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Virtual Museum Projects in Native America
By Mark Christal, Paul Resta, and Loriene Roy
The University of Texas at Austin

The Four Directions project (www.4directions.org), funded by a federal Challenge Grant, worked with 19 American Indian schools in 10 states to promote the use of technology for the purpose of creating and delivering culturally responsive curriculum. The Four Directions helped these schools to develop technology-supported curricula and learning activities that were thematic and interdisciplinary, connecting the values and traditions of these diverse cultures with core academic standards. One of initiatives of the project was the production of virtual museums of native culture, which uses Web page authoring, multimedia production, and new media such a QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR).

Because of historical circumstances, much of what remains of American Indian material culture resides in museums across the nation and in private collections. The virtual museum projects in the Four Directions schools used digital photography and QuickTime Virtual Reality to “digitally repatriate” Native artifacts for use in the schools’ culturally responsive curricula and to share with the world on the World Wide Web. QTVR is a photography-based “immersive imaging technology” that enables a user to explore panoramic spaces and examine objects by rotating them to any viewpoint using a computer mouse. Special regions on the QTVR movies called “hot spots” trigger various actions when clicked on, such as picking up a virtual object out of a virtual panoramic space, bringing up detailed views of parts of an object, or displaying a Web page of information about the object or panorama.

The Four Directions project also trained students and teachers in oral history techniques, audio recording skills, and digital audio technology that enabled students to make valuable records of the wisdom and memories of tribal elders.

With the assistance of the Four Directions project, several schools developed virtual museums. The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York City and the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona were partners in the Four Directions project, and have collaborated in the production of Native American virtual museums. Three Four Directions schools sent teams of students, teachers, and community members to produce a virtual tour of the NMAI exhibitions from the perspective of Native American children. This virtual tour is accessible on the World Wide Web at http://www.conexus.si.edu/VRTour.

The Heard Museum collaborated with three Four Directions schools to produce cultural content for school learning projects. Teachers at Seba Dalkai and Dilcon, sister Navajo schools in Arizona, used the media students created at the Heard Museum, along with digital audio and video of community members, to create HyperStudio stacks that illustrated the history of the schools.

With help from the Four Directions project, other schools have embarked on virtual museum projects in partnerships with museums in their regions that have substantial collections of culturally relevant items.

Throughout these various virtual museum projects a model has been emerging that combines authentic learning projects, culturally responsive pedagogy, and collaboration between museums and schools. This “Four Directions Model of Virtual Museum Projects” consists of three interacting and over-lapping components.

  1. Cultural Responsive Teaching: Virtual museum projects are culturally responsive, because they teach to and through the culture of the child and bring community concerns and values to the center of the teaching-learning process. Students are motivated to excel because they are doing important, authentic work to recover and preserve their heritage. They gain from the knowledge of museum professionals and the wisdom of community elders. They develop skills in research, writing, social studies, science, mathematics, information literacy, and twenty-first century information technology.
  2. Cultural Revitalization: A common concern among Native American peoples is the recovery and preservation of cultures and languages. Much of what remains of traditional material cultures resides in museum collections far from Native American communities. Virtual museum projects provide a way for communities to “digitally repatriate” precious items of cultural heritage. In the Four Directions Model, virtual museum activities also take place in the Native American communities, where students research and record local materials that supplement the museum's resources for the virtual museum. Local resources such as oral histories, cherished heirlooms, traditional stories, dances, and songs, native language and contemporary arts get combined with museum materials to present the vision of a vital, living culture.
  3. Cultural Collaboration: Museums exist to preserve heritage and educate the public, but Native Americans sometimes object to the way museum exhibitions appropriate cultural property. Native Americans want the public to have access to authentic knowledge of their histories and cultures, but they believe that some aspects of their cultures should not be shared with outsiders. Virtual museum collaborations provide a venue where thorny issues of cultural property rights may be addressed and protocols for cultural collaboration may be designed and levels of accessibility decided.

Figure 1: The Four Directions Model of Virtual Museum Projects

During the last year of the Four Directions project in 2001, Mark Christal conducted a doctoral case study of four virtual museum projects with five Four Directions schools and seven regional museums. The Four Directions Model proved to be a good general guide for planning and implementing those projects. His dissertation study will be published in the spring of 2003.

The National Museum of the American Indian has also been actively seeking out American Indian schools and colleges for virtual museum partnerships. Two such projects have been conducted at the museum’s Cultural Resource Center near Washington D. C. in the past two years. The Four Directions and NMAI virtual museum projects are furthering the concept of virtual museum projects with American Indian students. The next logical step for this culturally responsive teaching strategy would be to adapt the practice to other student populations.

Some Four Directions Virtual Museum Links

The Virtual Tour of the National Museum of the American Indian

The Hannahville Indian Community School Virtual Museum

The Indian Township Passamaquoddy Virtual Museum

The Indian Island Tribal School Virtual Museum

The Four Directions Project

The Seba Dalkai, Dilcon, and Pueblo Laguna virtual museum projects done with the Heard Museum are multimedia applications on CD-ROM, created with HyperStudio.

Supporting Research

Culturally relevant teaching is a multicultural approach to teaching that has been developing over the past two decades. Two books that present much of the research and issues relevant to this approach are:

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, & practice. New York: Teachers College Press. Hollins, E., King, J., & Hayman, W. (1994). Teaching diverse populations: Formulating a knowledge base. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. See also, and earlier paper presented on the Four Directions virtual museum projects, available online:

Christal, M., Roy, L., Kreipe de Montaño, M., Resta, P., & Cherian, A. (2001). Virtual museum collaborations for cultural revitalization: the four directions model. Paper presented at the Museums & the Web Conference, Los Angles, CA, March 16-19, 2001. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/christal/christal.html

About the Authors

Mr. Mark Christal, currently Education Research Associate, University of Texas, Austin, is a doctoral candidate in Instructional Technology and an education researcher. He has been working on projects involving Computer Supported Collaborative Learning, educator professional development, and multimedia and learning projects on the Web since 1993. Through his involvement in the Four Directions project, he has trained hundreds of Native students and their educators from twenty reservations. He was awarded a Special Recognition of Outstanding Contribution from the Pueblo of Laguna in 1997. He is a co-author of Schools as Knowledge-Building Communities (Texas Center for Educational Technology) and author of an award-winning Web site for educators, QuickTime Virtual Reality for Educators and Just Plain Folk http://www.edb.utexas.edu/teachnet/qtvr.

Dr. Paul Resta, Founding President of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), is the Principal Investigator for the Four Directions projects at the University of Texas. He holds the Ruth Knight Milliken Centennial Professorship in Education and is the Director of the Learning Technology Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Before coming to the University of Texas, he was a Professor of Learning and Training Technologies at the University of New Mexico, where he developed ENAN, the Educational Native American Network, a telecommunications network for Native American educational institutions. He chaired the Smithsonian Institution Off-Site Technology Center and the plan for extending the National Museum of the American Indian collections, archives and information resources to Indian communities and the general public through technology.

Dr. Loriene Roy, Professor at the Graduate School of Library Information Science at the University of Texas, is an internationally known expert in Native American librarianship. She has served as President of the American Indian Library Association and as a Councilor-at-Large for the American Library Association. She is a member of other organizations, including the American Library Association, Association for Library information Science Education, Oral History Association, Popular Culture Association, Public Library Association, and Worldcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. She has presented over 100 professional papers and has published more than sixty articles, chapters, reports, and documents and co-authored one book, Library and Information Studies in the United States (London: Mansell, 1998). She has experience in oral history project development, having organized a regional oral history project for the Arizona Historical Society, a statewide project for the Texas Library Association, and a national project for the Association for Library Service to Children. She is enrolled on the White Earth Reservation (Minnesota) and is a member of the Pembina Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

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