Virtual Exhibits, Genuine Learning

Museums' Web Sites Are Nearly as Fascinating as the Museums Themselves—and Much More Comprehensive

Since museums first began to serve the public in the late 1700s, one of their primary objectives has been education. From the arts to the sciences and from objects to ideas, museums have aimed not only to collect works of local or national significance, but to display them in a way that would be both memorable and informative. In recent decades, museums have expanded their educational missions by developing special tours and exhibits for school children—some have even partnered with teachers to write complementary lesson plans. And yet, despite these efforts, museums have almost always been relegated to the occasional field trip, rarely able to share their vast resources with schools in an ongoing way that would truly enhance the core curriculum.

Thanks to the Internet, that's changing. As of 2002, nearly all medium and large museums had Web sites, and their top priority for those sites was to increase access to their collections. This means that educators now have unprecedented opportunities to bring digital works of art, historical documents, and demonstrations of scientific principles into the classroom.

American Educator searched about 30 major museums' Web sites to create for our print edition a small sample of the vast array of collections, exhibits, and lesson plans available online. We found too many great resources to call our selections the best—we just hope they will entice you to start your own search. The print edition contains brief excerpts (which are described below) from three online exhibits. This online edition allows you to go directly to the museums' Web sites by clicking on the links provided below.

• "Beginnings," from the online exhibit "Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time" by the National Portrait Gallery. "Beginnings" explores Hemingway's childhood and young adulthood, with an emphasis on the experiences and people that would later appear in his short stories and novels. The full exhibit reveals the highs and lows of Hemingway's life, ending with his suicide in 1961. "Picturing Hemingway" is just one of more than 20 online versions of past exhibits available at

• Four selections from the online exhibit "Petra: Lost City of Stone" by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). This exhibit weaves together the history of Petra, a 2,000-year-old city in Jordan, and the techniques used by archaeologists to uncover that history. The slices of the exhibit shown here offer a brief introduction to Petra, a glimpse of daily life, an account of a devastating earthquake, and a summary of the site's ongoing archaeological work. When you go to the Web site, don't miss the "Interactives" section where you can see the site up close by clicking on panoramic photos. AMNH has nearly 1,000 online resources for educators, children, and families; they are organized by topic—anthropology, astronomy, biology, earth science, and paleontology—and can be broken out by grade level, title, and type of resource, as well. The main page for diving in is

• Discussions of The Lackawanna Valley and the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment from the online lesson "19th-Century American Art & Literature" by the National Gallery of Art's classroom division. In all, this online lesson features seven works of art that will enhance students' understanding of America in the 1800s; each illustrates a major theme of the time period, including the agrarian society giving way to the industrial revolution and urbanization, westward expansion and its impact on Native Americans, and the role of African-American soldiers in the Civil War. The NGA's Classroom site ( contains dozens of lessons that teachers can use to integrate art into almost all academic subjects.

Because online exhibits are usually designed for a general audience, most of them are appropriate for high school students (or advanced 7th- or 8th-grade students). But these exhibits are also a great resource for elementary and middle school teachers. A 3rd-grade teacher doing a unit on ancient peoples, for example, could use the images and content from the Petra exhibit without expecting the students to read the text or navigate the Web site by themselves. Some museums have created sites specifically for children; two such sites—OLogy by the American Museum of Natural History and a Cow's Eye Dissection by the Exploratorium—are described below.

More Great Museum Web Sites

The Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age

How did a couple of bicycle mechanics, Wilbur and Orville Wright, figure out how to fly? What impact did their research have on the 20th century? This comprehensive, photo-filled exhibit by the National Air and Space Museum weaves together the family history, regional history, and science that allowed the Wright brothers to invent the first successful airplane.

A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution

"Two centuries ago, the framers of the Constitution wrestled with the fundamental problem of government: how to balance the rights of individual citizens and minority groups against the need for order and defense of the society itself." So begins this fascinating exhibit by the National Museum of American History, which presents the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a case study on one of the fundamental struggles of the U.S. Constitution.

Edison Invents: All about Thomas Edison and His Inventions

This straightforward, yet very informative exhibit by the National Museum of American History tells the stories behind Edison's inventions—including his love of midnight sing-alongs by the pipe organ in the back of his Menlo Park Laboratory. It also includes easy-to-follow instructions for students to make their own light bulbs.

Lewis and Clark: Mapping the West

Though this exhibit by the National Museum of Natural History begins with the historical context of Lewis and Clark's exploration of the northwest, its strength is in its focus on cartography. After an introduction to some basic concepts such as latitude and longitude, students learn about the various techniques Lewis and Clark used to make their maps 200 years ago— including everything from celestial observations to copying the maps of the Indian tribes they encountered along the way.

Microscope Imaging Station and Cow's Eye Dissection

Don't have the budget for a research-grade microscope or the stomach for dissecting a cow's eye? These two sites by the Exploratorium bring you the next best thing. The Microscope Imaging Station is a great resource for high school biology teachers; the "Gallery" section has dozens of photos, videos, and video stills of stem cells growing and dividing, white blood cells reacting to a bacterial infection, crawling amoeba, and much more. The Cow's Eye Dissection delivers just what it says through photos, videos, and middle-school-friendly text and drawings while also explaining the structure of the eye and how vision works.


OLogy is a set of online exhibits and activities created for elementary and middle school children by the American Museum of Natural History. Mixing the big concepts of the sciences with specific examples, it introduces kids to archaeology, astronomy, biodiversity, planet earth, paleontology, Einstein, genetics, and marine biology.

Timeline of Art History

Unlike the other sites discussed here, the timeline is not an exhibit or lesson. It is the Metropolitan Museum of Art's brilliant way of presenting its enormous collection online. The timeline extends from 20,000 b.c. to today and reaches around the world, but it is still easy to navigate—just click on a time period and then a region. With contributions by the Met's curatorial, conservation, and educational staff, the timeline presents works of art in their historical context.


American Educator, Spring 2006