A Virtual Tour of Washington's Smithsonian Institution

In 1826, James Smithson, a British scientist, bequeathed his entire estate to the U.S. for the sole purpose of establishing an institution in Washington, D.C dedicated to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." His only stipulation was that it use the Smithson family name.

Neither Smithson nor President James K. Polk, who in 1846 signed the Act of Congress creating the Smithsonian Institution, could have imagined how that original gift of $500,000 would mushroom. Today the Smithsonian is the world's largest museum complex, encompassing 16 museums, the National Zoo, a network of research libraries, publications, and a collection of awesome content-rich Web sites that should be on every teacher's list of favorites. Here is a Web tour to help teachers find the education-specific assets of this incredible resource.

Smithsonian Education
Start here! This site, produced by the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, is a content-rich portal featuring links to numerous online resources. From the home page, click on "Educators" to bring up links to "Art & Design," "History & Culture," "Science & Technology," and "Language Arts" Ã each a separate area featuring an assortment of topics for classroom use. For example, under "History & Culture" there are links to 11 topics suitable for grades 3-8, including "Stories of the Wright's Flight," "Lewis and Clark," and "What is Currency: Lessons from Historic Africa." Clicking on "Lewis and Clark" brings up a comprehensive overview of their accomplishments plus two very thorough lesson plans and a page of links to Lewis and Clark Web sites. There is also a powerful search capability that allows users to search for lesson plans, field trips, Web sites, or professional development by grade, subject, or keyword. A search for Web sites related to American Indian Art brought up 17 links including "Textiles of the North American Southwest," "Camping With the Sioux," and "Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth." Like the Smithsonian itself, Smithsonian Education is a seemingly endless trove of fascinating and useable information. Also, click on Publications to order ($5.) a copy of the 80-page Educator's Guide to Smithsonian Publications, which lists all of the books, catalogues, teaching kits, curriculum guides, audiovisual materials, and posters available for order.

National Air & Space Museum (NASM)
NASM is the world's most often visited museum. Click on "Education Services" on the homepage and then choose "Online Activities" to find science activities for classroom and home use. "Exploring Planet Earth from Space" features activities based on satellite imagery of earth; "CyberCenter: Exploring the Planets" allows students to Ôjoin' research teams planning explorations of Mars and other planets; "How Things Fly" offers a fun assortment of science-based activities to teach the physics of flight plus links to 35 other aviation sites; and "Black Wings" offers three lesson plans (5-12) to help students learn about pioneering African-American aviators as well as links to related sites. Be sure to select the "Albert Einstein Planetarium" and then "Teacher Guides" to access a treasure of teacher materials, such as the 45-page "African American Pioneers in Education" guide, available as free downloadable PDF files. And finally there's the "Educational Links" page with more than 50 links to aeronautics and space sites, including some excellent NASA sites.

National Museum of American History (NMAH)
Elementary teachers and students will appreciate the interactive learning segments in "Our Story in History" The concept is to explore history through objects. Click on "History Activities" under "Try it at Home" and access any of six activities, each linked to a book about that subject. For example, "Life in a Sod House" offers activities around the book Dakota Dugout by Ann Turner. There are downloadable PDF files that allow students to play historian by examining photographs of the settlers who settled on the prairie after Congress passed the Homestead Act. Another file enables them to explore what it might feel like to grow up in a house made of sod. Other subjects are "The Underground Railroad," "Pueblo Pots," "A Puerto Rican Carnival," "Japanese-American Internment Camps," and "Great Women of Our Pasts."

Older students will enjoy "History Wired: A Few of Our Favorite Things" which provides brief but fascinating glimpses of hundreds of items in NMAH's vast holdings, such as the 1913 "V" Nickel, a.k.a. The World's Most Expensive Five-Cent Coin (one sold for almost $1.5 million). Clicking on "Learn More About This Object" brings up a succinct description and links for more information. These pages are a gold mine for term paper and independent project ideas.

Another area that's ideal for discovery learning is "The Star-Spangled Banner," which provides fascinating information on the actual flag (being restored at NMAH) that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem which, set to the music of an old English tune, became our National Anthem in 1931. The site features a K-8 teachers' manual and a downloadable teaching guide prepared by The History Channel.

In addition, clicking on "Virtual Exhibitions" brings up links to 30+ virtual exhibits, some no longer on view at the actual museum. Some have elaborate teacher materials and others allow teachers to use own creativity. Examples include "Invention at Play" (about the playful nature of the creative mind); "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" (a fascinating look at past Presidents); and "A Visual Journey: Photographs by Lisa Law," 1964-1971 (a time of extreme social turmoil in this country).

National Zoological Park (National Zoo)
Clicking on any of the 15 color photographs on the Home page opens a new content-rich page, some featuring live web-cams of various zoo exhibits plus a range of activities. For example, clicking on the tiger brings up the "Great Cats" page that has a live TigerCam plus "Great Cats Exhibit," "Meet the Zoo's Cats," and "Cat Conservation & Science." Clicking on "Cats for Kids" brings up a page that offers fact sheets about the big cats or the chance to send a big cat E-card. There are 14 other choices offering links to "Giant Pandas," "Reptiles & Amphibians," "Invertebrates," etc. Of special interest are the links to "Backyard Biology" and "Think Tank," which investigates ape intelligence.

Teachers will want to check the Education page, which has 15 clickable links to topics such as Classroom Resources, Teacher Workshops, and Homework Helper. Clicking on "Classroom Resources" and then on "Curriculum Guides" brings up a page from which educators may order an assortment of free and inexpensive teaching guides for topics such as "Tropical Wetlands," "Rain Forests," "Urban Habitats," etc.

National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)
Biology, botany, social studies and geography are all included in the online exhibit "Lewis & Clark as Naturalists," which traces the work done by the two explorers sent by President Jefferson in 1804 to learn what was out there in this new country. Click on "Resources" to find links to downloadable PDF files of lessons or scroll further down to find useful links. That exhibit is one of many accessible from the "Online Exhibits" link on NMNH's home page, which features links to a fascinating assortment of online exhibits on topics ranging from Africa to The Vikings, most with excellent teacher materials. Another possibility: on the NMNH home page click on "Education Resources" and then on "Expedition to Galápagos" to access a site about the work of NMNH marine biologist Dr. Carole Baldwin and her team who produced the Imax¨ movie Galápagos. Scroll to the bottom of the "Expedition to Galápagos" home page and click on "Galápagos Education" (created by National Science Teachers' Association) to reach a wealth of teacher resources for teaching about evolution, ecology, etc.

National Postal Museum
Art teachers will definitely want to have their students view "Art of the Stamp," the online version of the museum exhibit that closes in February 2004. It offers close-up looks at the actual artwork used on a variety of commemorative stamps, including the vivid Robert Indiana "Love" stamp from 1975. Under "Activities" there's a downloadable template for students to design their own stamp. Teachers of social studies might prefer the online exhibit "Binding the Nation," which traces the growth of domestic mail delivery from Colonial times through the 19th Century and also includes activities that explain how to read that bar coded Zip Code.

To locate other education tools, hold your mouse over "For Educators" and then select "Curriculum Guides" to open a page offering downloadable and other materials, including "We Were There: Letters From the Battle Front" (Grades 7-12) and "Letters From Home, A Project for the Advanced ESL Classroom" (Grades 8 Ã adult). For younger students there's: "Pen Friends Across the Nation," a guide to creating an intergenerational letter-writing project for Grades 6-9; "Postal Pack" (Grades K-6) that teaches about postal history and encourages letter-writing; and a link to a site that helps teachers and students create elaborate mosaics using canceled postage stamps (Grades K-6).

National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
The oldest Americans will soon have the newest Smithsonian museum when NMAI's permanent Washington home opens in 2004. Meanwhile the Gustav Heye Center in New York City offers exhibits. Besides checking the online exhibits teachers will want to click on "Education and Programs" and then on "Information for Teachers." Scrolling down will reveal links to three downloadable PDF files. The first, "To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions" is a guide to accompany exhibit and offers four lesson plans plus background material. "Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth" will be useful this holiday season. The third file is a "Program Guide for Teachers" discussing on-site visits and other useful information.

Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)
There are two unique online resources at the SAAM site: TEACHART, a listserv for anyone interested in the many issues surrounding art education (click on "Education" at the left of the homepage), and "Ask Joan of Art"" which accepts e-mailed questions about American Art. Or click on SiteMap for links to five powerful traveling exhibits, including "African American Masters" and "The Land Through a Lens." Scroll down to "Education" and find links to: "Kids Corner: Early Childhood Activities" which features the charming "Bottlecaps to Brushes" online activities; to _del Corazon!, a Latino Webzine; to "Journey Through Art with William H. Johnson" (African-American artist); and online teacher resources such as "Pueblo Indian Watercolors." SAAM also lends slide packets, videos, and lesson plans at no charge (call 202.275.1582 and leave your name and address).

National Museum of African Art (NMAfA)
Although the actual NMAfA is physically smaller than some museums, its Web site offers a fascinating look at the collections. The "Education Programs" page links to the exhibit, "Mali Empire and Djenne Figures," and a creative educator will easily make use of the "Current Exhibitions" page with its links to other exhibits. These include "The Fabric of Moroccan Life" and "Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora," two current exhibits, as well as links to spectacular past exhibits such as "In the Presence of Spirits: African Art from the National Museum of Ethnology Lisbon" (2001) or "TransAtlantic Dialogue: Contemporary Art In and Out of Africa" (2000). Teachers of social studies will appreciate the site for offering another way to understand the peoples of this vast continent and teachers of art will appreciate the ability to view paintings, sculptures, and other items with just the click of a mouse.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
"Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting," said the late American painter Ad Reinhardt. At the Hirshhorn, online visitors can Ôbump into' sculpture yet do no damage and possibly learn a lot. Clicking on "Education" brings up the "Art Interactive" page with its summary of four types of sculpture (Figurative, Biomorphism, Found Object/Assemblage, and Geometric) and a whimsical interactive activity (requires Macromedia Flash) in which students and teachers may create original assemblages, colorize them, and see them displayed both in the Hirshhorn and in the sculpture garden. The "Teacher Resources" link under Education brings information on a series of Education Packets (may be borrowed, and two downloadable) with titles such as The Story of Modern Art, Animals in Art, or Celebrating 150 years of Sculpture.

Arts & Industries Building
This 19th Century structure is technically the first museum of the Smithsonian Institution (the headquarters "Castle" building next door was never intended as a museum). Before the exhibits were set up its first job was to host the 1881 Inaugural Ball for President Chester A. Arthur. Today the ornate building still hosts a changing assortment of exhibits as listed on its home page. Hint" anyone who must help students comprehend the mysteries of DNA should visit that home page, scroll down to the description of "Genome: The Secret of How Life Works" and click on the link to "Genome," an incredible site produced by Pfizer. On "Genome's" home page click on Educate to find a wealth of lessons for both elementary and secondary school and other teacher materials available as PDF, as Word documents, or as Web pages.

And Finally -

Websites A-Z
Because the Smithsonian offers such a vast assortment of knowledge, a brief description can't do it justice. Visit this alphabetical list of Smithsonian resources (also accessible as a link at the upper right of the Smithsonian home page) to browse the wealth of online information available. For example, clicking on the letter "B" and then clicking "Botany" brings up Botany a page created by NMNH's Department of Systematic Biology. It offers images, resources, bibliographies, and other tools useful for the serious student of botany. And that's only one link based on one letter of the alphabet. Like the actual Smithsonian, this online potpourri accommodates both dedicated scholars and casual browsers. And it's a wonderful way to learn more about our national treasure of a museum complex.

Any trip to Our Nation's Capital should include visits to as many of the Smithsonian museums as possible. But thanks to these Web sites, much content is available from a classroom or personal computer.

Email: Gwen Solomon