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Step Inside a Student-Curated Gallery

Step Inside a Student-Curated Gallery

By: Ashley Naranjo, Manager of Educator Engagement, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access                             

The iconic America’s Presidents exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is the nation's only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. This video may help demonstrate the breadth of the exhibition. As you might have noticed, the portraits of the past 44 U.S. presidents are not all paintings but rather, include sculpture and photography too.

In 2017, while the exhibition was closed to the public for conservation and restoration, the National Portrait Gallery teamed up with the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office to 3D scan some of these objects. These included a plaster bust of Rutherford B. Hayes, a zinc sculpture of Andrew Jackson, and a pair of life masks of Abraham Lincoln before and after the Civil War.

I had seen some of these scans just before I had the pleasure of meeting the 2017 Colorado State Teacher of the Year, Sean Wybrant, a digital media studies instructor at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, CO, who is passionate about supporting his students with projects that will prepare them for the future. Our conversations over the past school year have always centered on a mutual belief that students become more passionate about their schoolwork when it is real and relevant to their lives. 

This spring, Mr. Wybrant virtually introduced me to one of his students, Stuart Richardson, a graduating senior, who has never visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (it’s 1,600 miles away from his home). In Stuart’s free time, though, he has conceptualized, programmed, designed and prototyped a three-part virtual gallery, using the 3D models from, paired with digitized images he accessed via the vast database of the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

In this video, Stuart walks us through the virtual gallery he created using Unity along with the developer's kit provided by Oculus that was readily available to him in his classroom. I have learned over the past few weeks that this virtual reality experience is constantly evolving. As he “curates” each section of his gallery, he thinks about everything from the way that the overhead lights shine on each sculpture to the complementary artifacts and images in the gallery that help tell the story of each presidency he has featured. Stuart also considers what features he will add so that his classmates and other students can use this virtual space to learn more about each leader’s life and accomplishments. As he receives feedback from his teacher and classmates in his prototyping phase, Stuart now has plans to add voiceovers that would narrate information to his gallery visitors. His most recent proof of concept is available here.

As for what is next for Stuart, he will be attending the University of Utah this fall and has an inspiring vision for what open access to these types of resources can provide for students: “I hope that this project I am in the process of developing can inspire kids far and wide and expand the reaches of accessible education.” His teacher agrees and sees the projects that his students are engaging in with virtual reality as an “equity lever” for kids who do not have the means to travel. “I have kids with great ideas about how to make engaging museum experiences-everything from a traditional take on the museum collection to a virtual reality escape room where you have to find counterfeit pieces of art in the museum experience and replace it with the right ones based off of information learned while playing the game.”

The Smithsonian Learning Lab welcomes creative collaborators like Mr. Wybrant, Stuart and his classmates, to access and use the rich digital resources of the Smithsonian for powerful learning opportunities.