Art museums are excellent places to help students engage with artistry across mediums, spark conversations about self-expression and cultural commentary, and appreciate our shared humanity. The United States boasts world-class arts and cultural institutions that are a useful supplement to learning about art and history. Art has also been scientifically proven to manage stress, encourage creativity, and promote emotional intelligence—all soft skills that can greatly benefit young people. Many museums offer guided educational tours that encourage students to reflect on the context of these artworks and cultural artifacts while promoting critical thinking and empathy.
In Washington, D.C., several arts and cultural institutions line the National Mall, each containing collections of artworks and cultural artifacts that represent the wide range of creativity and skill found in America. The National Gallery of Art has a permanent collection of over 150,000 sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and paintings—plus, the gallery hosts rotating exhibits that focus on specific artists and themes. As they tour the gallery’s two buildings, students will recognize famous paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Piet Mondrian, and Johannes Vermeer, an exciting opportunity to see the original works they learn about in the classroom. Schedule a guided, interactive tour that prompts students to ask questions, develop their own interpretations, and even do a bit of their own creative writing and sketching. Also on the National Mall, student groups can visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian to appreciate diverse cultural contributions and perspectives on the arts.
Students “come face to face with America” at the National Portrait Gallery. The gallery showcases portraits of statespeople, activists, scientists, and performers, and other Americans determined to possess “remarkable character and achievement.” The National Portrait Gallery also boasts the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, the “America’s Presidents” exhibition. Students can gaze back at America’s past, from Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” painting of George Washington to the recently added official portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Guided tours can focus on gallery highlights, “America’s Presidents,” the docent’s choice, or the latest special exhibitions.
Each of these institutions offers a unique experience for students, whether that’s through discussion-based tours, focused exhibits, or the opportunity to bear witness to some of the world’s most beloved artworks. These art and culture museums present a meaningful opportunity for students to cultivate global perspectives and practice critical thinking in a creative, fun setting.
The Midwest’s major urban centers are cultural hubs that provide plenty of opportunity to educate students and celebrate the talent found in the American heartland. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan, is known for its diverse collections of artworks ranging from the earliest civilizations to contemporary works. The Beaux-Arts building contains more than 100 galleries, an auditorium, and a lecture hall, offering plenty of space for students to learn and wander. Among the museum’s most famous pieces are Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” fresco cycle, and Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait,” the first van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum collection. The DIA is also home to the Center for African American Art, which aims to increase awareness of the contributions of African Americans to the arts and to highlight history and creative expression from an African American perspective.
The Midwest has plenty of other cultural institutions that share diverse global collections with students. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Museum of Art boasts one of the most comprehensive Japanese, Chinese, and Korean collections in the world. Students can get an up-close look at sculptures, paintings, costumes, armor, and jewelry from around 3000 B.C. until the 20th century. Register online for an hourlong tour that builds social-emotional skills by connecting students with artworks and to each other. At the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana, students will deepen their knowledge of the art and history of the American West and Indigenous peoples of North America. The museum’s renowned collections include ceremonial dress and objects from various Native cultures, and landscape paintings that capture the unmatched beauty of this expansive region.
Art museums are often impressive examples of historical and contemporary architectural styles. Take the Milwaukee Art Museum, for example. Housed in one of the most famous buildings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the museum is designed to represent a ship looking over Lake Michigan, a nod to the shipping industry and the geographic features unique to the area. And while the building itself is an impressive architectural achievement, students will be just as dazzled by the art collection inside. Docents guide students through galleries of paintings, drawings, sculptures, photography, prints, videos, and textiles, with each room promising to be more engaging than the next. Just south of Milwaukee in Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the city’s top museums. Students can explore 300,000 works of art from 195 countries on guided or self-guided museum tours, which are available in both English and Spanish. The museum is also across the street from Millennium Park, where students can see the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, aka “The Bean.”
Students can do more than just tour and talk, though. Explore modern and contemporary art at the Des Moines Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa. For a hands-on learning experience, students can visit The Studios at the Art Center, which provides youth with artist-led classes covering a variety of mediums like painting, drawing, ceramics, and calligraphy. Allow students to express themselves and learn a new skill for an extra memorable school trip.
The northeastern region of the United States has some of the oldest arts and culture institutions in the country—and some of the largest collections as well. In New York City, one of the most celebrated cultural capitals in the world, students can tour the hallowed halls of some of the country’s most famous museums. Don’t miss “Washington Crossing the Delaware” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at the Museum of Modern Art, and works by Jackson Pollock at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum.
Head upstate to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, which is also the hometown of actress Lucille Ball. Through state-of-the-art technology, students can create a “sense-of-humor profile” which is then used to personalize their interactions across the rest of the museum. Students will learn not only about comedy history but also how to communicate by varying tone, genre, and style. Also in New York, the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning gives students a look at another style of art: glassmaking. The museum approaches glass and glassmaking from a historical, cultural, and technical perspective, making for a rich educational experience. School tours are tailored to be developmentally appropriate, ranging from helping young children express themselves with “describing words” to discussing museum careers with young adults.
New York isn’t the only place brimming with arts and cultural institutions. Another place rich in culture and art is Boston, Massachusetts. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA) aims to tell the story of the human experience through its collection of 500,000 pieces of art. Schedule a guided or self-guided tour of the MFA and dive deeper into the diverse perspectives found within the artwork. Also in Boston, students can visit the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
If your group would like to visit a smaller city, a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, is in order. Dubbed the “Creative Capital,” the town is home to many awe-inspiring art galleries but is especially famous for being the home of the esteemed Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At the RISD Museum on campus, groups can enjoy a docent-guided or teacher-guided visit through the dynamic cultural center. Tours can cover topics related to mythology, American imagination, materials and processes, and more.
Many museums across the Southeast promote a sense of community and connection through their collections and student-friendly programming. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, celebrates the American spirit from the Colonial era to today, and its spectacular location in the Ozarks region makes it even more special. The museum’s student-centered tours invite classes to be inspired by specific groundbreaking artists or enjoy an overview of the museum’s collection.
In Atlanta, Georgia, the High Museum of Art showcases a variety of art—from American folk and self-taught works to European Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces. Student group tours promote visual literacy, STEAM-oriented thinking, and social skills through discussions on Black history and culture, American history, and connecting the works of artists and scientists.
The Mint Museum in Charlotte was North Carolina’s first art museum, and today, it is committed to engaging members of the global community through its international collection of works. Through its gallery tours, students can appreciate both the diversity of artistic expression and the shared experiences of artists across time and geography. The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh is home to what it calls the “People’s Collection,” promoting a sense of connection and belonging between the public and the museum. The collection boasts many beautiful artworks and important cultural artifacts, including one of only two permanent displays of Jewish art in an American art museum. Students can also tour the Museum Park to explore the connection between art and nature. In the same city, explore the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh (CAM Raleigh) or the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, near the North Carolina State University campus.
The expansive American West has long been a place that has inspired bold ideas and works, and that spirit is on display across the region’s impressive arts and culture institutions. For a range of exhibits, visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, which holds 5,000 years of mankind’s most notable cultural achievements. School tours are free experiences led by docents who teach through open-ended discussion as students explore galleries related to ancient Mesopotamia, European, Asian, and Native American cultures.
In Colorado, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) is one of the largest art museums between Chicago and the West Coast, and luckily, the museum offers group tours to help students navigate the extensive collection, according to their interests. DAM tours focus on helping students critically reflect on the connections between environmentalism and art, teach how art and self-expression can help manage emotions, and critically reflect on power dynamics in society. A trip to the DAM is a fantastic opportunity to appreciate one of the most comprehensive collections of Indigenous art in the world through the works of artists from over 250 Indigenous nations. For more Native American art, students can visit the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
The San Diego Museum of Art is perhaps best known for its Spanish Old Master paintings—including works by El Greco, Goya, Sanchez, Cotán, and Ribera—but the museum also holds a robust collection of American, Asian, European, and Latin American art. Docent-led student tours and art workshops are available to give students an interactive look at the museum’s offerings. Also in California, students can see art across a variety of mediums, including jewelry, fashion, woodcuts, and ceramics, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). This art museum takes a focused approach, highlighting five to seven specific works and engaging students in grade-appropriate discussions that promote personal connections and critical thinking. While your group is in Los Angeles, tour the Getty Center to see medieval to modern art and take in spectacular city views.
If students are interested in less traditional art museums, the West has plenty of options. Students will light up with excitement at the Neon Museum Las Vegas in Nevada, where they can get an up-close look at the city’s famous neon signs, day or night. Farther north, the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington, plays host to a rotating collection of exhibits related to music, guitars, science fiction, and movie magic. Guided tours of the museum are a fun way to draw connections between classroom curriculum and students’ favorite songs, movies, and TV shows. Just south of Seattle, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma is a contemporary art museum dedicated to glass and glassmaking. Plus, it’s home to the region’s largest and most active museum glass studio. Docent-led student tours include all-day admission and access to the galleries, Education Studio, and glassblowing demonstrations in the Hot Shop.
Main Image: The Getty; Credit: Joel Muniz/Unsplash