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Incorporating an Educational Model into the Delivery of Museum Information

Sherwood A. DOWLING <>
National Museum of American Art


As an information provider, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art (NMAA) has used the "virtual museum" as a model for development of online information presentation. The online version of the museum, therefore, reflects the physical counterpart -- exhibitions with a distinct point of view, attention to design, and user-friendly presentation. This paper introduces the museum's New Media Learning Environments project, NMAA's ongoing collaboration with K-12 educators, and the changes in museum presentation of online information that have been influenced by this interaction.


Introducing the National Museum of American Art

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art (NMAA) is as committed to sharing its resources with people who may never visit Washington, D.C. as it is to enhancing the experience of those who do visit. Consequently, the museum has long been recognized as a leader in the use of information technology in the pursuit of its mission. NMAA has developed extensive research resources for the study of American Art. The Inventory of American Paintings Executed Before 1914, begun in the early 1970s, so far has collected data on nearly 260,000 paintings created by artists born or active in the United States prior to 1914. The Inventory of American Sculpture began collecting data in 1985 and so far includes over fifty thousand indoor and outdoor works created by artists born or active in the United States up through the twentieth century. These databases are part of the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Connect to SIRIS via telnet at Access is direct; no log-in or password is necessary.

With the growth of the Internet, the museum expanded availability of online information beyond the research community. NMAA established an early virtual presence on the commercial network, America Online, with collection information and images, publications text, program information, and a variety of interactive aspects including a bulletin board for art-related topics, an online service for reference queries, a monthly art quiz, and online chats. In December of 1994, the museum opened its own gopher site with access to over 500 digital images from the collection.

The museum's research resources, available via SIRIS, are continuously improved and maintained; however, with limited resources available for other online resources and the emerging dominance of the World Wide Web, development of NMAA's presence as a virtual museum has been almost exclusively directed to the museum's Web site.

The virtual museum and virtual exhibitions

While NMAA continues to maintain and provide access to its research data, the focus of an increasing amount of energy and attention has been the museum's virtual presence on the World Wide Web. In this context, NMAA's underlying model has been that of a "virtual museum." As such, the WWW version of the museum reflected the corporal version -- exhibitions with a distinct point of view, attention to design, and user-friendly presentation.

The museum's original home page was based on the metaphor of a visit to the museum where a tourist would have access to exhibitions, a scholar would be able to electronically visit the curatorial office, teachers could visit the education office, etc. via the ismap that served as the museum's electronic front door. Access to a variety of administrative information was based on the information model of gopher and ftp and reflected ignorance on the potential nature of the Web. Despite the naive assumption that Web site visitors would want access to voluminous administrative information, the National Museum of American Art's Web site was named to PC Magazine's top 100 Web sites in 1996.

Without question, the reason for NMAA's selection for this award was the museum's first virtual exhibition, The White House Collection of American Crafts. While being somewhat naive about the evolving nature of the World Wide Web, as might be expected of a Smithsonian museum, NMAA was on top of the medium in relation to exhibitions.

In addition to attractive, visitor-friendly access to exhibition objects, the Web site provided audio and video files sufficient to reflect public programs that gallery visitors might attend in conjunction with the real exhibition. The Web also provided an opportunity to provide contextual information that a gallery visitor could not expect, such as views of craft objects in the White House locations for which they were made (Bird Jar by David W. Levi pictured here) and virtual visits to an artist's studio to witness the artist at work.

The virtual tour of The White House Collection of American Crafts remains a model for NMAA and will, no doubt, remain accessible via the Web long after the real exhibition is dismantled and put in storage.

Subsequently, the museum has learned a lot about Web surfers and the nature of information many electronic visitors expect to see when they visit an online museum. While retaining basic information access inherent to the site though the top ismap, our revised home page featured screen links to many more virtual exhibitions, the "eye candy" many Web site visitors expect to find. In this vein, to satisfy electronic visitors looking for high-end applications, the site also remained current with advances in technology such as QuickTime VR.

NMAA's current home page refines the concept further, adopting the look and feel of a publication and removing access to much of the basic program information more typical of gopher and ftp sites. These changes were made after analysis of user surveys, focus group reports, and observation of basic World Wide Web use.

While the majority of World Wide Web users prefer a graphical interface and immediate access to media-rich pages, a specific subset of the user community -- educators and their students -- wants more than superficial access to images and multimedia. NMAA's redesigned Web site also considered their special needs and adopted several design changes to facilitate the information needs of the educational community.

New Media Learning Environments

As part of NMAA's larger new media agenda, the National Museum of American Art has established the New Media Learning Environments project (NMLE), an ongoing collaboration with K-12 educators designed to add educational value to basic electronic access to museum resources. Museums are ideally suited to take advantage of opportunities presented by emerging technology. Museums have a long history of using interactive programs and multimedia and have rich collections useful for application development.

Educational theory and practice are moving away from memorization of information, recitation, and derivation of "correct answers." The new model, often called constructivist education, centers on conceptual understanding demonstrated through application, typically on projects using primary source materials. In the constructivist model of education, learning is structured around primary concepts, students are viewed as thinkers with emerging theories, and lessons are built on issues relevant to the student. In a constructivist classroom, teachers behave in an interactive manner, mediating the environment for students: a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage. Student questions and opinions are highly valued and assessment of learning occurs through teacher observations of students at work and through student exhibitions and portfolios. As the stewards of cultural and scientific artifacts, museums have the primary source materials suitable for student examination and activities. Like most museums, NMAA has a long history of working with students in the examination of collection objects and in the creation of interpretive materials.

The constructivist educational paradigm incorporates many of the cognitive principles embraced by computer science. Together, emerging technology and educational theory support a new model of educational telecomputing. The National Museum of American Art's New Media Learning Environments program is designed to integrate constructivist educational theory and technology by supporting the remote use of museum resources by K-12 students and educators through teacher-developed, activity-based curricular units.

Current NMLE applications include ¡del Corazón!, an interactive webzine created in cooperation with the Texas Education Network and The Community Discovered: The search for meaning through the integration of art and technology, a U.S. Department of Education Technology Innovation Challenge Grant project. These projects embrace the constructivist model of education and anticipate the use of the museum's online assets as resources in activity-based curricula.

Like NMAA's Web site, NMLE projects were initially shaped by the museum model of information management. Interaction with K-12 educators has influenced the museum's perception of the online audience, their needs, and their capabilities. While user surveys and focus groups were indicating a demand for quick access to Web pages rich in visuals and multimedia, the K-12 community wanted tools that would assist them in using the museum's resources for their own purposes. Their influence resulted in significant changes in the museum's newly redesigned Web site, particularly in the information search and delivery strategy presented on the Web site.

The museum's Web search strategy

The organizing principles of exhibitions are often thematic, by period, style, or artist. The museum's initial Web search reflected the exhibition metaphor.

Web site users familiar with art history have been comfortable with a search strategy that relies on artist name, artwork title, medium, or theme. However, many teachers and most K-12 students found those choices to be of little assistance.

In addition, the initial Web search had access to a database that only included information on collection images already available online. As a partner in The Community Discovered project, NMAA is committed to providing access to digital images requested by participating educators. With a collection of over 37,000 objects, the museum intent has been to digitize and make available images of direct relevance to participating educators. To that end, the project established a Web-based request form to facilitate participant requests. The form was seldom used. The project also maintains a listserv for educators to discuss their progress in integrating art available via remote access into their curricula. Conversation often revolved around an inquiry about the availability of images suitable for a particular subject. Participating museums responded to listserv conversation, suggesting appropriate images known to them; however, this dynamic was in no way scalable to a larger user population and, more importantly, it did not reflect the underlying constructivist pedagogical model.

As part of NMAA's Web site redesign process, information concerning user needs was gathered from a variety of sources. With the assistance of the Office of Internet Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, school districts participating in The Community Discovered held focus group meetings to review NMAA's Web site. A nearly unanimous finding of the focus group was the need for access to information via search terms inherent to curricular needs. For example, a history teacher might want to search the image database using the keywords "civil war." The museum's original image base included The First Gun at Fort Sumpter (Major Robert Anderson) by Alban Jasper Conant; however, unless the user knew of the image's existence, a title search using any number of words in the title would not return positive results. Nor would a Web search inform the requestor of other Civil-War-related images in the museum's collection suitable for digitization.

In response to focus group reports, NMAA's recent Web site redesign incorporated a new search engine that provides access to a database that includes information on all objects in the museum's collection.

Users interested in immediate access to online images can structure the search to return only information on objects with images available online. However, participating educators planning curricula can now search the entire collection database and request digitization of images appropriate to their future needs. Now, a keyword search on "civil war" will return only three images, but will provide information on sixty-eight artworks in NMAA's collection. Minimal information can be returned in sets of ten, and more complete information can be returned one record at a time with back and forward buttons. The new search has also incorporated the keyword feature requested by the focus groups. A key feature of search results is a return of all keywords associated with the image, permitting the user to structure subsequent searches. For example, an educator desiring images associated with The Great Depression could search on the keyword "depression," which would return information on nine artworks, three with images. Assume one image, Artists on WPA by Moses Soyer, seems particularly appropriate. Subsequent searches using the keyword WPA returns information on seven additional objects, and an artist search on Moses Soyer returns six additional artworks. The educator's depression-related subset now totals twenty-two. A comparison of keywords for these images reveals a keyword pattern: "occupation -- industry." One more search using the keyword "industry" returns information on over six hundred objects including information and images of twenty-seven post office mural studies commissioned as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal program. This search is in no way sophisticated from a computer science perspective; however, it is consistent with the user's constructivist pedagogical model.

Web site as classroom

The constructivist educational model has also been incorporated into the educational portion of NMAA's redesigned Web site. NMAA's principal attempt in adopting the activity-based paradigm is ¡del Corazón!, the museum's webzine featuring Latino artists and Latino art in the museum's collection.

¡del Corazón! provides many audio and video files of artists, the primary sources needed by the user's learning model. Rather than presenting art enrichment, ¡del Corazón! also features curricular activities developed by participating educators. Finally, in keeping with the constructivist, activity-based model, ¡del Corazón! provides Web forms for site visitors to add their knowledge and, in doing so, further build the site.

Further adoption of the constructivist model throughout the museum-educator partnership has facilitated the transformation of superficial art and technology integration into more meaningful collaborations. For example, teacher workshops rely more on hands-on activities than lecture. Similarly, special interest groups have been organized around thematic areas of the museum's collection to facilitate collaboration, and a concerted effort has been made to use e-mail, listserv, and the Web as learning tools rather than just information sources.

While the museum's adoption of the K-12 user perspective into presentation of information is by no means pervasive throughout the NMAA Web site, attention to this subset of information users has influenced other areas. Currently, NMAA is developing activity-based Web pages for the museum's newest virtual exhibition, Posters American Style. If successful, further adoption of the user's core approach to information can be expected.


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