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Production and Distribution of Writing

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.4Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.5Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.9Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.10Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.


Speaking and Listening

Comprehension and Collaboration

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.5Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.6Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.



Knowledge of Language

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.4Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *