This is the third in a series of articles from guest writer Stephen Berer focusing on literacies, fluencies, and projects for museums and classrooms. If you missed them, you can read the first article in the series here and the second here.

 

I have been to great museums across the country and around the world, but nothing comes close to Washington DC, with nearly a dozen museums on or within one block of the National Mall. All of these museums house world class collections, all of which are distinctly different from each other. And all but one of them are free.

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The Smithsonian museums on and near the Mall

Circling the Mall clockwise from the northwest corner (near the Washington Monument) you will find these museums. All are Smithsonian unless otherwise noted:

  1. American History
  2. Natural History
  3. National Gallery: Sculpture Garden, West Wing, and East Wing; (not Smithsonian, but free)
  4. Newseum (not Smithsonian, not free, behind National Gallery across Constitution Ave.)
  5. US Botanical Gardens (not Smithsonian, but free, beside Capitol Building)
  6. American Indian
  7. Air and Space
  8. Hirshhorn and Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden
  9. African Art
  10. Freer & Sackler (Asian art)
  11. US Holocaust Memorial Museum (not Smithsonian, but free, just south of the mall on 14th)
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Another map of the Mall, including some monuments and important buildings

Of these museums, the three most popular are Natural History, Air and Space, and American History, with the Holocaust museum not far behind. Indeed they are all among the most popular museums in the world, and from March through July these remarkable museums are always very crowded. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the African Art Museum and the Freer & Sackler Gallery are among the quietest and most meditative places you can visit in DC. You will rarely find more than a handful of visitors in them.

Looking Deeper—The Freer Gallery

But popularity is not a measure of educational value. Let me take you on an exploration through the Freer Gallery of Asian Art, probably my favorite museum in the world. At the end of this exploration, I think you’ll agree with me that this is a truly great place to think about art, culture, history, ethics, and one’s place in the world.

Let’s enter through the doors facing the Mall, 100 yards from the Mall exit of the Smithsonian Metro (which you can see on the first map above—Smithsonian museums). Walk up the wide stairwell and you will be in the hallway that circles the museum’s main rooms. Here’s a floor plan:

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Floor plan of the Freer Gallery

Studying the floor plan you can surmise that this museum houses a remarkably wide range of cultural artifacts spanning all of Asia with the exception of Russia. The collection includes:

  • books, scrolls, paintings, and painted panels
  • sculptures in stone, glazed clay, and metal
  • ceramics from Japan to Egypt
  • items made of gold, silver, bronze, jade, glass, clay, wood, parchment, silk, and ivory
  • weapons, love poems, and objects whose purpose is entirely unknown

Remembering to Be Transformed

How are we to remember even a fraction of what we’re seeing, and how can we possibly understand it’s meaning and context, given the collection’s diversity in time and place?

The truth is, most people simply stroll through the galleries enjoying the beauty as it passes their eyes and slips through their fingers. They spend a pleasant hour or two and walk out having been visually delighted, but virtually unchanged intellectually and emotionally.

We can do better than that! This museum is a model of cultural diversity. We can learn about the personal and creative lives of fellow human beings living thousands of miles away and hundreds or thousands of years ago. We can study the art and literature of those far away people and compare it to our own, to understand how different and how similar our circumstances and our interests are.

Further, this museum displays the positive impact that art and beauty have had on the human enterprise of building great civilizations. Aren’t we also engaging in that great enterprise?

How can we take that long chain of intellectual, ethical, and esthetic creativity, to integrate it into our own lives, and to help us design an even better society and a better future?

We can use this museum to while away a pleasant hour, or we can allow it to enrich us and inspire us to build a better understanding of ourselves and the world.

That’s our choice. Why not go for inspiration?!

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Indian manual on yoga

A Living, Breathing Textbook

Here are a few ways to use this museum to inspire you and your students.

As always, the more you integrate your museum visit into your curriculum, the more effective it will be. Most likely, you don’t teach Asian art, but if you teach history or literature, civics or humanities, you will find a lot to work with here.

But remember, a museum is like a multimedia textbook. If you don’t know the textbook well, and if you don’t know a lot more than what’s in the textbook, you’re not going to be able to teach it very well.

Know your museum, or seek help with it. Spend hours exploring it on your own. Study the collection online, if available. Talk to the museum education department. If you’re visiting a DC museum, contact me.

I always like to start with a project. That gives immediate and clear structure and focus to a visit, and it provides great opportunities to develop critical fluencies in media, collaboration, creativity, and project management (solution fluency).

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Japanese poet and a poem by her

Second, I like to give students more than one option for a project, so that the project they choose is of genuine interest to them. This also allows the class to create a very diverse set of end products, so the presentation process keeps the class curious and interested, and has the potential to expand everyone’s understanding and outlook.

Finally, I have students work in groups of 3 or 4. I try to get students to choose their working group with an eye to achieving a skill set that is well beyond any individual’s abilities. I use the example of a Hollywood studio that combines the skills of director, writer, actors, camera and sound people, make-up artists, film editors, and dozens of other specialized workers to achieve an end product that is far better than what any one individual could possibly produce. Using this analogy, I encourage each group to try to include a:

  • director (leader)
  • writer
  • media/computing expert
  • history/arts/staging specialist

Taking on a role also helps students stay focused and production-oriented (solution fluent).

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Prophet and Persian physician, from a Mughal manuscript

Next week, in Part 2, I’ll present 2 projects, and walk you through the museum, showing you how you can coach your students as they produce their projects.

Steve Berer is an educator, author, and founder of Museum Exploration Partners, an independent education company that strives to turn your trip to Washington into a life-changing experience. Visit them at musexplore.net.

 

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