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Artifacts and Collections Readily-at-Hand

Posted by Laurence Abbott
16 September 2012 - 4:46pm

In my role as a teacher educator specializing in social studies curriculum, I do not get a lot of opportunity to take students to museums or to explore the collections held by my university. Yet I certainly appreciate the role that encounters with objects, collections, spaces and places plays in vivifying social studies and history education content and concepts.  I have long been fascinated with the notion of touching the past, and I bring that passion for encountering the past in the present to my current teaching practice.

For many of my current students, some of whom were not born until after the end of the Cold War, but are on the verge of going out into schools to teach, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, for example, is already a temporally and geographically distant event recorded in history textbooks and video clips. I introduce my discussion of the pedagogic possibilities of encounters with artifacts by passing fragments of the wall I collected in the spring of 1990. As tiny bits of a huge human-made object, these fragments of painted concrete have no monetary value, but the tactile encounter with them does manage to get students talking.

While I enjoy bringing artifacts into the classroom as a way of connecting students to the past, schools often have ready-at-hand collections worthy of inquiry in the form of textbooks. Current and older textbooks used for student inquiries into the past need not necessarily come from social studies or history, but could come from the sciences or language arts. Such commonplace books are artifacts that yield interesting and valuable snapshots of social, cultural, political, economic and scientific domains at particular points in the past. In my experience there are, often enough, textbooks in school collections that predate the birth of students currently enrolled. Students and teachers can tap into these relics of the past for representations of elements and aspects of their world that may no longer be present, without having to go through the routines of field trip releases. I have seen students engaged in careful examination and critique of fashions worn by people in images in textbooks in many subject areas. Such representations serve as an ‘in’ for teachers to challenge students to appreciate the historical situatedness of textbooks in the recent and more distant past and provides a window into the larger world at the time of printing.

Bringing in artifacts from your personal collection and engaging with textbooks as historical artifacts themselves are two creative strategies to stimulate historical thinking using objects. What do you do in your classroom to bring historical object-based inquiry into your lessons?