Virtual Reality Museum reaches beyond its physical borders

By Rob Capriccioso
News From Indian Country

Tens of thousands of people have visited the National Museum of the American Indian since its debut in September 2004, according to its operators in the heart of Washington, D.C., but, like many Native Americans throughout the country, visiting the physical premises has been difficult for many students.

“I just don’t have the money right now to get out to Washington,” says Kelly Criswell, a recent college graduate and enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in northern Michigan. “I would definitely like to someday soon.”

With nary a penny spent, over 18 million middle school students nationwide were able to visit and explore a small slice of the museum’s cultural offerings in May as a result of a unique partnership between NMAI and Ball State University, which funded a live multimedia presentation on the World Wide Web. On May 8, the students were able to take part in this special “E-Field Trip” after their teachers registered for the program.

The electronic field trip, which was entitled “Listening to Our Ancestors,” consisted of a dramatic 60-minute live satellite broadcast and Web cast from Auke Bay in Juneau, Alaska, and was geared toward students in grades 5 through 9. The program was also broadcast via local public television stations throughout the country.

Focusing on the Native cultures of southeast Alaska, “Listening to Our Ancestors” illustrated to students in full detail how salmon is smoked over a pit, and also highlighted the art of weaving a Chilkat blanket. The majestic Alaskan landscape served as the backdrop for the program.

“The National Museum of the American Indian [was] pleased to participate in its second electronic field trip with Ball State University,” said Tim Johnson, associate director for museum programs at the museum. “These electronic field trips help the museum fulfill its educational mission in reaching classrooms throughout the country.”

Johnson said that the main goal of the “Listening to Our Ancestors” program was to show that Native people have lived on the lands and waterways along the North Pacific Coast for more than 10,000 years. Educators with the museum wanted to highlight that American Indian stories and traditions link them to the natural world in which they live.

Participation by young people in the presentation was especially important to organizers. After months of planning, students from Murch Elementary School in Washington, D.C., and the Tlingit Immersion program at Harborview Elementary School in Juneau, Alaska, were able to be on hand during the broadcast to answer questions about the program. Many more students watching the Web cast and TV broadcast were able to call in and ask questions to Alaskan tribal members live on the air.

During the program, one student from a Southwestern school was especially interested in how global warming has affected tribes in Alaska. He said that he had read an article on the situation, and he wanted to know more about it.

A tribal member explained during the program that not all tribes have been affected the same way, but those that depend on sustenance activities, like hunting and fishing, have seen many changes in the duration of their hunting seasons.

Tribal members also noted that songs, dances, and ceremonies often help the Native people of the North Pacific Coast to honor their past and to celebrate their present.

Leading up to the online field trip, interested educators were asked to register their classes online at the Ball State University Web site. Online registration provided teachers with instant access to classroom lessons that helped prepare students for the electronic experience.

The program has now been archived and is available through the Ball State University Web site. People who are interested in viewing a recording of the program can purchase access at the “Electronic Field Trips” section of the site.

This brand of virtual reality learning was planned for from the beginning. Richard West (Southern Cheyenne), the founding executive director of NMAI, told News from Indian Country during a 2004 interview that he always anticipated more of the population, including most Native Americans and students, to only be able to interact with the museum on a day-to-day basis through its Web site, located at .

Indeed, for many young people, the easiest and most financially sound way to see what’s going on at the museum has been to explore its collections and mission via the World Wide Web. According to statistics gathered by the museum, many millions of online visitors have explored its Web site, which, like the museum itself, is operated by the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, the numbers of visitors to the virtual site on a typical day far surpasses the numbers who are able to make the trip to visit the museum in person.

“We have worked hard to create a world-class virtual museum presence and experience,” West said in 2004. “And we will be growing the outlet substantially in years to come.”

After the excitement of the grand launch of the physical museum, museum officials focused on further enriching the site’s visual and textual information, as well as special visual animations to show American Indian culture in action. At the same time, the museum began to reach out to more classrooms and tribes to raise awareness of the online offerings.

Museum officials say that they make dozens of phone calls and send many e-mails to interested parties every day.

Upon the success of the “Listening to Our Ancestors” program, museum officials said that several more online field trips will be planned in the future. They believe its an easy way to help students learn, since so many are proficient on the Internet, and are used to receiving educational materials via the Web.

The museum is also heavily focused on promoting its “Virtual Museum Workshop,” in which “Native students learn to use modern technologies to create compelling virtual exhibitions that reflect the students’ cultures,” according to the NMAI Web site.

Students who participate in the ongoing programs are able to digitally reproduce objects in the museum’s collections, process the photographs on a computer, and create interactive images that may be rotated or magnified on-screen. They can also research the objects using materials from NMAI and other Smithsonian Institution libraries, and write labels for them that can be used to create virtual exhibitions.

The students’ work is then featured in NMAI Resource Centers, the students’ schools, and/or tribal museums and cultural centers. Past workshops have helped to create a virtual tour of the “Our Universes” gallery, a major permanent exhibition, which can be seen at the physical NMAI.

The museum currently supports one workshop at a tribal or regional museum each year, while others are encouraged to inquire about financial assistance to help students take part in the program.

Kriswell, for one, is excited to explore the NMAI’s most recent Web site additions. She says she will browse the site as often as she can before she finally gets the chance to visit the museum in person.