Utilizing Online Museum Collections to Enhance the Humanities

Utilizing Online Museum Collections to Enhance the Humanities

by Eileen Bach, English Teacher

Concordia International School Shanghai

The ideal situation is to take students to museums, preferably those that maintain or recreate the original context. But, if you cannot go to the mountain, then there are ways to bring the mountain to you!

Multiple types of lessons may incorporate images from, or virtual tours of, museums to support interdisciplinary course work. Both major museums with online collections, such as The British Museum in London, and lesser-known institutions, such as New York’s Fenimore Museum of American Folk Art, Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology & Archaeology, and The Morgan Library, offer many of their stellar collections online. These online collections may be brought to life vividly right in your classroom. What follows is a sample of lessons ranging from teaching a particular art form, such as Vanitas Paintings, to illustrating ideas by using images and recordings from museum archives.

TYPE: Using museum images to illustrate ideas

Example: Sutton Hoo treasures, supporting a unit about the English epic, Beowulf

Museum: The British Museum

URL: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights.aspx

Images used to showcase Anglo-Saxon culture “love of beauty, joy in creation, perfection in craftsmanship [flourished] in the Dark Ages” (R. Bruce-Mitford)

Assignment: Pseudo-archaeology

Enrichment: Poem “Junk”

TYPE: Using museum images to teach a particular form

Example: Vanitas paintings, supporting a unit on visual literacy (Advanced Placement English)

Museum: Johnson Art Museum

URL: http://www.museum.cornell.edu/HFJ/handbook/hb118.html

Image used separately following instruction from http://www.artisanart.us/lubin.html

Followed by text from the Johnson Museum site.

Assignment: Apply understanding to new image.

Enrichment: Create your own vanitas still life

TYPE: Using museum images to enrich a unit

Example: “Bound for Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War”

Museum: The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC


Assignment: Telling a story through vintage photographs

Enrichment: Walt Whitman’s Civil War era notebooks, available through the Library of Congress at:


TYPE: Using museum images as a “hook” to interest students in a topic.

Example: The Puritan

Museum: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Assignment: How can you identify this man as a Puritan? What conveys this?

Enrichment: Poem “Upon the Burning of Our House”

TYPE: A Virtual Tour to set students in a particular time and place

Example ONE: Virtual tour of Dickens’s house in London

Museum: The Dickens Museum

URL: http://dickensmuseum.com/vtour/

Assignment: What elements make this home Victorian?

Enrichment: “A Child’s Christmas in

Wales” (post-Victorian writing but Victorian in sentiment and setting)

Example Two: The Peabody Essex Museum


Assignment: What elements characterize Chinese homes?

Enrichment: Architectural symbolism in Chinese homes, e.g. the vase as a symbol of peace

TYPE: Using museum archives (both images and recordings) to bring history to life.

Example ONE: The Voting Machine

Museum: The Smithsonian

URL: http://smithsonianimages.si.edu/siphoto/siphoto.portal_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=detail&negNum=200426275&action=detail

Assignment: Used as illustration to

accompany “The Declaration of Sentiments”

Enrichment: Compose your own Declaration of Independence

Example TWO: The Foundling Hospital Museum

URL: http://www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk/oralhistory.php

Assignment: Used with studies or stories linked to poverty (Nickel and Dimed, Grapes of Wrath)

Enrichment: Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs

Example THREE: The Peabody Museum

URL: http://www.peabody.yale.edu/collections/hsi/hsi_whatami.html

Assignment: Which of these items might have been Victor Frankenstein’s? For what purpose?

Enrichment: What is Maxwell’s Top?


This is an eclectic list, based upon my personal experiences and prejudices!  Please add to this list!

The Art Institute of Chicago


The Clark


Fenimore Art Museum of American Folk Art


The Frick


The Louvre



The Morgan Library


The Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Oxford University


Rijks Museum


Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art



The Uffizi


Victoria and Albert Museum


And remember those noted in the sample lessons:

The British Museum:



The Johnson Art Museum:


The Library of Congress:


The Metropolitan Museum of Art:


The National Portrait Gallery:


The Peabody:


The Peabody Essex Museum:


The Smithsonian:



Leave a Reply