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Incorporating Museums into Course Design

Museums were a significant aspect of my childhood education. Living in Philadelphia, we were a family who regularly visited museums and historic sites. Saturday family activities, summertime daytrips, and adventures when out-of-town relatives visited, would typically involve museum excursions. The spring field trips by George Washington Carver Elementary School, funded in-part by monies raised by the parents’ organization, were, joyfully, to the museums. In the 5th and 6th grades, respectively, my parents enrolled me and my brother in Saturday enrichment classes at the Franklin Institute. By high school, we had regularly visited the: Philadelphia Art Museum, Franklin Institute, Please Touch Museum, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Betsy Ross House, Academy of Natural Sciences, Carpenter’s Hall, the African American Museum, and several neighborhood museums. All this is to say, museums were an integral part of how I learned as a child.

Then, in college, graduate school, while serving local churches and while on the faculty of a theological school, I only sparingly incorporated museums into my teaching or research. Yes, I planned the occasional field trip, but museums were not vital to my teaching. Museums were not part of my pedagogical repertoire. 

With delight! - museums have returned to my awareness.  

I have had the good fortune to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, twice within the past six weeks. These two visits have given me a renewed appreciation for museums and the ways they can and do nurture our curiosity. While visiting the museum, I experienced the power of exhibits to interpret the stories of people.

On both visits, we were hosted by Eric Lewis Williams, Ph.D., Curator of Religion at Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Dr. Williams curated the exhibit, “Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture.” The exhibit brilliantly and provocatively suggests the myriad of ways in which religion is a part of the cultural fabric of African American experience.

As Dr. Williams designed, the viewer’s imagination is captured through photographs, objects, and depictions which makes the exhibit a marvel.  With Dr. Williams’ help, I experienced a kind of magic and majesty in the stories told by the artifacts.  I viewed, and sometimes handled, objects, relics, remnants, and fragments. Being able to discuss the exhibit, and its design, with the curator - was riveting. The exhibit prompted new perspectives for even the most familiar cultural story.

It was fun. It was intriguing. I was wowed and was led to epiphanies!

How, rather than planning courses, might we design learning experiences for our adult learners?

Since returning to my desk, I have continued to dialogue with Dr. Williams. I am curious about the ways religion and theological classrooms might be strengthened through partnering with museum educators, curators, and administrators.

I want to know more about curating, archiving, conservation, and material culture so I can improve my own teaching. I want to better understand collecting, and the ways storytelling through artifacts might be added to adult classrooms. Dr. Williams and I are thinking together about ways the Wabash Center might engage these kinds of questions:

  • What would it mean for the Wabash Center to support faculties to explore ways of incorporating museums into their undergraduate and graduate level curriculum?
  • What could be the role of museums in theological education for the preparation of congregational leadership; for teaching religion in the public; for more interactive educational experiences?
  • In what ways could religion scholars assist museums in their interpretation and presentation of exhibits?
  • What does it mean that, increasingly, critical interpretation of religion and theology is encountered by the public in museums?
  • What if the work of critical interpretation employed in our classrooms is enhanced and enriched through the storytelling approaches of museums?
  • In what ways can we learn to incorporate archiving, curating, conservating and exhibiting into our course design?
  • What can be learned from museum pedagogies to strengthen religious and theological education?

Given the prospects of enhancing teaching through museum education practices and visits, and since many professors spend their summers involved in course planning, I encourage you to consider spending part of your summer in museums and historic sites to:

  • get to know museum educators
  • get acquainted with museum curators and administrators
  • enquire about exhibits scheduled for display in the fall and spring semesters
  • plan for certain artifacts to be brought to your classroom during the semester
  • enroll in a workshop offered by the museum
  • learn the ways museums educate the public on your scholarly interests
  • take notice of the many ways that museums make use of digital interaction in order to tell stories
  • rethink and redesign an upcoming course
  • imagine learning activities, student assignments, and excursions that invite students to become curators, archivers, and create exhibits

Find the museums on your campus, in your town or city – and have fun!

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

About Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D., is the fourth director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a home with family and extended family dedicated to public education. Her father was a school psychologist and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who, as a volunteer organizer, greatly influenced the school board of the city of Philadelphia. Lynne holds a BS in Agriculture from Murray State University, a MA in Christian Education from Scarritt Graduate School, and a PhD in Religious Education and Womanist Studies from Union Institute. Lynne, as a United Methodist clergy person, served on the staff of the Riverside Church (NYC) where she redesigned the family education program. From 1999 to 2019, she was on the faculty of Drew University Theological School (Madison, New Jersey) as Professor of Religious Education.
Lynne’s first book was a children’s book entitled All Quite Beautiful: Living in a Multicultural Society. Her second book was a publishing of her doctoral dissertation entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality. Her books written in collaboration include: Being Black/Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies and Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She also, for a brief time, wrote for the Huffington Post.

Reader Interactions


  1. Dear Lynne,

    As the person at Phillips Theological Seminary responsible for co-curricular student engagement, I am building in components of theological reflection upon our (g)local realities through visits to Tulsa’s Greenwood Rising Museum and to Oklahoma City’s First Americans Museum. In fact, as a test run, I am accompanying a group during a regional gathering of the Religious Education Association to these museums this summer. As you develop conversation with Dr. Williams about making more significant connections between the kinds of reflection we do in theological classrooms and the kinds of learning available through museums, I would love to know what connections you’ve discovered. And, likewise, I will send my findings to you. Thank you for this timely write up!

    • Anne

      I am so glad that you are including and experimenting with museums in your teaching.
      Yes, please let me know what you learn.


  2. Hey, Lynne,
    I liked your post about including museums into the curriculum as places of learning. I am a seminary teacher at a Lutheran Seminary, we’re close by the Oriental institute of the U of C. Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures.
    I was wondering how to best work with a secular institution on theological seminary education?
    The colleagues at the Oriental Institute are partly known to me as scholars but the museum is their window to the larger public.
    There are many avenues into the museum content.
    I do use iconography in a Psalms class, they have a lot of cylinder seals on display.
    They do cover Egypt as cultural space which invites to work on questions of social location in theological studies.

    I am curious what you think.
    Klaus P. Adam

  3. Anne,

    We are investigating, learning, and pondering ways we might make use of museum education and create resources with museum education as the focus. I am glad to hear that you are, already, working to incorporate museums into your teaching. Yes, please let me know about your experience and learning.

    Lynne Westfield

  4. Klaus,
    I would suggest that you include your question of “how best to work with a secular institution” in the planning conversations.
    Many curators and archivists are not, as we are, experts in religion/theology. They depend upon our expertise for interpreting certain religious aspects of culture, artifacts and objects.
    Knowing your own expertise will make for a good partnership with the museum colleagues.


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