Online Museum Exhibitions as Virtual Learning Resources

Like many educators, I’ve spent a good part of this summer writing online curriculum in case my district has to go to remote learning for all students at some point during the 2020-21 school year. While I am involved in creating an online library curriculum, I’ve spent most of my time writing curriculum for 9th-grade United States History. (My original teacher certification is in social studies.) It’s been more work than I anticipated, but it’s also been a great experience. Working side by side (figuratively as all of our meetings were via Zoom) with two social studies teachers, I’ve been able to embed library materials and skills into the units of study.

Moreover, I’ve discovered some fantastic new resources. As I wrote the three units I was primarily responsible for, I looked for rich, engaging online content. Very often I found it in online museum exhibitions. Housed on museum websites, these exhibitions can be accessed easily and free of charge by students who have Internet access and a device.

The online museum exhibitions I integrated into the history units I wrote are engaging, interactive, visually appealing, and full of meaningful yet concise information. Created by experts and designed for a general audience, the content is written at a level perfect for high school students. Moreover, these exhibitions add to the variety of lesson activities, mixing in well with readings, video clips, assignments, discussion board questions, and assessments.

Most of the online exhibitions I incorporated are from national museums in the United States. I’m sharing them here because I think they can be of use to other school librarians as they create online content or recommend resources to teachers for in-person and virtual instruction.

The National Museum of American History. Part of the Smithsonian Institute, the National Museum of American History has about one hundred online exhibitions available through its website. Obviously, these exhibitions are natural resources for social studies classes, but there are many that could be used in other content areas as well. For instance, “Bon Appetit! Julia Child’s Kitchen” and “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian” (focusing on dresses of the First Ladies, one of the most popular exhibitions at the museum) could easily be used in family and consumer science classes.

The National Museum of American History also has a blog called O Say Can You See?: Stories from the Museum. These blog posts can also be useful for online instruction. For example, I incorporated “Showing Support for the Great War with Knitting Needles” and “Over There: A Buffalo Soldier in World War I” in a list of suggested resources for a World War I research project. Short and to-the-point, these two blog posts contain interesting information students would not easily find elsewhere.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture. The newest of the Smithsonian’s museums, the exhibits of the National Museum of African History and Culture are a perfect fit for social studies classes and African American Studies classes. I used the exhibitions “We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I” in the history course I helped create. However, I noticed another online exhibition called “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field” that might be of interest to physical education teachers as well as social studies teachers. While there isn’t an interactive component to each exhibit listed, the webpages for each contain valuable information that can easily be integrated into an online course.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial. Located in Kansas City, Missouri, the National World War I Museum opened in 2006. Its website includes fourteen online exhibitions that appear to have been created in partnership with Google Arts and Culture. The two I included in the unit I created are “Trenches of World War I” and “The Poster: Visual Persuasion in World War I.”  However, all fourteen of the exhibitions are so amazing that I probably could have created the entire WWI unit around those alone.

The Digital Public Library of America. Though not a museum, the Digital Public Library of America offers thirty-two online exhibitions that tell “stories of national significance drawn from source materials in libraries, archives, and museums across the United States.” Topics range from “In Focus: The Evolution of the Personal Camera” to “The History of U.S. Public Libraries.” I included “America’s Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal” in the content writing I did.

Google Arts and Culture. Again, not a museum, but Google Arts and Culture collaborates with museums from all over the world to offer amazing online content to explore. It’s a little overwhelming because there’s so much to choose from, but there’s something for everyone here. In looking for exhibitions for the Great Depression unit of my U.S. History class, I found a fascinating exhibition created in conjunction with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum called “Around the World with the Roosevelts.”  While I didn’t end up incorporating it into the unit, I will definitely share it with my social studies teachers. There’s so much interesting content in Google Arts and Culture that I found myself exploring topics completely unrelated to my research. For instance, I spent quite a bit of time looking at “The Journey of Harry Potter” and thinking it would be great for our creative writing class. Like I said, something for everyone.

I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface of the rich educational resources available through museum websites, so I encourage you to explore the online content available from museums that specialize in topics of interest to you, either personally or professionally. Those can be the Smithsonian Museums, other national museums, museums in other countries, or museums located in your state or city.

I’d love to hear how other librarians are using online museum exhibitions with their students and teachers.


Author: Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan is a librarian at Rockwood Summit High School and also serves as the Lead Librarian for the Rockwood School District. A past president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, Margaret’s professional interests include advocacy, teacher collaboration, professional development, equity, and YA literature. You can connect with her on Twitter @mm_sullivan.

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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