Virtual Field Trips

Book Links: August/September 2001 (v.11, no.1)

by Gillian Engberg

Imagine taking your students to Africa to view an eclipse. Or joining scientists in the field on a dinosaur dig. Or traveling to the studios where great artists worked. And imagine doing all of this without leaving the classroom. New museum Web sites are making this, and more, possible. When tight budgets or a dearth of local opportunities limit field trip options, more teachers are turning to the Web to bring the resources of world-class institutions into their classrooms. Increasingly, museums are offering a wide range of educational materials online, via Web sites that nearly explode with interactive exhibits, live Web broadcasts, and a wealth of searchable lesson plans, databases, and links to related information.

While a Web visit can never replace a trip to the brick-and-mortar museum, its unique, exciting possibilities can enrich classroom studies and even teachers' confidence in ways that traditional visits cannot. The Exploratorium in San Francisco and Chicago's Field Museum, for example, both offer Web broadcasts that show scientists at work behind the scenes, both at the museum and out in the field. At the Field Museum, extensive curricular activities accompany the show. And at the Exploratorium, these broadcasts are interactive. A recent program about a solar eclipse alternated between scientists actually observing the eclipse and astronomers commenting on what was happening. Viewers were able to e-mail questions to the museum that were then answered live. And of course, there are the exotic locations that students can visit on the Web. One site links students to a museum in Italy where, through video footage, students can explore the study where Galileo worked.

Instructional videos are also appearing on Web sites. Barbara Furbush, a manager of the Teacher Resource Center at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, says that the Getty's Web site now includes a media gallery with short, concise videos about how to make a Greek vase, for example. "Through these videos," she says, "kids can see what those processes really are, which is so much easier than trying to describe them. And this is all free." All of this slick technology is an attractive lure, but the sites' real richness lies in their extensive lesson plans. Ranging from extremely detailed to more open-ended, these exercises often come with easy links to images, articles, relevant Web sites, and additional information that encourage teachers to create dynamic, individual lessons from the material. And the lessons are cross-curricular, with math and science lessons found on art museum sites. Barbara Furbush says, "I just type in the word 'math,' and the search engine will pull up not only articles about math and about why art should be part of the curriculum, but it also pulls up the lessons, so the teacher can directly make those connections." Many lesson plans also ease the intimidation factor. Teachers who don't know much about art may be less inclined to include it in their lessons, but sites such as the Getty's ArtsEdNet are designed for teachers without any art background. "It's so wonderful to give teachers a demonstration," Furbush says, "and to see the light go on in their eyes when they realize that the site does it all for them."

More support comes from online communities and listservs that some museum sites sponsor. The Exploratorium and ArtsEdNet both offer dynamic discussion groups where teachers can ask questions, clarify lessons, and share successes and failures with an international group. In fact, according to Rosemarie Falanga, an information specialist at the Exploratorium, that museum's electronic community began long before the Web was a commonly known entity, as a way to "empower K-12 teachers." Teachers shared ideas and gained confidence in technology and new ways of teaching that, Falanga says, helped them to become "leaders in their schools." It was a fluid, productive dialogue. "Some of our discussion groups about how to use these lessons lasted years," says Falanga.

All of this technology requires equipment and software that may not be available to all schools. Jennifer Eagleton is involved with the Field Museum's "e-field trip" broadcasts. She says, "We were very worried about equity of access." So in addition to offering the broadcasts via the museum's Web site, as well as the Apple computer site, the museum made the show available through satellite dish, VHS tapes, and partnered with local public TV stations to schedule broadcasts. The Exploratorium has developed relationships with libraries who are willing to host Webcast events in areas where the schools lack the necessary technology, and it has published one book of its science experiments online and another is scheduled) so that teachers without computers or decent Internet hookups can still benefit. Most sites inform visitors of which programs are required to run features and they often provide links to where users can download the software at no cost (see sidebar).

If you're new to the online museum world, the best way to understand its scope is to see it for yourself. Below are outstanding Web sites for museums and educational institutions that offer interactive, high-quality curriculum ideas and, often, online exhibits. Although this list only skims the surface, it'll get you started. Also see the accompanying sidebar featuring sites with links to multiple museums.

Surfing Safaris

  • Art Institute of Chicago

    The museum's extensive online resources include Art Access, which offers superb lesson plans, related book titles, maps, and glossaries related to exhibitions and items in the permanent collection. The museum's Cleopatra: A Multimedia Guide to Ancient Art, is also accessible from this page and includes fully bilingual English and Spanish text, video clips, time lines, and lesson plans for grades 4-12 in five subject areas.
  • Asia Society

    The New York-based society's AskAsia site offers resources for both educators and kids. Teachers will like the lesson plans, reviews of recent Asian books, information on current hot topics, downloadable maps, and the Asia Studies Virtual Library, while kids can explore the Adult Free Zone, which includes language activities and pen pal information, on their own. The site also includes an online travelogue written by American middle-school students participating in an exchange program in Asia.
  • Denver Art Museum

    Designed for students in grades 2-5, the Wacky Kids site focuses on world art and culture. It offers a range of hands-on craft projects based on items in the museum's collection, such as the samurai face mask or Mayan jade jewelry, as well as focus pages that provide background: World of Japan's Samurai Warrior and Maya Rainforest Dwellers, for example. The site also includes links to other museum artifacts and related book titles.
  • Exploratorium

    San Francisco's innovative museum cum educational center is perfect for any teacher looking for ways to incorporate science experiments into the curriculum. The online Web Science Workshop lists full lesson plans, developed by and for teachers during the museum's summer teacher institutes. Live Webcasts (which are archived) link classrooms with science events in progress. Exciting, dynamic, and progressive, this site leads the way in museum outreach to classrooms.
  • Field Museum of Chicago

    The museum's exciting selection of virtual field trips are accessible from this page, such as the recent Project E.R. (Environmental Rescue) Electronic Field Trip and The Sue Files, which provides accompanying online curriculum about the famous dinosaur's story. A highly developed site rich with resources for all grade levels.
  • J. Paul Getty Museum

    Possibly the best online resource for arts education, the Getty's ArtsEdNet offers comprehensive, interdisciplinary lesson plans; a broad image gallery of international artworks (most not owned by the Getty); a Reading Room (with full-text articles about arts education); a listserv; and curricular links for featured exhibitions, such as the recent traveling Jacob Lawrence show. The Los Angeles museum's general site- an Explore Art section that gives a tour of the museum's collection following themes such as "How we live," "Mythology," etc., as well as a media gallery with videos that explain processes for making art.
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art

    New York's biggest treasure house provides online teacher resources that cover subjects such as ancient Egypt, Indian carpets, and Byzantine life and art, with ideas for art, math, science, language arts, and social studies curricular links. The site also includes an online archive with 3,500 objects from the collection.
  • The Minneapolis Institute of Art and Walker Art Center

    The Walker Center has a wealth of ideas on integrating art into the curriculum. There's a searchable art gallery and a Playground of activities just for kids. The For Your Classroom section contains the Teacher's Guide to ArtsConnectEd, a useful document that maps out the site and explains how to fully take advantage of its offerings. At the bottom of each page of the guide are "Instant Inspirations," one- or two-sentence ideas for activities, such as imagining what two works of art would say to each other at a party.
  • National Gallery of Art

    The museum's online teacher resources include classroom activities and in-depth studies of works of art and architecture ranging from "The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology" to the work of Mark Rothko. Accompanying articles give examples of how teachers have used museum resources in their classrooms. Also includes an interactive page just for kids.
  • National Museum of American History

    Among the teacher resources on this Smithsonian Institution's Web site is an excellent interactive online exhibit that studies the presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush and includes lesson plans for grades 4-12, as well as hands-on activities for kids to follow on their own. A well-designed, highly useful site.
  • National Museum of the American Indian

    This Smithsonian Institution museum's site offers the full text of exhibition teacher guides, which work well even independent of the artifacts.
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

    Available on this beautifully designed, sophisticated site is the full text of the museum's excellent
    Teaching about the Holocaust: A Resource Book for Educators, printable as a whole, or in sections. Also available are printable identification cards that show the experiences of a variety of people who endured the Holocaust; a chronology, bibliography, and videography text about non-Jewish victims and the resistance; photos of artifacts; and a learning site to aid students in their own research.
  • University of California-Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

    An excellent resource to prepare kids for a field trip, this site takes students on a virtual 3-D tour through the museum, introducing them to the basic concepts, such as what wall text is and how to read it. Highly interactive, the site includes sample questions about artworks-such as "How many geometric shapes can you find?"-that encourage young children to develop visual literacy. The site also features glimpses of exhibitions (including slide shows of works), background about art and artists, lesson plans, and links for further resources. For middle- and high-school students, there's an extensive online guide about the museum's collection of Indian literature, the Hindu religion, and epic tales.
  • Whitney Museum of American Art

    Dedicated to exploring "the richness and diversity of American art and culture," this wide-reaching site includes lesson plans organized thematically for nearly all ages on topics such as rethinking history, representing identity, looking at art and media, and exploring technology. One example introduces how artists use the theme of history in their work by teaching how to conduct an oral history. The site also features a personal online journal, where teachers can upload images and write notes evaluating the success of the activities. Also features comprehensive links to other Web sites.

More Museum Links

Listed below are Web portals that offer access to many museum sites. Many sites include relevant articles, lesson plans, field trip pointers, and classroom-ready materials.

  • Musée

    This non-profit site offers direct links to a long list of museums' educational offerings, with many ways to search for museums (by title, type, etc.).

    With links to thousands of museums worldwide, this site also offers extensive teacher resources, including articles about planning field trips and a Busy Teachers' Website K-12 that groups exhibits, accessible on the Web, by curricular subject.

    Very similar to MuseumSpot, this Web site provides categorized links to virtual exhibits along with its extensive database of museum sites.
  • Educational Web Adventures

    Eduweb creates interactive, online "adventures" in art, science, and history for K-12 students that often link to museums and institutions, such as Chicago's Brookfield Zoo and the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.


Does your computer have the software and power to run all the features on the new museum Web sites? Rose Falanga, an information specialist at San Francisco's Exploratorium, says that some of her site's pages include Shockwave/Flash, Real Media, and Quicktime resources. "We recommend, at minimum, a Mac Power PC or Pentium 1, with 64-128 Mb ram, and 800x600 monitor and speakers," she says. "Both Internet Explorer 5 and Netscape 4.7 or higher will be able to access us just fine." Many sites also use Portable Document Format files (PDFs), which require Adobe Acrobat Reader for viewing. Most Web sites will link visitors to sites where they can download necessary software for free. But Falanga also adds, "Knowing that our teachers and other users do not always have the latest and most expensive software and hardware, we have deliberately designed a user-friendly Web site that is easy to access and sometimes, easy to print. Most of it is HTML."

Gillian Engberg is assistant editor of the Books for Youth section in