Students Sample Smithsonian Treasures in Traveling Tour

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Providence, R.I.

The warm, moist air of an early September morning hangs quietly over the Rhode Island Convention Center here, and the sun is just beginning to peek through the clouds above the nearby state Capitol.

Green-shirted Smithsonian volunteers, recruited from the local community, mill around signs marked "school group entrance." Their voices echo down the nearly empty street, which is quiet save for the occasional passing of a car.

The peacefulness is short-lived, though, for out of the distance comes the ever-so-faint but unmistakable rumble of diesel engines. As the orange buses round the corner at the end of the block, the volunteers spring into action, moving to the curb to greet the first of what, by the end of the day, will be more than 1,800 schoolchildren from across the state.

It is field trip day for Elizabeth Santoro's 6th grade social studies class, and the 45-minute ride from Babcock Middle School in Westerly, R.I., has done little to quell the students' enthusiasm. They are about to enter the largest touring exhibition ever produced by the Smithsonian Institution, including more than 300 objects representing the institution's 17 museums.

The exhibit is of colossal proportions, covering more than 125,000 square feet of climate-controlled convention center and requiring 70 tractor-trailers to move from venue to venue about every six weeks.

The exhibit is the cornerstone of this year's 150th-anniversary celebration commemorating the Smithsonian Institution's founding. The two-year "America's Smithsonian" tour will go to 12 cities across the United States, with the mission of bringing the treasures of the Smithsonian to areas of the country far from the collection's usual home on the Mall in Washington.

Two educational programs are part of the tour. One is a seminar for teachers on how to use the objects in the exhibit as teaching tools. The other brings in scholars from museums in Washington to lecture in places such as schools and libraries in the cities the exhibit is visiting.

Meteorites and Ruby Slippers

The exhibit is divided into three galleries, loosely organized under the themes "Remembering," containing objects that commemorate famous people and events in American history, "Discovering," featuring artifacts from the natural world and from the exploration of new frontiers, and "Imagining," which features works of art from a myriad of places and times. The three are tied together by a common area that is dominated by a large carousel similar to that found on the Mall.

Some of the most famous and familiar elements of the collection are on tour: Kermit the Frog, Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," and several inaugural gowns from the collection of those worn by first ladies. Also included in the exhibit are other, less recognized items from the corners of the nation's attic: a billion-year-old meteorite from Mars, a fur coat worn by the opera singer Marian Anderson during her 1939 Easter Sunday concert on the Mall, and a place setting from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

But duly prepared for this visit by their teacher, many of the students from Babcock Middle School know exactly what they want to see. "Where's Abraham Lincoln's hat?" one boy asks, referring to the stovepipe hat worn by the 16th president to Ford's Theater on the night he was assassinated.

The group sets off for the "Remembering" gallery in search of the hat, passing from the expanse of the convention center floor into the more intimate winding hallways set up to display the objects.

Inside the gallery and away from bright, artifact-damaging light, it is dim and cool, creating a museumlike atmosphere. This is not lost on the students, who become quiet and attentive. None of Ms. Santoro's students has visited the permanent Smithsonian collection in Washington, and they begin to experience what until now they had only read or heard about; seeing the furniture from Appomattox Court House on which the Civil War surrender was signed, for example, adds a new dimension to their understanding of American history. "Ms. Santoro," says one girl. "They actually sat on that?"

Eleven-year-old Matt Sammataro reads aloud from the placard next to the distinctive upturned-bell, B-flat trumpet of jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. "And who was Dizzy Gillespie?" Ms. Santoro asks. "Oh yeah! He was the jazz guy with the cheeks!" replies Matt, puffing his own out in demonstration and motioning vigorously with his arms.

A bit later, his classmate Jamie Godin finds the 182-carat Star of Bombay sapphire, one of the largest in the world--so huge, in fact, that it looks more like play jewelry.

Forging Bonds

Through the three galleries, the students come across more and more that until now has only existed for them in pictures or words. And even though their visit includes a spin on the carousel and a trip through the highly interactive, frenetically paced promotional booths of the exhibit's corporate sponsors, these attractions are not the highlights of the trip. Asked to pick their favorite part of the exhibit, nearly all choose an object from one of the galleries.

And this is really the purpose of the exhibit and its two-year odyssey--to forge connections between the Smithsonian and the nation, between chapters in textbooks and chapters in history, and between scientist and student.

To help teachers use "America's Smithsonian" as an educational tool, there is a "teachers' night" at the beginning of the exhibit's run. Teachers from the surrounding area are invited to take part in a seminar on teaching through the power of objects. Along with a preview of the exhibit, teachers are offered ideas for using the artifacts in teaching history, art, science, language arts, and social studies. This event is nearly as popular as the exhibit itself; almost 3,000 teachers participated in the Providence teachers' night in mid-August.

Another teaching tool is "Smithsonian Voices of Discovery," which runs for one or two weeks of the exhibit's four- to five-week stay in each city. This program brings scholars--scientists, curators, and historians--from their museums in Washington and into libraries, museums, and schools for a series of lectures and programs in the host city.

"We aim to strengthen the bond between the community and the local museums," said Betsy Adams Baird, who is the coordinator for the Voices of Discovery program. Some people may never know that these great museums exist right around the corner from their homes, she said, and only after being drawn there by the Smithsonian name do they realize the opportunities the collections offer year round.

The same is true of the program's role in the schools; a student who is inspired by a Smithsonian speaker may be motivated to learn more about the subject or even to pursue it as a career. Schools typically clamor for the opportunity to bring subject matter out of textbooks and into real life by inviting the Smithsonian experts into their auditoriums, Ms. Baird said.

Connecting With Science

During the program's run here, Michael Robinson, the director of the National Zoo in Washington and a biologist and animal behaviorist, has come to speak. Mr. Robinson, who is in his mid-60s, spent 18 years at the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute in Panama before taking the helm at the zoo in 1984.

While in Rhode Island, Mr. Robinson will visit several museums as well as the local zoo, but the week begins with stops at two schools.

The first of these is the 1,100-student South Kingston High School in South Kingston, near the state's Atlantic coast. Mr. Robinson is to speak at the high school twice, giving the same talk to about 400 students at a time.

He faces a formidable task: A captive audience of teenagers expecting to hear an academic lecture is not exactly an easy crowd. But once they have all straggled into their seats, Mr. Robinson grabs their attention and doesn't let go for almost an hour.

In an accent that hints of his British birthplace, he explores the complexity of the tropics, drawing connections between flora and fauna that are at once fascinating and astounding.

The tropics are his area of expertise and obviously his passion as well. His talk touches on the various adaptations of tropical bats, the web-building characteristics of spiders, and the mating behavior of frogs. Each point is illustrated by slides and, more often than not, a humorous anecdote.

Though he may be the director of one of the largest zoos in the country, Mr. Robinson is not beyond imitating the mating call of a tropical frog in front of 400 high school students.

As he whoops and chucks the parts of the song, the students laugh along with him and obviously enjoy his subsequent explanation of the call's purpose.

When the lecture ends, the students erupt in sincere, appreciative applause, and some of them make their way down to the front of the auditorium to meet Mr. Robinson.

These students have seen the connection between what they are studying now and what people like Mr. Robinson are doing in the real world.

"He is the most awesome person I have ever met," says Meghan Jacobson, 17. "This is everything I have ever wanted to do."

Susan Angelo, the chairwoman of the science department at South Kingston, says that she and the school's other science teachers will be able to use Mr. Robinson's ideas throughout the school year.

William McEneaney, who teaches environmental biology and ornithology, agrees. "This lecture," he says, "included many, many new examples of concepts that we cover in class. Now, I can teach a concept and be able to point back to Dr. Robinson's lecture for illustrations that the students will remember vividly."

Both Ms. Angelo and Mr. McEneaney agree that it was good for their students to see a scientist who is as engaging Mr. Robinson--far from the lab-coat-and-microscope stereotype.

The reaction to Mr. Robinson's lecture is similar at the next stop, the 320-student all-girls Lincoln School in Providence. At this pre-K-12 private school, he gives the same talk once again, and once again, the audience appears fascinated.

The teachers here have similar plans to use the material in their classrooms; it is good for her students, says one, to be able to get information from a firsthand source rather than from a textbook.

Back at the convention center, Ms. Santoro's class has seen all three of the "America's Smithsonian" galleries, visiting along the way George Washington's battle sword, the Apollo 14 command module, and a Tucker sedan. But no one has found Abraham Lincoln's hat.

Eventually, one of the many security guards roaming the hall directs the students to it. The hat, it seems, is so popular that it has been moved into the common area between the galleries.

There it sits in its earthquake-proof case, a small piece of cardboard and felt that embodies a huge piece of history, significant not so much for what it is, but for what it represents.

America on the Road

The "America's Smithsonian'' tour will continue into early 1998, visiting the following cities:
Oct. 16-Nov. 14: St. Paul, Minn.

Dec. 6-Jan. 12, 1997: Houston
Feb. 3-March 5, 1997: Dallas
March 28-May 6, 1997: Portland, Ore.
May 29-July 12, 1997: to be announced
July 29-Aug. 26, 1997: San Jose, Calif.
Sept. 20-Nov. 16, 1997: Chicago
Dec. 9, 1997-Jan. 18, 1998: Columbus, Ohio

Teachers who want to find out more about educational opportunities connected with the exhibit can call the school coordinator at (202) 633-9131 for more information.

Vol. 16, Issue 08

Related Stories
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories