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Classroom Museum

By Joshua Lawrence, Timilty Middle School, Grades 5-8
The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools, Greek Study Fellow, 2002-2003


Intended for grades 5-8. Students set up and run a classroom museum exhibition. Students do research, interpretive writing, exhibit design, and make oral presentations, using the same methods employed by working humanities scholars and museum professionals.

Figure 1, Project Overview. This is a quick visual synopsis of the project as it evolved over one school year. There are 24 slides. Click (>) to move forward one slide at a time. Click (>>) to scroll forward to the next group of slides. Mouse-over the numbers on the control bar to reveal thumbnails of each slide. Click a slide number to jump to that slide. Click on a slide to enlarge it. To restart the automatic slide show from the beginning, refresh your browser.



I designed the Classroom Museum project to help teachers help students set up and run a museum exhibition in their classroom. In this project, each student is responsible for selecting and researching one MFA piece, making a model of the piece, preparing an interpretive essay about the piece, and setting up an exhibition. Creating a classroom museum presents students with opportunities to learn about research, writing, design, and oral presentation, using the same methods employed by working humanities scholars and museum professionals.

To help you successfully administer this project and overcome common obstacles, this paper provides the following: a photo documentary of the project (Figure 1); a clear statement of teacher/student roles in the project; suggestions about pre-project preparation; goals for the project; assignments; a ready-made sample gallery of museum pieces geared to students' interests; project checklists; project resources; and grading rubrics. I designed the rubrics to be general and adaptable — I've provided links to both HTML and Microsoft Word versions, the latter so you can easily modify them to meet your studentsí needs.


First of all, you should take heart that, once chosen, the theme for your exhibit will narrow and simplify the preparation you need to do for the project — in our exhibit, each piece needed to be related to the Epic Tradition. But second, and more importantly, a major strength of the project lies in its being a collaborative effort, where the goal is to develop a pool of information that exceeds what any single member of the group could develop (or know) on his/her own, including the teacher. Thus, your role in this project is not to try to know everything and provide all the answers. Rather, you can be most effective as a collaborator, helping your students learn how to find answers to their questions. I tell my students that if, by the end of the project, they do not know more about their topic than I do, then I have failed.

A key activity in getting ready for this project is to "brush up" on the Odyssey by reading at least one complete translation. This way, you will be prepared for reading a version of the Odyssey with your students, which can be done either in book clubs or as a class. I suggest you check out the version told by Robin Lister and illustrated by Alan Baker (Macmillan/Kingfisher Epics), but also look at other versions of the Odyssey for children. I also recommend that you locate and watch the made for TV movie The Odyssey directed by Andrei Konchalovsky (PG 13); you may want to show it to your students at some point.

In addition, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the MFA ancient Greek collection and the location of pieces that you are thinking about working with. You may want to review the pieces that my students considered (Figure 2), including a scene showing Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot, and a scene depicting Odysseus in Hades conversing with the shade of Elpenor and a beautiful representation of Aphrodite. I tried to pre-select pieces that would be attractive to students on many levels. I also tried to provide as many appropriate pieces as possible so students would have a wide range of choices.


Students will be able to . . .

  • Describe the connections between literary characters and their representation in art.

  • Write about an art object to describe its material origins and mythical or literary significance.

  • Work together to create an exhibit, using the skill and techniques of museum professionals.

  • Comprehend the Odyssey and understand how it connects to the rich fabric of Greek mythology.

Figure 2, MFA Ancient Greek Collection. There are 20 slides. Click (>) to move forward one slide at a time. Click (>>) to scroll forward to the next group of slides. Mouse-over the numbers on the control bar to reveal thumbnails of each slide. Click a slide number to jump to that slide. Click on a slide to enlarge it and view the interpretive for that piece. © 2003 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.



  • Have students determine a theme for the exhibit.

The first question you and your students must resolve is the topic or theme of the exhibit. Ideally, students determine, or at least help determine, the theme of the exhibit.

In my case, since I developed this curriculum project outside the classroom, in conjunction with The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools program, I had to choose the theme myself: I defined it as the Epic Tradition. The exhibit would focus on representations of Homeric gods and characters in the MFA collection, entitled The Homeric World at the MFA Boston.


  • Have each student choose a museum piece for study and research.

I showed all of the available museum pieces to the students. I then put every student's name in a hat; and drew names one at a time, allowing the selected student to choose a piece he/she was interested in, before drawing the next name. I found this to be a key way to get students "into" the project; and you may be — as I was — surprised by which piece each student selects. Depending on the age and composition of your class, you could have students work on single pieces individually, in pairs, or in groups. Once all students have chosen or been assigned a piece, they are ready to begin their research.

Individual Products:

  • Have each student create a research notebook focusing on an individual mythological character.
  • I required students to read and record research notes every day, and I scheduled time apart from other daily work so they could accomplish this. They were free to read from primary sources (the Odyssey, for instance), secondary sources (social studies texts or articles), or both. When reading the Odyssey, I required students to pay special attention to at least one character in the book, and record every time that character appeared as well as what that character did. My note-taking rubric (HTML or Word) required students to make a family tree and identify every time the character appeared.

    I challenged students to become experts on their pieces; so that, by the time the exhibit opened, they would be ready to write and present interpretive papers on their pieces as well as answer questions about their pieces. Toward this end, I assembled as many secondary source materials as possible, and had students gather notes from them the same way they did for any other secondary source, such as a textbook. In addition, my secondary source note-taking rubric (HTML or Word) included the requirement that students use correct bibliographic references and cite sources accurately. Furthermore, I expected each student to find, record, and properly cite at least five pages of material relevant to the piece he/she was working with. Moreover, I expected each student to use at least four sources, one of which was the MFA interpretive essay that accompanied the chosen piece (for the interpretive for each piece, see Figure 2, MFA Ancient Greek Collection).

    For this project to really work, I felt I needed the students to take at least two research trips to the Museum of Fine Arts (in fact, we ended up visiting seven times throughout the year). On one trip, I had students focus on actual pieces, reproducing them in detail in their notebooks. On a subsequent trip, I had them focus on the general design and layout of the museum's collection. I asked students to look at how the work was displayed and protected. Such real-life observations provided students with valuable examples that they could refer to later, when it was time to create their own classroom museum. I recommend two excellent handouts, available from the Smithsonian Center for Educational and Museum Studies, that you can use on such trips.

  • Have each student make either a ceramic or a two-dimensional representation of his/her museum piece.
  • I scheduled time for students to carefully create replicas of the pieces they were studying. Students displayed these replicas in the classroom exhibition, to enrich the experience for the visiting community. Other options might be to: have students use a (digital) projector to reproduce a mural(s) or poster(s); or have students make display boards about their pieces, incorporating high quality color prints surrounded by explanatory details, much like you find at science fairs.

  • Have each student describe his/her museum piece using the conventions of museum writing.
  • In addition to requiring students to make decisions about how to handle the display of their objects, I also required them to write interpretive essays about their pieces. MFA: The Guide to the Collection is an excellent resource/reference for this activity: the writing is generally very good and it is available online. I circulated copies of selected essays so students could become familiar with the essay format and writing style, before I asked them to write one of their own. To deal with the fact that students had to write interpretive essays about pieces already written about — in the MFA guide and/or in essays discovered through online research — I required students to include some specific information and elements of writing. This approach rendered “it has already been written” a non-concern for students and me, and ensured original essays from everyone.

The theme of the exhibit (in this case, the Epic Tradition as represented by the Homeric gods and characters in The Homeric World exhibit at the MFA Boston) determined much of the required information about the pieces — I provided students with a checklist of required information. Beyond this background information, I asked students to place any characters that appeared in their pieces in the context of the Odyssey. Moreover, I allowed students latitude to select from, or propose, additional information they wished to highlight.

You can use the interpretive essays in the MFA Guide to teach or craft lessons on information writing. Topics could include (taken from Nonfiction Craft Lessons by Joann Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher):

  • Defining new vocabulary in context
  • Describing your subject
  • Establishing the significance of a fact
  • Including a quotation
  • Using subheadings to organize Information
  • Keeping it lively
  • Have each student describe his/her museum piece in a short oral presentation, like a museum docent would.

I required students to prepare short presentations about their pieces, to give on the day the classroom museum was open to visitors. Each student got a chance to deliver his/her own oral presentation to parents, students, and community members. To prepare for this, students took part in a guided tour at the MFA. They were able to experience first-hand what a tour is like and observe how the museum guide kept the audience interested and answered questions. The rubric for the presentation is available as HTML or Word.

Group Products:

  • Have students form groups responsible for the different aspects of running the museum.

Groups and grading rubrics:


  • Unavailable.


The main assessment criteria are listed below, but for greater detail, consult the rubrics referenced throughout this curriculum guide.

Students are assessed on their ability to . . .

Develop a research notebook

  • Develop a plan for organizing information
  • Provide complete details about the chosen character
  • Develop a complete family tree
  • Maintain notes that are neat and dated

Assemble secondary source notes

  • Organize information with well-constructed paragraphs and subheadings
  • Provide complete and copious information
  • Provide high-quality information that clearly relates to the main topic and includes several supporting details and/or examples
  • Accurately document all sources (information and graphics) in the desired format
  • Successfully use suggested internet links to find information and navigate within these sites easily without assistance
  • Generate diagrams and illustrations that are neat, accurate and add to the reader's understanding of the topic

Deliver an oral presentation

  • Make your presentation conform to the allotted time limit
  • Stay on topic
  • Dress appropriately
  • Answer audience questions accurately
  • Demonstrate full understanding of your topic
  • Speak loudly enough to be heard by the audience

Produce an exhibit brochure

  • Write in an organized way
  • Proofread and spell correctly
  • Organize and attractively present information
  • Integrate graphics with text in a balanced and useful manner
  • Answer questions related to the facts in the brochure and to the graphic production techniques you used

Produce an exhibit poster

  • Use class time productively
  • Include required elements as well as additional information
  • Produce an attractive product
  • Produce graphics that are clear and legible from 6 feet
  • Ensure the text has no grammatical errors

Produce a Museum guide, bookstore, and souvenirs

  • Independently collect and format all completed interpretive essays
  • Develop a clear and accurate table of contents
  • Produce a clear and well written introductory essay explaining the project
  • Create enough books and souvenirs to sell in the Museum Store over the course of the exhibition

Design and Set up a Museum

  • Use class time productively
  • Produce a floor plan that is accurate, detailed, neat, and understood by group members
  • Produce, and be able to explain, a museum design that has a clear focus intended to help the viewer understand the pieces
  • The individuals and groups work well with each other to set up and protect their pieces, as well as create attractive labels for all pieces

Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks Addressed

  • Unavailable.


Reference for teachers interested in information about Minoan frescoes and Civilization.


  • Allen, Janet. Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4-12. Stenhouse Publishers: York, Maine, 1999. ISBN 1-57110-085-7
  • Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning. Boynton/Cook Publishers: Portsmouth, NH, 1998. ISBN 0-86709-374-9
  • Fletcher, R., & Portalupi, J. (1998). Craft lessons: Teaching writing K-8. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Keene, E. O., & Zimmermann, S. (1997). Mosaic of thought: Teaching comprehension in a reader's workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.