Smithsonian Institution

At a Glance

  • Providing Art and Science classes
  • Virtual field trips to the Smithsonian
  • Up to 1600 students per year
  • Polycom Video Collaboration solutions

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Polycom RealPresence Video Solutions Bring the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art to Schools and Students Anywhere in the World

With arts education under threat—budget cuts and accountability programs have nearly cut in half the hours spent in art classes since 2001—the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) is putting art back in classrooms. NMAfA is home to more than 10,000 works and treasures. Most students, however, even in the nation’s capitol, have never seen it. But that’s changing, thanks to a program that lets students and organizations visit the museum’s collection via collaborative meetings powered by Polycom RealPresence video collaboration solutions.

“We knew we had to get creative to find a way for schools to enhance their art education without spending resources or traveling,” notes Deborah Stokes, NMfAA’s Curator for Education.

Available free of charge, the real-time video classes do more than expose students to African art, they give the audience a unique opportunity to appreciate the vast diversity of cultures in Africa. “We’re teaching students how to look at art, how to ask themselves what it meant to the artists and to instill respect for the cultures that created it,” says Stokes.

The programs are so popular that the number of participating students has doubled in the past year, from 800 to 1,600. Budget-constrained schools and interested organizations are using NMAfA’s virtual field trips to keep the audience engaged with access to exceptional content. And because many classes merge art content with other topics, teachers around the world can meet curriculum requirements in history, geography and even science.

Putting art in perspective

NMAfA uses its video classes to present art in unexpected contexts. Its popular African Cosmos: Stellar Arts exhibition, with educational programming created in collaboration with astrophysicists, scientists and educators from the Smithsonian-Harvard Astrophysical Observatory and the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, combines both art and science to explore how humankind has tried to understand the heavens for millennia. The unique approach offers another benefit: these art classes support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives in schools striving to meet objectives in both the arts and sciences.

In her video classes and tours, Stokes uses a Polycom HDX series room video solution and Polycom People+Content™ (green screen) to appear integrated with the high-definition images and artworks that are an essential part of the programs, all powered by the Polycom RealPresence Platform. Engaging face-to-face with the audience via the lifelike medium of HD video, she encourages questions, investigation, dialog and interactive discussions. Schools register for the museum’s collaborative sessions using the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) clearinghouse or through Polycom’s CAPspace distance learning portal.

In addition to classes, NMAfA has used its Polycom video solutions to help build relationships and cultural understanding globally. A program following the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake used art to connect children in Haiti suffering the devastation they had witnessed with students in a D.C. public school for a cross-cultural exchange of understanding and compassion.

Stokes is planning classes on African masks and explorations of art in Nigeria, Mali and other countries. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised how easy the Polycom technology has been to use,” says Stokes, who acquired the Polycom equipment in 2012 using a grant applied for with help from the Polycom Grant Assistance Program. “I’m just so thrilled with it.”

View the press release

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