Beyond the brick-and-mortar buildings that make up the 19 museums at the Smithsonian Institution, there is much available in the digital sphere, making it easy for armchair travelers, creatives and lifelong learners alike to experience this vast organization's offerings from the comfort of their homes.
To help readers narrow down their search, Smithsonian magazine has compiled a list of virtual experiences that cater to an array of interests. Whether you’re in the mood to peruse the National Portrait Gallery’s presidential portrait collection, explore the engineering marvels of the Inka Empire or remix one of the 2.8 million images available through Smithsonian Open Access, this roundup has you covered.
Online Tours and Exhibitions
Nothing quite compares with the feeling of standing in front of an artistic masterpiece or a towering Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, but virtual exhibitions and museum tours are about as close as you can get to recreating the experience. Science lovers can survey the National Museum of Natural History’s permanent, current and past exhibitions, including the Butterfly Pavilion, the Deep Time Hall of Fossils and the Hall of Human Origins, while arts and culture fans can tour the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of Asian Art. Other options range from founder James Smithson’s Smithsonian Castle crypt to the Enid A. Haupt Garden, the Smithsonian Marine Station Wet Laboratory and the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center.
In addition to highlighting virtual views, many Smithsonian museums offer exhibitions optimized for digital audiences. The National Museum of the American Indian has exhibitions on “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” “Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections,” and “Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation’s Armed Forces,” among others. You can also check out the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “A Look at the Black Fashion Museum Collection and Designer Peter Day,” the National Portrait Gallery’s “One Life: Marian Anderson” ASL tour and “Outwin: American Portraiture Today” portal, Smithsonian Libraries’ “Exploring the Meaning of Place in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’” the National Museum of American History’s “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s “Willi Smith Community Archive,” the Air and Space Museum’s “Outside the Spacecraft,” the Smithsonian Latino Center’s “D.C. Latino Street Murals,” and the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service’s “Men of Change.”
These online exhibitions vary greatly in scale and style. The National Portrait Gallery’s “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence” exhibition, for instance, is typical of many Smithsonian offerings found on Google Arts and Culture: Users click through a slideshow-esque narrative, reading short blurbs on suffragists like Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone and Victoria Woodhull, as depicted in images from the gallery’s collections. Others, like the National Museum of the American Indian’s “Americans” show, require more digital bandwidth to fully appreciate their immersive interactives.
See museums’ websites or Google Arts and Culture pages—many of which feature online exhibits, subject-specific compilations and browsable collection records—for more options, or search the Smithsonian’s main collections catalog.
Thanks to Smithsonian Open Access, anyone with an internet connection can not only browse, but “use, transform and distribute” some 2.8 million high-resolution images from the collections without restrictions. Among the artifacts highlighted on the Open Access portal are Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega 5B plane, a portrait of Pocahontas, a chunk of Smithsonite and the Apollo 11 command module. For inspiration on remixing these and other artifacts in the public domain, visit the Open Access Remix page, which lists projects including Georgetown University students’ laser-cut clocks, a three-part sculpture titled Mediated and the How to Make a Collagasaurus workbook.
Another option for makers and creatives is the Smithsonian’s 3-D digitization portal, which features interactive models from a pantheon of fields. Take a closer look at Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, a pair of boots from Broadway musical The Wiz and fossils found on National Park Service lands, then print your very own scale models of a T. rex skull, a coral skeleton and a “Cosmic Buddha” sculpture. For tips on 3-D printing from home, check out Smithsonian magazine’s November 2019 guide, which features historical background on various digitized offerings, tips for printing specific models and more.
For those in search of low- or no-tech activities, consider the following: Interview family members and friends to record their oral histories, as outlined in the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide; volunteer to transcribe historical documents and biodiversity data with the Smithsonian Transcription Center; join virtual meditation sessions hosted by the National Museum of Asian Art (to participate, visit this link at 12:15 p.m. every weekday besides Wednesday); or download free coloring pages from Smithsonian Libraries.
The Smithsonian’s virtual presence comprises millions of educational resources for learners of all ages. Younger students (and their teachers or caregivers) can visit the Smithsonian Learning Lab’s newly launched distance learning resources hub, which highlights offerings from STEM games and simulations to American Women’s History Initiative’s Because of Her Story articles and comprehensive lesson plans.
Find the latest updates by checking the #SmithsonianEdu hashtag, and browse Smithsonian magazine’s roundup of educational resources for ideas on where to start. Though many of these tools are geared toward pre-K-12 students, older learners will also find them engaging; examples of adult-friendly activities circulating on social media include reading “rare and notable editions” of classic books via Smithsonian Libraries’ Digital Library, checking out the National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean and Human Origins portals, and watching a collection of narrated short stories from around the world.
Other avenues of exploration include the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s database of ongoing and completed projects, from “personal diaries and scientific fieldbooks to playbills and sound recordings,” and the Because of Her Story campaign, which draws on articles, quizzes, videos and book excerpts to “create, disseminate, and amplify the historical record of the accomplishments of American women”—a mission that holds particular resonance during Women’s History Month. The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Collection Stories, meanwhile, invites staff to “share their interpretation of the collections they find most powerful from a variety of perspectives.”
Podcasts, videos and lecture recordings also hold valuable lessons for listeners. The Hirshhorn Museum has an “Artist Talks” lecture series, while the Air and Space Museum offers an archive of recorded lectures like “Women of Apollo” and “The Future of Lunar Exploration.” Five seasons of the Smithsonian’s “Sidedoor” podcast, including episodes on the “worst video game of all time” and underwear in outer space, are available for streaming at any time. Other Smithsonian podcasts range from the Museum of American History’s “History Explorer” and “Prototype Online: Inventive Voices” shows to “AirSpace,” “Portraits” and “Freer Thinking. The Smithsonian Channel has a diverse catalog of television and web series—among others, “Spy Wars With Damian Lewis,” “Wild Inside the National Zoo” and “Humboldt: Epic Explorer.”
Finally, every Friday at 11 a.m., visitors can tune in via the National Portrait Gallery’s Facebook page for Open Studio lessons with artist Jill Galloway. Storytime for children ages 3 and up will be livestreamed on Facebook Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
Currently, to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, all Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. and in New York City, as well as the National Zoo, are temporarily closed. Check listings for updates.