Looking at artifacts thinking about history

Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History. If we know how to look at them, they can be sources for better understanding our history. While textbooks focus on the great documents of the American past, or the important events, artifacts can show us another kind of history, another way of approaching the past.

This Web site will tell you how to look closely at artifacts and how to think about the ways they shape and reflect our history. Why bother looking at artifacts, which can be hard to understand, when there are so many documents around, and when documents seem so much more straightforward? Why do museums save artifacts at all, when it would be so much easier just to save pictures of them?

There are two ways to answer this question. Artifacts, we believe, are, and were, important.

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According to anthropologist Daniel Miller, objects "continually assert their presence as simultaneously material force and symbol. They frame the way we act in the world, as well as the way we think about the world. But they are also important to us as a way to approach the past. Museum Director Elaine Gurian suggests that artifacts provide us a way into history. They make history real. Moreover, it is a reality that can and should be viewed from different perspectives. When museums choose not to enshrine and isolate an artifact but instead open it up to new interpretations and different points of view, they provide opportunities to challenge and enhance our understanding of the past.

Look at the artifacts on this web site, and around you, as reminders of the complexity of the past. Rather, consider each artifact with its many stories as holding diverse meanings for different people, past and present. Think of them as bits of contested history. It is because of the contest and conflict they embody, and the way they combine use and meaning, that artifacts are such valuable tools for exploring the past.

Looking closely at artifacts, putting them into historical context, and using them to understand the past, is exactly the kind of work that goes on in a museum. Curators make it their mission to discover and tell these stories, to put objects back into history. So as you look at these artifacts, and the documents with them, imagine that you're curating your own exhibit.

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What stories do the objects tell? What documents, and what stories from you history books, help you to understand what the objects meant to the people of the past? What can you say about the past by using objects?

How can you tell visitors to your exhibit what you've learned?Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History.

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Artifacts are more than just material things. They communicate ideas, symbolize values, and convey emotions.

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When we consider meaning, value, and significance, we are in the domain of cultural history. Different artifacts mean different things to different people, and those meanings change over time. It tells a story of changing value in use, as a memento, as a collectible: A Personal Triumph. For first baseman Buck Leonard, this baseball was a souvenir of a winning game, a symbol of his skill and success, and a reminder of how far he had come.

Leonard saved this ball for nearly 45 years before finally donating it to the Smithsonian in An Unequal Playing Field. Although the Negro Leagues easily matched the majors in skill and talent, racial and economic barriers kept black and white ballplayers on separate and unequal playing fields. For black teams, baseballs like this one represented the professional equipment they deserved, but did not always get.

To save money during the lean Depression years, the Negro League often bought inferior Wilson cc balls, which cost fifty cents less per dozen than major-league balls. Only on special occasions, such as All-Star games, could players expect to use official league baseballs like this one. The Fans' Favorite Game. For Negro League fans, this baseball represented the most important game of the year.

Fans especially loved the East-West games because they picked the players. At the turn of the twentieth century, the "unwritten rule" that barred black men from playing major league baseball was part of a system of racial segregation that kept white and black Americans in separate and unequal worlds.

Founded in by Andrew "Rube" Foster, the Negro Leagues was one of many African American institutions built behind this color barrier. It became one of the most successful black-owned businesses of its time. Foster hoped his Negro Leagues would promote self-respect and self-help among African Americans and "do something concrete for the loyalty of the race. Inthis baseball became a collector's item when its owner, Buck Leonard, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Not until did the major-league establishment begin to recognize the achievements of Leonard, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, and other Negro League stars who, in the words of white Hall of Famer Ted Williams, did not make it into the majors "only because they weren't given the chance.Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History.

Looking at the artifact helps answer questions about its own history. What is it? When was it made? Where is it from? What is it made of? Who made it? How was it used? These kinds of questions establish basic information about the object; they help to identify and locate it in time and place.

This way of looking at an object can be thought of as looking inward. Often, these are the first questions to ask of an artifact. On this Web site, we've provided much of this information.

For a document, the similar questions would be: Who wrote it? The next step, for an artifact as for a document, is to take the object as a point of departure, opening up the world beyond the artifact. When we do that, we learn a different kind of history. Imagine the artifact not in a spotlight by itself, but rather against a variegated backdrop of people, places, and events.

looking at artifacts thinking about history

Now, many stories emerge. Here, we begin to ask questions about the people who used the artifact, the events that surrounded it. If we ask the right questions, and do the right research, we begin to understand the role an object played in people's lives, the meanings it held to different individuals and communities, the way it reflected the knowledge, values, and tastes of a particular era.

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In short, we see the object as part of American history. When placed in context like this, museum artifacts become passageways into history. Through a single object, we can connect to a moment in time, a person's life, a set of values and beliefs.Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History. A fourth way of looking at an artifact is to think about its place in history.

Artifacts are time capsules. They embody the tastes and values of an era. They mark a stage of technological evolution. They evoke memories of a specific time and place. Different objects, from different times, look different, and were used differently. Objects can tell us something of their times. This Kodak Brownie camera was used by Bernice Palmer to photograph survivors of the Titanic disaster in A Tragic Event.

Over 1, lives were lost after the ship struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic Ocean, about miles south of Newfoundland. The Carpathiaa passenger liner bound for the Mediterranean, received the Titanic 's distress call and arrived within hours to rescue the survivors. Using this camera, Carpathia passenger Bernice Palmer took photographs of the Titanic survivors and the iceberg that sank the great ship.

A Visual Age. The beginning of the twentieth century marked a new era in American history: the age of images. A editorial in Harpers Weekly proclaimed, "We can't see the ideas for the illustrations. Our world is simply flooded with them. Newspapers, magazines, newsreels, stereographs, and other media transformed current events into a series of images.

Many of these images have become part of our nation's collective memory. A Technological Moment. How was it that eighteen-year-old Bernice Palmer had a camera with her aboard a passenger ship in ?

The Kodak Brownie camera, introduced inrepresented a series of technological innovations that made it possible for millions of people to own cameras by the early twentieth century. With its simple features and affordable price tag, this Kodak Brownie camera captured a moment when, for the first time, almost anybody could be a photographer. A Moment in a Life.

In April ofBernice Palmer, an eighteen-year-old from Ontario, Canada, had just graduated from finishing school. To celebrate, she and her mother boarded the Carpathia for a cruise to the sunny Mediterranean. Four days out from New York, their ship suddenly changed course to rescue survivors from the Titanic. This Kodak Brownie camera, which Palmer expected would capture memories of her Mediterranean adventure, became instead a poignant souvenir of her close encounter with tragedy.

InPalmer donated her camera and photographs to the Smithsonian.Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History.

looking at artifacts thinking about history

Times change; history is the story of those changes. An artifact, or a collection of artifacts, can reflect change over time. Artifacts change as our society and culture change; artifacts nudge these changes along; and artifacts themselves change over time. Artifacts reflect changes, and sometimes cause change. They allow us opportunities to consider how and why society and culture change over time. Think about some of the changes reflected by this typewriter, manufactured by E.

It tells a story of innovations in technology and manufacturing. The adoption of the typewriter, at just the same time that women began to work in offices, reflected changes in women's roles, new ideas about the organization of work, and the rapidly growing corporations of the day. In turn, the typewriter brought about and helped to accelerate social change, opening up new jobs for women in the office. Changes in Business and the Workplace.

The typewriter, by reducing the time and expense involved in creating documents, encouraged the spread of systematic management. It allowed a system of communications that shaped the business world.

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Inthere were very few women office workers. Inthere were nearly 45, and 64 percent of stenographers and typists were women. Social Changes. In the s, when the typewriter was first adopted in many offices, America was a country in the throes of rapid change. The way in which the typewriter was adopted reflected changes in women's roles, new ideas about the organization of work, and the rapidly growing corporations of the day.

In turn, the typewriter opened up many new jobs for women in the office.

Changes in People's Lives. Though it took a while for the typewriter to catch on, it quickly changed the lives of those who used it. Many working-class women saw office jobs as an escape from the drudgery of factory jobs. Office work was a step up in the class structure, a cleaner, higher-paying job.

One novel described the changes in the life of a young woman when she got her first job as a typist. Invention, Innovation and Obsolescence. Dozens of inventors had tried to invent a workable writing machine, but it wasn't until that the right combination of a clever mechanism, manufacturing expertise, and a growing market allowed the typewriter to become a commercial success.

Christopher Latham Sholes, a Milwaukee printer, editor, and government bureaucrat, received his first typewriter patent inand two more in the next few years. Many inventors devised improvements for the typewriter, from the shift key in to the electric typewriter in In all, several thousand typewriter patents were granted.These ways of looking at artifacts can tell you not just about the artifact, but also about history.

They put the artifacts back into history.

looking at artifacts thinking about history

To do this, we have to find the story of the artifact, the people who used it, and the society and culture it was part of. We need to understand its story. In this essay, we do that by providing documents that relate to the artifact. In fact, you can think of the artifact as another kind of document—one that is sometimes hard to read, but which can tell you a new, deeper, more interesting kind of story. Read the artifacts and the other documents together, and you'll come closer to understanding how people of the past lived and thought and felt about things.

Artifacts are more complex than we sometimes give them credit for. In Telling the Truth about Historyauthors Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob argue that "Any history is always someone's history, told by that someone from a partial point of view.

Yet," they continue, "external reality has the power to impose itself on the mind; past realities remain in records of various sorts that historians are trained to interpret.

By imposing themselves on the mind, they demand explanation. Artifacts, because of their complexity and layers of information, can lead to many stories.

Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History

Curators may have collected tools and machines to tell a story of technological progress, but those same artifacts can also tell stories of work, skill, and industrial organization. A First Lady's gown might have been collected to tell a story of fashion and upper-class sensibility, but it also can tell a story of the dressmaker who made the gown.

Collections brought to the museum for one reason can be reinterpreted; they can tell new stories. Our perceptions of objects, and the meanings we derive from them, are shaped by the context in which they are shown. In fact, though, it is a strength. Meanings in artifacts are made not just in their own history, but beyond them, in the thoughts and conversations that flow around the objects.

The flexible nature of artifacts, which can be interpreted and reinterpreted, viewed and reviewed, and used to tell many different stories, enables everyone to participate in that search. So as you consider the artifacts on this Web site, use them not only to understand the past, but also as a way to discuss the present.

Discuss what they meant to the people who made and used them, but also what they mean to you. Your understanding of the artifacts, like the museum exhibit a curator designs around them, is only the beginning, for artifacts tell many stories. Home About Teachers Privacy Help.Artifacts—the objects we make and use—are part of American history.

If we know how to look at them, they can be sources for better understanding our history. While textbooks focus on the great documents of the American past, or the important events, artifacts can show us another kind of history, another way of approaching the past.

This essay will tell you how to look closely at artifacts and how to think about the ways they shape and reflect our history. Why bother looking at artifacts, which can be hard to understand, when there are so many documents around, and when documents seem so much more straightforward? Why do museums save artifacts at all, when it would be so much easier just to save pictures of them? There are two ways to answer this question. Artifacts, we believe, are, and were, important.

They frame the way we act in the world, as well as the way we think about the world. But they are also important to us as a way to approach the past. Museum expert Elaine Gurian suggests that artifacts provide us a way into history. They make history real.

looking at artifacts thinking about history

Moreover, it is a reality that can and should be viewed from different perspectives. When museums choose not to enshrine and isolate an artifact but instead open it up to new interpretations and different points of view, they provide opportunities to challenge and enhance our understanding of the past. Look at the artifacts on this web site, and around you, as reminders of the complexity of the past. To fully appreciate the complexity of artifacts—and of history—we must not only acknowledge their multiple and conflicting meanings, but embrace them.

As you look at the artifacts on this web site, think about them not as simple, unproblematic things—things with one story, one role to play in history. Rather, consider each artifact with its many stories as holding diverse meanings for different people, past and present. Think of them as bits of contested history. It is because of the contest and conflict they embody, and the way they combine use and meaning, that artifacts are such valuable tools for exploring the past.

Looking closely at artifacts, putting them into historical context, and using them to understand the past, is exactly the kind of work that goes on in a museum. Curators make it their mission to discover and tell these stories, to put objects back into history. So as you look at these artifacts, and the documents with them, imagine that you're curating your own exhibit. What stories do the objects tell? What documents, and what stories from you history books, help you to understand what the objects meant to the people of the past?

What can you say about the past by using objects? How can you tell visitors to your exhibit what you've learned? You can look at any object in any or all of these ways. Here, we suggest some questions to ask, and give some examples. As you consider the artifacts in this website—or any artifact in museums, or in your daily life—you can ask similar questions. Think like a curator: use the artifacts to understand, explain, and present history.


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