Welcome to the Digging Digital Museum Collections blog series! The Alexandria Archive Institute and Open Context advocate for data sharing, data literacy, open access, and community collaborations. In this series, we explore user experiences with online museum collections and question what we can do to use museum collections data in more accessible, inclusive, and efficient ways.
We will highlight how different museums are sharing their digital collections, interview users of digital content, share “how tos” about using online collections, and try our hand at integrating content from different institutions.
Part 2: M is for Museums: Teaching with Online Museum Collections
by Pınar DURGUN
For many of us, ’tis the season of making and updating course syllabi and lesson plans. It is no secret that most of the teaching and learning will be happening virtually for at least the rest of the school/academic year.
Instructors and teachers now had to teach online or hybrid for about a year. Many of us taught online for the first time and learned many valuable lessons ourselves: How can we make our online teaching better? How can we overcome the limitations of online teaching? Why are outdated course policies exclusionary?
Online teaching is not just transferring a classroom lecture to a Zoom video. It takes a lot of time and energy: Firstly, because the interactive and social aspects of in-class instruction are mostly taken out from the equation, requiring well-designed online activities. Secondly, because educators and students can be teaching/learning online under very challenging circumstances. Especially this year, due to a pandemic, social unrest, an election, heightened financial limitations, lack of necessary technology and resources, and no separation between life and work, things were tough. Currently, everyone is physically and emotionally exhausted. On top of that, students and educators are zoom-fatigued. This makes it even more necessary to reduce the lecture time on Zoom and enable students to learn on their own time.
I have never heard a student complain about a museum visit or field trips in their course evaluations. Why not substitute those with online museum resources?
Virtual museum tours are getting better and more high resolution by the day and enable teachers, students, and anyone interested to “visit” museums that are closed, far away, not accessible, or too expensive to visit. You can find links to virtual museum tours in this list, started by Dr. Rebecca Mendelsohn, curator of the Longyear Museum of Anthropology, and more examples in this resource.
Google’s Year in Search trends suggests that “virtual museum tours” was among its most popular search terms this year. A closer look, on the other hand, shows that after an initial peak, such tours were often used for virtual learning (search term: “virtual field trips for kids”). But virtual museum tours are only one of the ways to experience museums online.
Kids, schools, and history/archaeology/anthropology/museum studies/art history/social studies courses may be the obvious users of museums. However, activities that use online museum collections and resources can be integrated into many more courses, from creative writing to biology. Leah Burgin, Manager of Museum Programs and Education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, informs me that “Native American Literature,” “Fathery Things: An Avian Introduction to Animal Studies,” “Mapping Portuguese-Speaking Cultures: Portugal and Africa” were only some of the courses that visited the museum’s CultureLab in the past to interact with and learn about objects in the collection. Even medical students can benefit from looking at museum objects and artworks.
Why should you include online museum collections in your teaching? Online museum resources enable educators to talk about current events and difficult topics through historical facts, material culture, and art. They often provide the necessary contextual information that educators need in teaching. Dr. Leigh Anne Lieberman, lecturer in Art History at Pomona College (also our Director of Strategic Partnerships here at the Alexandria Archive Institute!), reminds us that contingent faculty may not always have the time to research museum objects to use them in their teaching activities. This is one of the important reasons why online museum collections need to provide supplemental information and resources in connection to their objects and artworks.
In addition to reducing lecture time, making learning more engaging and fun, and providing context, using online museum resources can:
- Increase data literacy: Searching for an object in a database provides students with research and critical thinking skills such as using and processing data, turning data into useful information, and fact-checking.
- Provide students with close-looking, analytical thinking and writing, and civic agency and engagement skills, and enable them to make connections between people, cultures, places, objects, materials, periods, and events.
- Empower students to ask difficult questions, questions that museums/institutions may not ask, and be self-reflective and aware of different perspectives and biases: Where does the information come from? Who creates knowledge? Whose view is represented? Whose is missing?
- Inspire students to be creative and encourage them to be independent life-long learners: How to use online museum databases and find reliable information, whether for a research project or creating an artwork, is a skill that students can take with them after graduation.
- Help instructors challenge traditional canons and center marginalized topics, underrepresented artists, objects, and stories.
Inês Torres, an Egyptology graduate student at Harvard University, says she uses online museum collections regularly in her teaching:
Online museum collections have always provided me with photographs and information about objects that I have used in my classes to discuss different aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. In my language classes specifically, I always encourage my students to read from the original object, whenever possible. I usually bring my language students to the MFA Boston, where we read texts from the objects in front of us, but this year our trip had to be cancelled. Instead, I used the MFA’s online collections to bring the museum to my students.
Based on many similar first-hand teaching experiences and inspired by the exciting conversations happening at the “Museums and Object-based Learning in the Era of COVID-19” session at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), we curated some learning activities that use online museum collections and resources. We hope that these activities inspire you to include online museum collections in your teaching.
Happy new semester! 💻📓📚🏛
Do you have other exciting learning activities that use online museum collections or resources? Do you want to share them with other educators? Contact us at email@example.com
Make sure to visit our Resources page for more pedagogical materials.