Websites as tools for Museum Education

Written by | March 24, 2017 | Posted in Museums

Education has a central role in fulfilling the mission of a museum. When looking at the navigation menu of a museum website, usually the third or fourth option is a link titled “learn,” “resources,” or, more obviously, “education.” And all museum sites have a page dedicated to education-related events, whether they be school trips, evening lectures, or summer camps. But beyond the advertising of events, does your museum put its website to work to further the museum’s mission to educate the public?

A few months ago I wrote a post discussing different ways museum departments can take advantage of the website to help each department reach their goals. This post takes a detailed look at the different ways the website can be used for and by museum educators. The biggest factor that determines how educational material should be shared on your museum’s website is the style the educational content takes. Lesson plans are different from blog posts, and these forms of written content are different from educational videos. When adding educational material to the museum site it is easiest to choose an option that best suits the content you already have. With that in mind, we take a look at the ways three kinds of educational material can be displayed on the site: lesson plans, blogs and videos.

Content for Educators: Lesson Plans

In a recent focus group, we heard that educators love to browse lesson plans online for inspiration—especially if the content comes from a trusted source like a museum.

So how do you develop lesson plan content for the web? You probably already have a good start in the material you give to teachers to use when they come to the museum on field trips. If not, look at what you have—gallery guides, audio tours, brochures, etc, and find ways to tweak the language to address educators or students. Then it’s a simple next step to make those lesson plans available online.

When making resources available online, museums usually take one of two routes; either they organize education resources somewhere on their primary website, or they create a separate mini site as a resource hub teachers can reference and return to for future lessons and student engagement.

When hosting lesson plans online, we encourage museum educators to organize lesson plans with different tags that will allow users to search through the lessons and find relevant material. Searchable tags can include information like grade level, subject matter or resource type. One great example of searchable tags comes from the Denver Art Museum. Their site lets users search for content by age group, resource type, themes like American history or ancient cultures, time period, skills students will learn from completing the lesson, and state education standards like language arts and mathematics. By organizing resources into searchable tags educators have an easier time navigating to content they need, making them more likely to come back in the future and recommend the site to their colleagues looking for resources as well.

Another option for hosting lesson plans online is through a separate mini site that can be accessed from the main museum site. Creating a mini site for lesson plans instead of hosting them on the main site is a better option if lesson plans weren’t given a space in the original architecture of the site, or if you want a special search function for the lessons (beyond narrowing category fields). Mini sites for lesson plans are created because it is easier and more time-efficient to build a separate site than to go back into a bulky site and try to add a new page under an already-crowded navigation tab. For example, we created a mini site for our friends at Nasher called Words and Pictures as an educational hub for local teachers. The site pairs art from the permanent collection with lesson plans and activities that bring the artwork into the classroom, giving students the opportunity to experience art while building english language, visual arts, social studies and science skills.

Content for Students: On the Blog

If your museum is affiliated with an academic institution or sees a lot of traffic from high school or college students, your museum’s blog is a great way to showcase experiences students have at the museum. Contributors to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology blog aren’t only museum curators, but students from the university as well. The blog features stories from students on archeology or anthropology research trips funded in part with the museum. Students write about their research and other experiences from the trips, which are then shared on the blog as a way to promote the educational value of the program and share what the students have learned in their own words.

Blogs can also be used for the purpose of sharing information about past events at your museum. Educators on the Whitney’s education blog share highlights from lectures for adults, children and teens, as well as other events surrounding a holiday or upcoming exhibition. Another example of an educational blog is Moments@MUAM, the Miami University Art Museum’s student blog. This blog was created by student interns in 2016 to share their experience as interns at the museum in an informative way that lets them share their knowledge with the public.

Content for All: Video Lessons

Students don’t have to visit the museum in-person to watch and learn from educational lessons and lectures. Record a video of an educator discussing a subject related to the collection as they walk through a gallery to save online as a virtual tour. Give viewers a behind-the-scenes look by creating teaching videos with items from the collection currently in storage. Adding educational video serves to showcase the diversity of objects within the museum collection, and to reach a wider audience than you could by doing just a physical tour for a school group.

One example of an educational video blog series is the Field Museum’s video blog (or vlog) The Brain Scoop. Chief Curiosity Correspondent Emily Graslie creates behind-the-scenes videos spanning from museum research, interviews with curators, to general history/natural science information about objects in and outside of the Field’s collection. Her videos give viewers a great look into current research and also help people learn a little more about natural history.

Not all museums have the budget or collection size to create as diverse a range of educational video content as the Field, but you don’t have to create your own original video content to use videos for education on your site. Save a video recording of a regular evening lecture or program to your site for visitors to view after the lecture, or stream the talk live straight to your site. Cooper Hewitt streams live videos of their lectures to their website for people to view at the time of the event and also saves them in their video archive for the public to access at a later date. Saving lecture videos and making them accessible on the site ensures that people continue to learn from educational programs long after they end.

Whether you’re creating educational content in the form of lesson plans, video, blogs, or even another form not mentioned here, make sure you’re taking advantage of your museum’s website to share that content with a wider audience. Doing so will not only educate more people, but also build awareness of the initiatives you and your education department work incredibly hard to bring to your visitors, both physical and digital.

This post is our first detailed blog on the subject of museum websites as tools for specific museum departments. Want to see what we’ve got planned for the next installment? Read our general introduction and check back in a few weeks!

Andrea Vaughan, Communications & Engagement Coordinator
With a love of the arts that started with her first music lesson at age 8, Andrea seeks to initiate and build long-lasting partnerships between cultural institutions and the Cuberis team.