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COMMENTARY: Smithsonian Institute's Online Tours Aren't the Real Thing, but They're Close


Submarine Spitfire F. Mk. VIIc by cliff1066

As a kid, the first thing I did when I got to the Smithsonian was track down the Spitfires and Luftwaffe fighters at the National Air and Space Museum. Of course, all that was after running into the iconic red castle and finding out that it was only a visitor’s center meant to point my parents and me toward all those cool things. (I can’t describe the disappointment.)

But now you can eliminate the extra effort and track down your favorites without with a keyboard: the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies is offering free online tours of its cultural heritage collections. [h/t eSchool News]

The Smithsonian doing virtual tours? I can’t imagine it. Isn’t everything in that place about the childlike wonder of seeing it up close, hands on the velvet rope, nose pressed against the glass, and a security guard to your left? I can’t just click “zoom in” on a famous exhibit: there is magic when the dim lights glance off the Hope Diamond in a jagged river of sparkles.

However, The Smithsonian powers-that-be don’t suggest you skip the D.C. field trip. But if you’re a teacher interested in developing a structured, educational visit over letting children loose on the museum, it serves as a handy itinerary builder and study tool. (If, on the other hand, you are interested in wandering the Smithsonian aimlessly, bravo! By all means, do so. There are a lot of Flickr pictures of exhibits, all uploaded by the Smithsonian staff.)

On the official Smithsonian site, I went through the African-American Heritage tour, breezing through log-in and password creation to the full features of the site. (My tax dollars at work!) I built an itinerary and went through the dozen collection pieces, their images, their short quizzes and discussion questions. I also hit a compass icon to point me to where I could find Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves and a Buffalo Soldier uniform. The website is very simple in design, but even a frequent museum visitor can learn a new morsel of history instead of glancing and moving on to the next glass case.

Therein lies the power of a virtual tour like this. You can’t stay the night at the museum, but you can visit from your classroom or bedroom (or office, as some of us are wont to do). I’m sold. — Andy Dost

Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond by Ryan Somma

Airplane Casket

Paa Joe’s airplane casket by Brent and MariLynn

Woolworths counter

Woolworths counter chairs by SC Fiasco