At a Glance

American art makes the interpretive nature of historical knowledge clear.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery

The Smithsonian American Art Museum consists of the United State's original collection of American art— from paintings and sculpture to photography and folk art. As their website states, "The collection captures the aspirations, character and imagination of the American people throughout three centuries." Key artists represented include Georgia O'Keefe, Mary Cassatt, Helen Frankenthaler, Christo, Nam June Paik, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Of course, educational standards are crucial. Therefore, the museum offers more than 25 resources based on national education standards. Topics covered include Civil War photography, Reconstruction, landscapes, George Catlin and the Great Plains Native Americans, Manifest Destiny, the evolution of democracy, community, Latino culture, African American experiences, 20th-century history, Puerto Rico, the West, and the Great Depression. This section also includes two .pdf files intended to help elementary school and middle school students learn to interpret art.

Surprisingly, the resources don't stop there. Other great choices for educational use include online classroom activities; podcasts created by students; Ask Joan of Art, which lets you submit your American art questions for answers by an expert; and a link to the children's section of Save Outdoor Sculpture!, which provides a number of sculpture-related activities.

Of the online activities listed above, be sure to check out Picturing the 1930s, which discusses the time period and lets you make your own movie, and Superhighway Scholars, where your students can submit collages representative of their state.

If you have specific period or artist interests, try looking through the online exhibits. These include everything from installation videos to online scavenger hunts. You might also search the collections for specific artists or subjects. Try using the images to illustrate handouts or presentations, or ask students to compare fine art depictions to historical accounts and/or photographs.

Maybe you're interested in showing students how material culture is preserved? In that case, the best resources offered are the museum's conservation videos and the page of the Lunder Conservation Center. The latter offers information on conservation activities, videos, and before and after examples.

Still other resources include the museum's official podcasts, artist videos, and listings of the museum's upcoming professional development offerings.

Of course, if you're in the DC area, you can also consider planning a field trip, but with all of the materials this museum provides, don't let your geographical location stop you from including American art and artists in your curricula!