PORTLAND — Chris Sullivan, exhibits director at the Maine Children’s Museum and Theatre, said he had never seen so many letters requesting a new exhibit until he started receiving letters from students at South Portland’s Waldo T. Skillin Elementary School about a habitat for live penguins at the museum.

“We view ourselves as an organization serving the community,” Sullivan said. “To have the students express themselves was unusual and inspirational.”

Even though the museum couldn’t satisfy the students’ requests – “there were husbandry issues,” Sullivan said – their pleas did not go all for naught.

The student’s letters and drawings are now exhibited at the museum, with photos of real penguins taken by Sullivan’s uncle, Brian Sullivan.

On Monday, the letter writers and their classmates got the first glimpse at the exhibit called “Penguins in Portland.” The public can see the display through Nov. 12.

Few details were untouched by the students who asked for live penguins. Aiden Lee suggested museum staff could hatch penguin eggs if needed. Lilli Sanville said museum staff would “need rocks – big rocks” for a penguin habitat. Liam Curran said the exhibit would save people money because they would not have to visit the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Skillin Principal Lucretia Bagley, who dressed as a hippopotamus and danced on the school roof in June 2011 after students exceeded reading goals, arrived at the museum Monday with a smile – but no costume. She continued to beam as she talked about student reaction to Sullivan’s work.

“They were all thrilled, and the parents are thrilled to be chaperons,” Bagley said.

Brian Sullivan’s photos are part of his work documenting the 20 known species of penguins, including four species mentioned by students for inclusion in the exhibit.

The student campaign was part of an annual study unit taught by Diana Violette and former student teacher Amber Lane, who said she wanted to help students find local ties for their studies.

Lane has moved on after graduating from the University of New England last spring, but returned to the museum to greet her former students and see how the exhibit turned out.

She and Sullivan said the work showed students were learning critical thinking, based on their suggestions for how to create a penguin habitat and which species might be best suited to live in it.

After Liam Curran showed his mother, Alison Curran, his letter and drawing, she said her son was excited to visit the museum. The lack of live penguins did not seem to disappoint him.

“It’s cool,” he said about seeing his art on the wall.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Lilli Sanville, a third-grader at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland, finds her picture and thoughts about how to care for live penguins at the Maine Children’s Museum and Theatre in Portland. Museum staff could not provide penguins, but they assembled an exhibit based on student letters and drawings that will be on display through Nov. 12.

Skillin Elementary School third-grader Laim Curran said keeping penguins at the Maine Children’s Museum and Theatre would allow area residents to save money on trips to Boston.

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