Through interactive conferences, Smithsonian shares its collection with DODEA students around the world

Peg Koetsch in front of a green screen she uses to teach a photography course to middle schoolers on a military base in Guam. The course is a part of a program at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and in partnership with the Department of Defense.


By PEGGY MCGLONE | The Washington Post | Published: January 9, 2020

For 50 minutes on a recent weekday morning, Debora Moore's digital photography students received a private tour of the Smithsonian — from their classroom in Guam.

Using high-end videoconferencing equipment, Smithsonian American Art Museum educator Peg Koetsch showcased two dozen carefully selected photographs from SAAM's world-class collection — including works by Walker Evans, Man Ray and Barbara Morgan, renowned for photographing dancers — to illustrate a lesson about composition, camera angle, and positive and negative space.

Many of Moore's students have never been to the Smithsonian, which is not surprising considering their school, on the grounds of U.S. Naval Hospital Guam, is 7,900 miles away from Washington, D.C. But thanks to a little-known program involving the world's largest museum complex and the Department of Defense, these military-connected students are treated to a treasure trove of art that many other American students never get to see.

"I wasn't familiar with the images, but I was inspired to go look at those artists," junior Khyla Jones, 16, said after the class. Jones has never visited the Smithsonian, but the lesson inspired her to change that. "Once I get to the States, that is something I want to do," she said.

The partnership between the Smithsonian museum and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA), the unit responsible for 163 schools on military bases in the United States and around the world, began quietly in 2004. It has reached more than 40,000 military-connected students in 71 elementary, middle and high schools in Italy, Japan, South Korea and throughout the United States.

In addition to providing videoconferences for students, SAAM's educators provide professional development seminars for teachers working at the schools. The partners signed another five-year contract this summer, ensuring the program continues through 2024. DODEA pays the museum about $150,000 annually.

The museum's educators provide lessons in art and art history as well as English language arts, social studies and even science and math. Teachers in DODEA schools submit requests to the museum's education department specifying the topics they want to cover, and the museum staffers mine the collection for ways to address them. The list of past subject areas includes surrealism, the Harlem Renaissance, the art of persuasion, the Civil War and Italian mathematician Fibonacci.

"Everything is customized, for the teacher, the class, the region," said Chris Phillips, DODEA's Specialized Content Program Manager."It has a very positive impact on our students and their learning. They are enhancing what we are doing already, not supplementing or taking the place of something. They make it interactive, and it brings (the lessons) to life."

The foundation of the program is the museum's collection, said Carol Wilson, SAAM's head of education. There are more than 40,000 digitized images available for lessons, representing 88 percent of the museum's holdings.

"We treat it like a primary source — like a journal or a letter. You're seeing what's on the mind of artists during the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or the Great Depression," Wilson said of the artwork. "There are so many ways to pull the thread through our collection. It's learning about who we are as Americans through the things we have made over hundreds of years."

The museum was already providing some distance learning when it first submitted a proposal to the Department of Defense. "It was a way to broaden our reach and make American art more available to Americans living in other places," Wilson said.

It was a Monday evening in the District of Columbia when Koetsch connected to Moore's classroom in Guam, where the 15-hour time difference meant that it was 8 a.m. on Tuesday. Koetsch stood before a green wall — think of a TV forecaster standing in front of a weather map — and gestured to the photographs she knew her remote audience would be seeing on a large video monitor in their classroom.

Her lessons ended at 7 p.m. her time, after six videoconferences in a 12½-hour workday that began with back-to-back 90-minute classes. She sometimes works through the night, she said, giving classroom conferences and professional development seminars at 3 and 4 a.m. if that is the best time for schools in other parts of the world.

At least the technology has improved. When the program started, the museum would ship special equipment from base to base to allow the schools to receive the audio/visual feed. Now, they email an internet link to the teacher, who uses a computer and webcam to connect.

On occasion, a teacher will request a videoconference that the museum can't deliver, Koetsch said. When a teacher asked for a lesson on the Tuskegee Airmen — the African American World War II fighter pilots — Koetsch said the collection wasn't suited for that. But after a discussion of the teacher's goals, they decided to use SAAM's extensive holdings of paintings by 20th- century African American painter William H. Johnson to illustrate the different ways African Americans served in the war.

Moore, the Guam High School art teacher, said the program benefits her students because it offers new perspectives along with exceptional art.

"(I) might be teaching the lesson one way and then a museum educator or curator has a different viewpoint. They always bring in fresh ideas," Moore said. "And it's really nice that they can bring in artists that we might not know about. It pushes the kids to the next level of thinking, about what kind of photographer they might want to be."

Middle-school students on a military base in Guam photograph each other's hands during a video-linked photography class through the Smithsonian American Art Museum.