Museum Maps: Using Google Maps to Create Field Assignment Resources in MUSEUM 370

by Kristina Wilson


In partnership with Professor Caroline Goldthorpe, MUSEUM 370 – Museum Origins and Issues underwent revision between December 2016 and March 2017. This course is a required course in the Museum Studies Online Certificate Program and was originally developed in 2007 as one of the first courses the School of Professional Studies offered online. Throughout our revision, we strove to preserve the best components of the existing course and update the course to meet Quality Matters standards.

One carefully considered, critical assignment in the course is the weekly Field Assignment. Each week, of the course discusses the origins and ethical issues related to a different type of museum (Natural History, Science, Local History, or Art, for example). The assignment is for students to locate such a museum near them to visit: an unusually rich, multi-layered learning experience away from the computer.

This not only sends students out to see museums in their own area that they may not typically visit. It also creates an awareness for the whole class of museums that for the most part they have never heard of, with engaged conversations between the students reminiscing about visiting the same place years before or comparing the visit with the museum they just visited.

Challenges and Solutions

During revision, we wondered:

  • How can we encourage students to visit museums in person if possible?
  • How can we encourage students to digitally explore a variety of museums outside of their immediate geographic area?

Our solution, in partnership with Multimedia Coordinator Patricia Chrastka, was to create a series of interactive museum maps using Google My Maps (formerly the Google Maps Engine). It is our hope that students will be able to identify museums in their immediate geographic regions to complete the Field Assignments, as well as conduct basic analysis, such as seeing where certain kinds of museums are concentrated, reviewing the naming conventions for museums in a certain field, or just “browsing” through museums in search of something new and exciting.


During development, we prioritized pedagogy before technology and closely considered what purpose the museum maps would serve in the course. This ensured that their use aligned with course objectives and assessments.

We also considered a variety of mapping technologies before settling on a solution. StoryLab, developed by Northwestern’s Knight Lab, was an attractive option, but it was more linear and less collaborative. It didn’t support the kind of browsing and editing that we hoped to include. TripLine was on the slate as a close second, but it also follows a linear numbering and navigation system and would have required students to create a new account if they wanted to collaborate.

In addition to more robust collaboration options than the other technologies we reviewed, Google My Maps also included a variety of accessibility features, such as navigation via keyboard or screenreader. However, the Museum Maps that we developed are presented as an optional resource. Students will able to meet the course objectives and complete the course assessments without the use of the Museum Maps.

Live Example

By now you’re probably curious about what the Museum Maps look like! Why not see if there’s a children’s museum near you? Or perhaps consider where in the United States children’s museums are concentrated? Or browse the names of different children’s museums to consider their nomenclature?


Now that you’ve heard the rationale for creating such an element and explored one for yourself, you’re probably thinking, “So how did you build this?”

It is worth acknowledging that this process took a good deal of time during development. We knew plotting every museum on the United States map would be time consuming and would require collaboration and communication between Professor Goldthorpe, myself (the Learning Designer), and the Multimedia Coordinator.


  1. We created blank maps using Google My Maps, making sure that the privacy settings allowed the map to be viewed by the public.
  2. Professor Goldthorpe curated lists of museums to populate each map, based on open source web resources. For example, consider this list of natural history museums in the United States, created via crowdsourcing on Wikipedia. She estimated that about 20 hours of work was required in compiling and cross-checking lists of museums by subject.
  3. The Learning Designer and Multimedia Developer plotted the museums on the map using best practices. These included using differentiating icons so that students can see at-a-glance if they are looking at the correct map, using groups to apply uniform styles, and dividing the maps by region to make it easier to navigate using a screenreader.
  4. The Learning Designer hosted the maps on a page in the course site that students could refer to easily. The page is located in the Getting Started module so that students are introduced to the resource in the first few days of the course.
  5. We linked to the page from each related assignment so that it is clear when students should utilize the maps.
  6. We also provided contextualization on the page about how the Museums Maps could be used in the course, so that they integrate into the course more completely. Otherwise, students might not know what to do with them!

We were aware of Google Maps’ data import feature and we experimented with a few alternative methods of importing all the location data we received. One of these methods was copying and pasting the data into an Excel Spreadsheet to automatically pin all the museum locations. While the method did work, each pin lacked the necessary location details (i.e. business hours, contact information, photos, exact address, reviews) to make the maps beneficial for the students. Manually plotting and checking each museum location ended up being the best and most accurate method for all maps.

Looking Ahead

Although we consider this a successful use of educational technology, there were some features that we had hoped to add to the Museum Maps that we weren’t able to include in this short time frame. For example, we had originally hoped that students could collaborate on the maps, removing points when museums close, adding points as they discover new museums, and commenting on museums, sharing images and video of their visits. That is one one significant drawback to the Google My Maps platform: the lack of a comment system for students to engage in discussion directly related to points of interest on shared maps.

We had also hoped that students might be able to create their own maps, documenting their visits (either in person of virtual) throughout the quarter. With iframe embedding features, students could create and share maps, add photos, descriptions, and YouTube videos to each location, and embed maps into Canvas discussion posts as iframes. However, student Google Apps for Education accounts at Northwestern do not currently include the My Maps application, and we would have had to request this access (potentially on a university level or student-by-student basis) from Northwestern Information Technology.

Assessment and Follow Up

This course is being taught in its revised form for the first time in Spring 2017, so we have yet to receive student feedback on the maps.

However, we did collect anonymous faculty feedback at our course presentation and a quick review reveals that they were impressed. Most comments were enthusiastic, and included: “The map resource of museums is quite amazing! Bravo!” and “The museum maps are impressive – what an exciting resource!”

One faculty member noted that “[This was] clearly a challenge of great (and rewarding) magnitude. It appears the location map will be used as a ‘living’ resource for courses addressing museum studies. Quite impressive!”

Another acknowledged “…that common tools such as Google Maps are being used for new purposes. Any time a student can learn to use a tool that isn’t ed-tech specific to enhance their overall digital literacy is positive in my opinion.” 

You can read more about Google Maps for Education, and if you would like to include a map feature in your online course, contact a Learning Designer or Instructional Technologist for assistance!

I would like to thank Professor Caroline Goldthorpe and Multimedia Coordinator Patricia Chrastka for their contributions to this blog post.