Smithsonian Learning Lab Internship – Reflection 2

Over the past few weeks of the internship, I have had the opportunity to browse many interesting collections at the Smithsonian Learning Lab. Besides the expected curriculum driven typical history projects exploring immigration, migration, slavery, the depression era, and the wars, more and more collections are shifting perspectives on these topics or investigating new ideas. For instance, one of the Civil War collections focused on reconstructive plastic surgeries that were aiding wounded soldiers in recovery. Surprisingly, there is quite a bit of documentation on the process. In addition, the collection does an amazing job at emphasizing the massive devastation of the war and how people within the limitations of the time expended and advanced medicine. The Lab certainly allows for students to supplement their history textbook knowledge and explore beyond the obvious.

One other aspect that stood out among all the collection was a series of images collected to study patterns, colors, and shapes in tapestry, paintings, and textile from the various art museums. These collections were meant to supplement art and social study classes for elementary and middle school students as they view the various cultures, their traditional colors and shapes to tell stories. For example, one of the collections directs primary school students to interact with the images the following way:

  • First, sort the images by type of art/artist. Teacher should make index card headings for the following categories: Painting/Painter, Textile/Weaver, Clothing/Fashion Designer, Architecture/Architect, Prints/Printmaker, Sculpture/Sculptor, Functional Ceramics/Potter or Ceramist. Sometimes an image may cross categories (painting of a house might be categorized in architecture or painting); either answer would be acceptable if the student can justify why.
  • Second, make an educated guess about culture represented in selected images. Students can “guess and check” with teacher. Online research option: students work in pairs to access this collection and click on the info button for an image to learn about the maker, time period, and culture. They can record their findings to help answer the reflection questions below. 
  • After the sorting activities, ask students to choose an image and answer: Why is/was this object of value (or useful)? How do you think it expresses something important to the people of that culture? (Art & Cultue Sort by Jean-Marie Galing)  

These types of collection allow students to see the art without actually going to the museum and experience/interact with cultures they may not know much about or understand the elements and importance of their ordinary, but essential moments.

One collection, however, changed the direction of my experience. For the first time, I had to flag and report one of the collections, which made me realize how imperative this reviewing process really is. The collection involved Native American traditions and attempted to speak to advocate for their rights, offered commentary on the decline of its cultural values, and more. However, in the process of awareness and criticism, the collection exuded a voice that was borderline derogatory and the images used were inappropriate.  Thus, it alerted me about the fact of how these digital opportunities could easily become the avenue for expressions of one-sided criticism and confuse rather than instruct to explore its users.

On a side note, being a “virtual intern” seems like a lonely existence, however, our coordinator does send the three of us reviewing the collections encouraging and thankful messages. It seems that we somehow know each other based on the comments given about the collections and the frequency of our visits to the review sheet.

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