Teaching History with Objects

Over at U.S. History Scene, Hillary Murtha has a great piece on teaching American history with objects.  She shows how to use a wristwatch as a window into the culture of the 1960s “race to the moon.”

Here are Murtha’s “final thoughts”:

I have chosen here to interpret the Moonwatch primarily as evidence of cultural responses to the socio-political trends in the 1960s and 70s. Obviously, it could be viewed in other contexts: for example as having a particular place within the history of American time-keeping, from the sundial to the standard-time railway schedule, from the factory-bell to the punch-clock, from the village tower-clock to the satellite signals sent to today’s mobile devices. If we were examining the Moonwatch in this relationship, we would be interested in the nature of its works (hand-wound, pre-dating both the self-winding feature and the quartz crystal movement) and in how representative a timepiece it was in 1970s America. The context in which an object is viewed determines the nature of our inquiries into it.

Any history teacher who wishes to incorporate material culture into his/her lesson plans can  search available databases for appropriate articles from material-culture based journals (some of which I have listed below). They may also consider consulting the curators of local history museums and historic societies about relevant objects the institutions may hold in their collections. Most elementary school students have the experience of being taken on a field trip to a history museum where they see a recreated colonial or pioneer kitchen, witness a demonstration of the spinning wheel, blacksmithing, or some other handcraft, and learn through re-enactment, how people ate, worked, dressed “back then.” Unfortunately, instead of taking this material-culture based learning experience to more sophisticated and adult levels as students move into secondary school and beyond, it is generally abandoned. As the history profession is becoming more receptive to material culture studies, and beginning to acknowledge that the field employs a set of methodologies as rigorous and exacting as the more traditionalist interpretations of documentary evidence, secondary and college-level instructors can mine the field and enrich their student’s classroom experiences.