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Polycom RealPresence Video Solutions Help Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art Bring Content & Culture Alive for Schools & Organizations
Posted on Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Real-time HD video collaboration available to schools and organizations anywhere in the world opens doors to Smithsonian Institution’s African art collection
SAN JOSE, Calif. and WASHINGTON, DC - Apr 09, 2013: Polycom, Inc. (Nasdaq: PLCM), the global leader in open, standards-based unified communications and collaboration (UC&C), is helping bring the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection of African art to a global audience via Polycom® RealPresence® video solutions.
Through interactive and real-time video classes, briefings, tours and collaborative sessions of the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), guests are gaining a new perspective not just on how artists in Africa have expressed themselves through the arts over centuries, but also on the diverse cultures and peoples who live on a continent comprised of fifty-five countries, three times the size of the United States.
“Arts education in public schools has declined in recent years,” noted Deborah Stokes, Curator for Education at NMAfA, one of 19 Smithsonian museums. “Art has been squeezed out of daily class schedules, and school time spent in art class has shrunk by nearly half since 2001. We knew we had to get creative to find a way for schools to enhance their art education without spending resources. With Polycom RealPresence video solutions, we’re bringing content and culture alive to students around the world – teaching students how to look at art, and engage with the museum’s educational programs to enrich understanding, inspire, encourage curiosity, and make connections.”
Combining Art and Science
An example of this approach is the museum’s popular African Cosmos: Stellar Arts tour, which combines both art and science to investigate celestial symbols, earth-sky connections and cultural stories that date to the time of the pharaohs. The educational programming was developed with astrophysicists from the Smithsonian-Harvard Astrophysical Observatory and scientists and educators from the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. The teaching module enables teachers to fulfill not only their curriculum requirements in art, but also those for science, history and geography.
“One of our academic goals is to incorporate the arts into the STEM initiative,” said Stokes, referring to a growing effort to sharpen global competitiveness by improving students’ proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math. “We did that with the African Cosmos exhibition. We’re showing how both scientists and artists have for centuries looked into the night sky to understand our place in the universe.”
Equipped with a Polycom® HDX® Series room system and a Polycom® RealPresence® Collaboration Server, Stokes can conduct virtual visits and collaboration sessions globally.  In her video classes and tours, she uses Polycom® People+Content™ to appear integrated with images and artworks. She opens her classes by guiding students through the entrance of the Washington, DC museum – located almost entirely underground –introducing them to a small part of its permanent collection of more than 10,000 works, then showing HD images of related pieces and field photographs, encouraging interactive discussions with the video audience. 
Schools can register for the classes using the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) clearinghouse and through Polycom’s CAPspace portal, which is used by more than 13,000 educators in 47 countries to access collaborative video distance learning programs.
In 2011, NMAfA also used Polycom RealPresence video collaboration systems to virtually connect a group of young survivors of the 2010 catastrophic Haitian earthquake that devastated the island nation with peers in DC. The NMAfA produced “The Healing Power of Art: Works of art by Haitian children after the earthquake,” an exhibition of drawings by Haitian children living in tent cities.
As a common link between students in DC and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a group of students in an award-winning DC elementary school French club created pictures of hope and healing and wrote encouraging messages about the rebuilding of schools. The pictures were shared with students from Haiti in a face-to-face live ceremony over video at the U.S. Department of Education.
Doubling the Number of Students Reached
The face-to-face video classes are proving so popular that Stokes has already doubled the number of students reached in a school year – from 800 in 2011-2012 to an anticipated 1,600 this year.
“I could be doing this every day of the year, there’s such a demand for it,” said Stokes. “Teachers have requested that I develop other modules for them, so I’m working on an introduction to African art, a class on African masks, textiles, and country-specific studies of the art of Nigeria, Ghana and Mali.”
In conjunction with Earth Day 2013, NMfAA will host a collaborative learning experience that focuses on artists who use e-waste and earth materials in their works. Eventually, Stokes said, she hopes to arrange video meetings between students, interested parties and Smithsonian field scientists in Gabon and other African countries.
No matter the standard or custom topic, the museum’s Polycom infrastructure helps Stokes deliver an exceptionally lifelike collaboration experience, and Polycom’s support for open standards allows the museum’s programs to be available to a broader audience. “I’ve been surprised how great the Polycom technology has been to use,” said Stokes, who acquired the Polycom equipment in 2011 using a grant applied for with help from the Polycom Grant Assistance Program. “I’m just so thrilled with it.”