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Published: March 15, 2001.


Learning About Leonardo

Steve Feld, John F. Kennedy High School, USA


Leonardo's enigmatic Mona Lisa portrait, painted in the 1500's, coupled with numerous researched museum links served as the cultural catalyst for an ongoing evolving inner city Bronx high school student web research project.

Begun in 1997, as part of the ThinkQuest Challenge, for developing a collaborative web project focused around a particular problem construct "Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling?" in partnership with peers from Borlange Sweden initially reacted, responded and reflected on Lillian Schwartz's research about the identity of Mona Lisa.

Schwartz's contention, that Mona was Leonardo himself, led the students to include museum resources as part of their scientific inquiry into the validity of Schwartz's compelling thesis.

The inner city Bronx HS students who created the web site had little if any personal experiences visiting actual Museum Resources in culturally rich NYC; but through the research process involved in investigating Schwartz's theory, students became online virtual museum visitors,

Among the Museum Web Sites they toured and integrated within the project were: Getty Museum, Boston Science Museum, Science and Technology Museum of Milan, The Vatican, The Exploratorium, Franklin Institute and The Smithsonian Institution.

In turn, the students museum explorations enriched and expanded their initial Why is the Mona Lisa Project, which grew to include further aspects of Leonardo's talents visions and Inventions and connections to other artists and scientists. These were identified in the Museum collection through virtual museum visits.

Indeed in May 2000, when Microsoft issued its NYC Beyond 2000

Challenge, the Bronx HS Students confidently selected the arts

arena as the content area for their ArtiFAQ 2100 Web Project. They were able to use museum web resource to address the challenge by using museums to look back in Art History. The then built on the achievements of art history to predict art social trends 2100. These predictions are presented in the form of Digital Art Creations.

Mona Makes Museum Magic Happen

The multiple ways in which the use of museum web resources have contributed to Learning About Leonardo's success. Museum web resources have played a dual role in the design development and expansion of our project. The project began in 1997 at the behest of the ThinkQuest organization which encourages students under the advisement and coaching of dedicated teacher educators, to develop web site based on a problem construct. Inspired by the seminal work in the field of Bell Labs researcher Lillian Schwartz, students from the Bronx the John F. Kennedy High School a zoned inner city Public High School, adjacent to the Marble Hill projects, selected the issue of Mona Lisa's identity as the core governing principle of their initial project design.

Within this context, the project's initial design of the site features and layout was informed by the key museum resource, The Boston Museum of Science. The design elements of this resource that the students integrated into the design of their web site were:

Parchment colored backgrounds and the ease of navigation were the key elements that served as a catalyst for the students to developing the pages.

The warm color scheme was perfect for the content and visitor appreciation of the web site content. The background color scheme gave it an apt historical backdrop.

Interestingly, despite the significance of Leonardo's achievement and the massive print resources in real museum collections, there was a paucity of museum resources available for student study analysis and reflection. At the time of the site's inception, The Seattle Museum and information about Bill Gate's Codex were just being placed on the web. The development of our project was contiguous with these museum resources. We were in at the beginning when Mona's Magic touch was making itself known on the web.

The original question construct as posed by the students -- Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling? became the central developing theme of the original ThinkQuest project.

The interest it generated from a multi-sector community of educators, researchers in the field, academics, art historians, teacher educators K-12, schools of education, librarians and museums; engendered and suggested various web resources for our project to link to and collaborate with. Among the principle project milestone collaborations was Japan's Miho Museum and peer high school student in Kyoto Japan. Ovation TV ArtsZone after visiting the site, invited our students to be part of a multicultural dialogue exchange with their peers from Kyoto. The focus of this exchange was the design of the Museum in the Mountain. My students posed questions about the Miho Museum.

These were then translated and were responded to by the Japanese peers.

Among the products of this museum design centered partnership was a gallery of student designs. This museum international project extended itself into the Social Studies content area. A Social Studies teacher teamed with our art class to generate additional questions that expanded the project's scope into global issues and multicultural concerns.

A second Ovation initiative centered on the Codex, which can be found online at the Seattle Art Museum, was brought to our site when our students compiled scientific observations in the format of Leonardo's Notebooks. Their work was added to our site and featured in ArtsZone.

The Codex also provides us with the notes and drawings of Leonardo's inventions which establishes his credentials as a futurist circa 1500. Students reviewed his writings and drawings and recognized the connection between Leonardo and Arthur C. Clarke. They developed text and image pages articulating this connection that was published by Artszone.

Another footnote to Leonardo's legacy lies in the tale of Leonardo's Bronze Horse. The Leonardo Horse was meant to be realized as a sculpture in his time. However, the bronze needed to realize the project was reallocated to the war effort. Leonardo's clay model for the horse was used for target practice before it could be constructed.

Not until 1997 was the funding for this dream supplied and realized by Charles Dent and the Tallix Foundry. As a result of visiting our site, the Leonardo Horse Inc invited the JFK design team to its unveiling in Beacon NY. We were there to document and record this event. It resulted in a new page on our site and a wonderful hands-on student centered web base commemoration of a Leonardo milestone.

The development and expansion of our site involves acquiring linkages to museum resources, within the expanse of international Leonardo holdings and collections.

Linkages were sought and granted from the following Museums: Boston Science Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Franklin Science Museum, British Columbia Leonardo Exhibit, Museum of Science and Technology of Milan and the Science and Technology Museum of Israel. By far, the most difficult link to secure was that from the Vatican Museum. Aquiring of this link required the convening of a committee of four Italian Professors to certify our site to the Office of the Holy See. These linkages authenticated our Leonardo research and validated his musical score which is presented on the site. Conversely our site has been the source of concentration by museums who, after reviewing the site has used the site as one of their exhibits. Imagine how our inner city Bronx high school students felt when their work is cited and included in the internationally recognized Institutions such as the Getty Center Digital Experience, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts-Arts Edge and the Smithsonian. Indeed, the 15 year old computers that were used to create the site belong in the Smithsonian as well! After their selection at the Digital Experience at the Getty Museum, the student's interest was peaked as to how and why their high school site was selected. As a result of our inquires to the Getty staff, a letter arrived explaining the criteria behind our selection: Read Letter from Getty:

July 6,1998

Steve Feld

John F. Kennedy High School

Bronx, NY 10463

Dear Steve Feld:

Thank you for your recent letter regarding "Learning about Leonardo" and its inclusion in the Getty Information Institute's Digital Experience. Firstly, allow me to congratulate you and your students on an insightful, educational and entertaining Website. "Learning About Leonardo" continues to be an important addition to our Web-O-Rama tours and I am happy to provide you with a letter background on how it was selected.

The Digital Experience was implemented in a relative short period of time. In the summer of 1997, in conjunction with the construction of its physical space, a working creative team was established to "construct" the digital and Web based aspects of the project. A dozen people converged from various backgrounds, and interests, including designers, producers, researchers, curators, and several Getty staff, to brainstorm and create a multi-media presentation and a Website in time for the Getty opening in December. The process of choosing the Web links was led by our researcher, Holly Mitchem, an educator at Thatcher High School in Ojai, California. Holly would spend countless hours on the internet looking for the best cultural sites available. She would then forward a substantial list of recommendations to a sub-committee who would peruse each site. The sub-committee, which consisted of five people from the creative team, would meet each week to discuss the content, design, and placement of the recommended sites. Since each one of us had very different interests and tastes, consensus was not reached by simply voting on our favorite site, but by discussing at length, the cultural content presented. By the end of four months, we had developed eight virtual tour categories for the Digital Experience with more than a dozen links for each.

Web-O-Rama, the tour for younger audiences, was the most fun. Of the many sites we reviewed, "Learning About Leonardo" was the best at offering art historical information, in a new and innovative way. By presenting the morphing images, Da Vinci and his famous portrait of Mona Lisa, you and your students provoke viewers to go beyond "face value" in a very effective way. The historical content provided, by way of links and essays, and musical references are also to be commended.

I hope this information answers your questions on how "Learning About Leonardo" became an important addition to the Digital Experience inaugural Web site. On behalf of the J. Paul Getty Museum, thank you for your contribution.


David Jensen Manager, Culture Net Initiatives

The Getty Information Institute

This original Leonardo project with its study as Leonardo as futurist inspired our students to use Leonardo's creative impetus as the governing design principle for our response to the Microsoft Challenge. The students were asked to predict art trends 2100. Given their expertise and study of Leonardo whose work certainly forecasts inventions of the 20th century; they decided to use art history past styles and motivations as a means by which to predict events and environments of 2100. It was exhilarating to see how they transferred knowledge from the Mona Lisa project experience to the research involved in this new project component. Permission was secured from the Paris Pages, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum and Mark Harden's Archive to use the desired images.

As I, an experienced arts educator veteran of inner city students review Why is the Mona Lisa installation with its self contained ArtiFAQ 2100 expansion art history project, I am astonished by the extent to which museum web resources are transforming arts in education and providing spatial entry points to multidisciplinary literacy and learning. In light of our experience and ongoing use of museum web resources, we can only hope museums will continue to reach out in a virtual sense to in place school web projects and provide a broad range of partnerships between museums and schools. Together, we educators, can nurture online lifelong literacy and arts appreciation. May Mona manifest her momentum for the 21st century through the use of Museum resources as student centered springboards and captivating catalysts.

Museum Connections

Boston Museum of Science

Leonardo da Vinci can inspire your class! Participating in activities based on Leonardo's scientific and engineering works, students will learn as he did - through experience, experimentation, observation and reflection. Explore science and invention. This is the definitive web site to explore the life and times of Leonardo Da Vinci. What my students found particularly interesting at this site was Leonardo's backwards handwriting.

Smithsonian Institution

Lemelson Digging Deeper

Although the Smithsonian Institution is recognized worldwide for archiving historical inventions, our project is featured in the Lemelson Library as a Digging Deeper Resource.

Museum of Science and Technology of Milan

Our site is being used as a resource for Leonardo on the Net. This link authenticates our music credential.

Franklin Institute Online - Kids Did This on Art!

Our site is included among student-centered project directory.

Leonardo Lives - Seattle Post Intelligencer

Leonardo Lives at the Seattle Art Museum. Our site is listed as a Leonardo da Vinci Resource.

Museum of Paleontology University of Berkeley

Presents the work of Leonardo da Vinci as a paleontologist. Our site is being used as an additional resource.

Leonardo da Vinci Horse, Inc.

Read about Charles Dent's decision to finish Leonardo's 500 year old proposal to the Duke of Milan. Find a newsletter and a fact sheet. Leonardo da Vinci Horse Inc. is the sponsor of the Bronze Horse. Our site is listed as a related Leonardo resource.

Miho Museum Collaboration

Multicultural dialogue between John F. Kennedy High School students with their peers in Japan.

Codex Comes to Kennedy

Another Ovation TV ArtsZone Initiative

Two Men Who Saw the Future

Leonardo da Vinci and Arthur C. Clarke as Futurists

Mark Harden's Archive - Leonardo da Vinci

Mark Hardin's Archive offers a wealth of information and pictures encompassing all periods of Art. As a result of being featured on the Leonardo da Vinci Page, we have received the greatest number of visitors from this site.

Types of assignments: In the ArtiFAQ 2100 project, students were asked to search for relevant artwork representing past artistic achievements. Once they selected these, they had to justify their selection process. They were then asked to write for permission to use the work on their site. Paris Pages gave permission to use Mona Lisa. The Van Gogh Museum did as well for Starry Night. Mark Harden generously provided us with additional work from The Archive.

Permissions were duly secured.

They utilized sophisticated HTML coding to build browser optimized pages, including java applets, and novel framed presentation for the future gallery.  The quiz provides an interactive interface which enables the visitors to access the gallery.

They created many works of digitized computer graphics, building on trends and achievements of the past, to fill the walls of the virtual gallery.