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Please Touch: Why Objects Matter

Posted by Caitlin Tracey-...
24 September 2012 - 8:45am

Please do not touch” signs are a predictable sight in many history museums.  These signs are among the necessary precautions taken to preserve artifacts, but not all artifacts need to be conserved, and many history museums are able to use historic objects in programming. Holding or using an artifact can make history feel real and close. Object experiences can encourage connections, promote curiosity and excitement, and help create memorable learning experiences.

    In the summer after fifth grade my family visited several historic sites related to the American Civil War. I had written a report on Ulysses S. Grant for school and was interested in seeing where that history had happened. Out of all of the sites I visited during that trip, the most memorable moment involved an interaction with objects. At a battlefield near Appomattox Courthouse, a costumed interpreter placed a heavy wool coat on my shoulders and let me hold his rifle. I was startled by the weight of the coat and quickly began to sweat in the July sun. The gun was awkward in my hands, and much bigger than I thought it would be.  The interpreter listed the other items I would have been carrying on long marches, and described the hardships I would have faced, including limited supplies, disease, and danger. I thought about the soldiers who were not much older than me, and imagined what it might have felt like to be one.  Nineteenth century history felt more real than ever before.

    During the time I worked for the Grout Museum District in Waterloo, Iowa, I had the privilege  of participating in a weekly artifact hunt for third graders. This activity provided an opportunity for young people to learn about artifact care and how to study objects. Each student put on a pair of white cotton gloves and spread out in small groups around the museum to track down a numbered artifact. When they found it, they carefully carried it back to the classroom with two hands, just like a collections technician. They would write down a description and how they thought the artifact might have been used.

    The objects were real and students treated them with care. They enjoyed sharing their ideas and discoveries, and asked numerous questions. Objects included a corn husk doll, an arrowhead, a stone corn grinder, and an iron. I heard some students describe this activity as their favorite of the week because it was their chance to touch something and feel professional doing it.

    Neither of these examples are costly or time consuming. Many museums own objects that are not needed in the permanent collection, but might be great for an education collection. For example, if a museum has dozens of the same nineteenth century iron, one of those irons could have much more use as a learning tool. Children were surprised by the weight of the iron and holding it led to conversations about electricity and how much easier laundry is today.

    Both of these opportunities created a space to ask questions, think about history, and make connections.

What are some other connections that can be made with object-based inquiry in history learning environments?