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Smithsonian Brings People Together During COVID-19



SMITHSONIAN CASTLE AND GARDENS – The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. comprised of 19 museums and the National Zoo plus other research centers located throughout the U.S. and beyond, has gone virtual with online learning and exhibits for students and teachers during the pandemic. Courtesy Photo by the Smithsonian Institute


BY LAURIE HANSON • December 30, 2020

Unity and enlightenment in challenging times is brought to the nation and world through online education with the Smithsonian Institution.

“The Smithsonian has the power to bring people together,” said Ashely Naranjo, who serves as museum educator at the Smithsonian’s Office of the Under Secretary for Education in Washington, D.C., and has been with them since 2011.

“We provide the resources people need to have challenging conversations and to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going in order to better understand the world we live in,” she explained. “We do this in our museums, through our educational resources and public programs and online.”

The Smithsonian Institution was formally founded in 1864 after British scientist, James Smithson, left his estate to the United States for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” according to their website. The Smithsonian celebrates its 175th anniversary next year in August.

Made up of 19 museums and the National Zoo, plus libraries, research centers, cultural centers and education centers, content in the Smithsonian Museums spans art and design, history and culture, and science and research. Though many of its museums and centers are in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian also has two museums in the city of New York plus has research centers which spread across the country in Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, and Alaska, with one located in Panama.

“Growing up as a local Washingtonian, I had the benefit of visiting many of the Smithsonian museums from a young age,” Naranjo said. “As a career educator having worked in a variety of school settings, I’ve always believed in the transformative power of museum experiences.”

There is nothing quite like looking at a postcard handwritten a century ago and imagining the writer’s thoughts, feelings and worries, or seeing an 8 ft. mural for the first time in person and noticing all the details, symbolism and stories that it tells,” she explained.

Since March around the beginning of the pandemic, the Smithsonian made a shift to increase their digital offerings across the board. They offered virtual exhibitions and public programs, prioritized providing virtual and distance-learning resources, according to Naranjo.

“Within the Smithsonian’s museum collections are lessons from the past that can help inform learners’ understanding of the world and their role within it,” she explained. “Additionally, with ongoing research on contemporary topics of global relevance, the Smithsonian offers powerful tools to help educators inspire, engage, and empower audiences to make better decisions for the future.”

As one of more than 300 museum educators at the Smithsonian, Naranjo and her colleagues hope to instill transferrable skills in critical thinking, with approaches in interrogating everyday objects and what they might reveal about life today.

“[We] hope to bring opportunities for contemplation and reflection on history and its connection to contemporary issues, with deep dives into artworks and their universal messages, and a better understanding of scientific phenomena through hands-on learning,” she said. “Now, while our museums have been closed most of the year due to the pandemic, we are doing this virtually more than ever before.”

This spring, the Smithsonian coordinated with local schools to identify, align, and create teaching and learning resources across subject areas and grade levels, ranging from lesson plans, to online interactives and hands-on, at-home activities and experiments, according to Naranjo.

It was just this summer that museum educators from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access led an online course for teachers.

“[It] instructed them on teaching with museum objects and works of art, modelling how to use digital tools to engaged students in deeper thinking,’ she said. “The sessions are also available for free in a self-paced course as well.”

Naranjo went on to say that there were also a series of “choice boards” created online by the museum with a blend of hands-on and high-tech activities across art, culture, history, and science that supported caregivers looking for engagement opportunities for their students.

“Our distance learning calendar highlights the vast opportunities to connect with a Smithsonian educator ranging from story time and hands-on craft tutorials with household supplies, interviews with scientists, and conversations about contemporary issues,” she said. Information on this can be found online at www.learninglab.si.edu/distancelearning.

“Examples range from developing an understanding of the pandemic and its effects on communities, to addressing and discussing topics of xenophobia and systemic racism, to supporting educators in using digital tools to support student engagement and deeper learning across subject areas,” Naranjo said. (Next page.)

“The National Museum of African American History and Culture launched an online toolkit for starting the process of “Talking about Race,” highlighting topics such as bias, anti-racism and community building, based on their extensive in-person programming that had taken place even prior to the museum’s opening in 2016,” she explained.

It was just this fall that the National Museum of American History hosted a National Youth Summit highlighting a 1955 case study of “Teen Resistance to Systemic Racism,” inviting conversations among teens, educators and historians to make connections into today. Also, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center hosted a series of teacher professional development sessions, alongside supplementary teaching resources called, “We are not a stereotype: Breaking down Asian Pacific American Bias” that explored and challenges the complexity surrounding the term, “Asian Pacific American,” Naranjo said.

“The Smithsonian is a special place because of the rich opportunities to look at a topic from many perspectives,” Naranjo said. “For example, in April, a group of educators and curators across the Smithsonian came together to explore masks as they quickly entered the global consciousness.”

“The team wanted to help students think about their [masks] uses over time and from a variety of lenses, such as protective health equipment, cultural beliefs, artistic styles, and design aesthetics,” she said. “The resulting [was] resource models [on] how to use an inquiry-based approach to examining objects and understand big ideas.” Information on this can be found online at www.learninglab.si.edu/news/a-survey-of-masks-at-the-smithsonian.

In keeping with our current times, the Smithsonian Science Education Center developed a curriculum guide, “COVID-19! How Can I Protect Myself and Others?” to help students understand the science of the coronavirus, and to consider actions they can take to keep themselves and their communities safe. The National Museum of Natural History also expanded its exhibition, “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World” and invited experts in the scientific community to contextualize the pandemic in an online conversation series, according to Naranjo.

Since the pandemic, the Smithsonian recognized the great need for printed, hands-on materials and activities, partnering with USA TODAY to provide them to more than 165,000 families and students at Boys and Girls Clubs of America nationwide. With their help, a guide full of puzzles, games, and activities, called “Summer Road Trip” was printed and delivered.

For learners of all ages, the Smithsonian this fall collaborated to create a newspaper insert called “Yesterday, Today,” which connected ideas and innovations of the past with current events. A winter-themed, at-home activity guide for families will be released in January 2021, said Naranjo.

Also offered to students and teachers alike is a free digital platform called the Smithsonian Learning Lab. It uniquely allows them to discover digitized resources from across the various museums and research centers including images of artifacts, artworks and specimens with video and audio recordings with Smithsonian experts, and texts to help contextualize content.

“On this platform, museum educators, teachers and students alike can curate their own digital collections and share them on the platform for a wide range of teaching and learning use,” Naranjo said. The Smithsonian Learning Lab can be found online at www. learninglab.si.edu.

Looking forward, the Smithsonian will reopen once safe for all as deemed by public health officials. Out of an abundance of caution, all their museums and the National Zoo remain temporarily closed though their outdoor gardens remain open with no passes required.

“We have not set a date for reopening our museums,” said Naranjo. “We are following the guidance of many parties including local, state, and federal governments, public health officials and the CDC, and will open our museums when it is safe for visitors, our staff and collections.”

Though the Smithsonian Institution is 62 percent federally funded, their remaining funds come from private contributions and revenue from their Smithsonian Enterprises operation which includes magazines, mail-order catalogs, product development, entertainment, shops, restaurants, and concessions, according to Naranjo.

“A lot of the work we do does depend on donations from the public,” she said.

Naranjo explained there are other ways to support the Smithsonian including creating collections on the Smithsonian Learning Lab to support teachers and caregivers in distance learning or to volunteer to transcribe documents for their transcription center. By helping to transcribe documents like old newspapers and letters that computers cannot read, volunteers help make information in Smithsonian collections searchable online and accessible to new audiences.

For more information about the Smithsonian Institution and their online learning, please visit www.si.edu.