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Using artifacts to teach social studies: What’s the story?

Posted by Cynthia Wallace...
23 March 2015 - 8:36am

Expanding on my previous blog contributions, I’d like to introduce a project I’m currently working on, which involves object-based learning. Collaborating with a provincial history museum The New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, we are currently developing a unit of study that focusses specifically on artifacts, sport, and war. Through a series of six lesson plans, teachers will be able to access a variety of primary and second sources to compare and extend upon the artifact source, and thus reconstruct a “story” around each individual owner. This involves adopting a particular disciplinary approach to the past, which is commonly referred to as “material history” or “material culture.”

Material history, as often practiced in object-centered history museums, represents a unique approach to historical inquiry. As Hood (2009) has pointed out, “most historians are not equipped to do object-centered research” (p.177). For this reason, the challenge of “reading” an object that does not contain words, can be daunting for most anyone, if they have not learned the craft of material history inquiry.

With my own dissertation research involving seventh grade students, I found that participants particularly enjoyed the sense of unbridled wonder that came from approaching their museum as a collection source. Object-based inquiry, although challenging for all, was also doable by all. Students quickly picked up on the technique, and in the process broke away from the official museum story, to create their own sense of meaning – a meaning that was grounded in evidence.

Working with the collection of The New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, we have encountered much the same reaction from student teachers. Thanks to the generosity of Prof. Alan Sears, my curator colleague (Melynda Jarratt) and I, introduced this curatorial approach to a class of student teachers last week. At this particular time, the focus was on the Historical Thinking concept of Evidence and Sources (Seixas & Morton, 2013).

We began by exploring the official narrative of the museum, by adopting a visual historic space mapping technique (Cutrara, 2010). In this way, we were asking: “What’s the story?” Following this exercise, participants examined specific artifacts within the museum collection, for evidence that each artifact contained. This involved close analysis of the object for who-what-when-where-why evidence; followed by corroboration with additional archival and artifact primary sources; and extended contextualisation using secondary sources. Participants then presented their artifact’s story, demonstrating—with evidence—the reasoning behind their conclusions. Although all of these activities have been designed to take place over an entire social studies unit (not just one class), participants nevertheless gained insight into the pedagogical benefits of object-based learning.

What are these benefits, you might ask? Well, first of all, students are empowered to do their own looking, and to choose their own point of entry into the past. They also develop the habits of mind to validate and learn from a source, by initially asking “what is it” (i.e. who created it, when, where, and why), as opposed to simply “what does it say.” This cognitive positioning is what Wineburg (2007) and Ashby (2011) have indicated to be fundamentally important to critical inquiry. In addition, by actually examining (and questioning) the sources behind a museum’s narrative claims, students learn that history is not found “whole cloth”—as a neat package (Seixas et al., 2008, p.7)—but rather, is messy, incomplete, and always open to new ways of looking.

Perhaps most importantly, students also learn that remnants from the past can be tangible and real. Because, at the end of the day, there is nothing more exciting than to witness the past, in all its richness and colour, as a real thing that you can hold in your hand as evidence, and examine for yourself with your own eyes.  This sense of visual intrigue—free of gimmicks and artificial manipulations—is what captivates us beyond words. This aspect of material history is also what Thatcher Ulrich (2001) sums up best, since: “Words cannot display the texture of a bed rug, the sheen of old linen, or the curious geometry of a niddy-noddy. Nor can words replace the subtle measurements our bodies make as we look up at or down upon things…” (p. 8).



Ashby, R. (2011). Understanding historical evidence: teaching and learning challenges. In Davies, I. (Ed.), Debates in history teaching, (pp. 137-147). New York: Routledge.

Cutrara, S. (2010). Transformative history: The possibilities of historic space. Canadian Social Studies, 44(1), 4-16.

Hood, A. (2009). Material culture: The object. In S. Barber, C. Peniston-Bird (Eds.), History beyond text: A student’s guide to approaching alternative sources, (pp. 176-198). New York: Routledge.

Seixas, P. & Morton, T. (2013). The big six historical thinking concepts. Toronto: Nelson.

Thatcher Ulrich, L. (2001). The age of homespun: Objects and stories in the creation of an American myth. New York: Vintage Books.

Wineburg, S. (2007). Unnatural and essential: The nature of historical thinking. Teaching History, 129, 6-11.


Photo Credit: Melynda Jarratt, New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, March 2015