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The Object of History: Behind the Scenes with the Curators at the National Museum of American History

Center for History and New Media and the National Museum of American History
CHNM, in-house, Jeremy Boggs and Stephanie Hurter

Object of History

Object of History

In the The Object of History <>, the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University (GMU) has develop six web-based “object lessons” and virtual field trips using artifacts from the unparalleled collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH).  Comprised of online teaching modules and curator chats that will occur throughout 2007-2008 school year, _The Object of History_ teaches students to analyze historical objects while participating in an interactive experience that brings them into contact with NMAH curators. Additionally, CHNM has disseminated a set of software and materials to museum professionals that will assist them in organizing and producing their own “object lessons” using artifacts from their collections. Our “object lessons” and the model based on them benefits museum professionals and teachers and students in by 1) producing sophisticated resources that enhance the teaching of U.S. History;

2) making the insights of museum experts available to students, improving their ability to analyze historical objects; 3) disseminating an easy to use and low-cost template for museums that want to augment their web-based educational programming and to reach distant communities of students. 

The site contains six web-based “object lessons,” organized chronologically to support the standard high school U.S. History curriculum, and targeted at students.  Each "object lesson" contains four elements: 1) The Introduction Section provides a provocative short movie situating the object, and allows students and teachers to closely examine a QTVR rendering of the artifact; 2) The Explore Section deals with the central object as an artifact, in it's historical context and with its collection and display within the museum.  This section includes short curator interviews and associated primary sources; 3) The Tours Section allows the instructor to narrow students work by focusing in on smaller sets of thematically selected primary materials and curator interviews; 4) The Resources section provides students with an annotated set of links to outside web resources that they might want to use to further their inquiry.

In addition to the "object lessons" the site provides a number of support materials to deepen student learning: 1) "Guide to Doing History with Objects," by Steve Lubar and Kathleen Kendrick, introduces students to the process of doing historical inquiry with artifacts. 2) The Forums are a series of podcast interviews with curators and historians that provide further insight into the historical significance of the objects.

Finally, there are resources for teachers and student assessment.  Each "object lesson" has an accompanying "Teaching the Object of History" module that includes an introductory activity about material culture, a listing of the relevant social studies standards, and three activities that make use of the materials on the site.  Also, in the Activity section, students and teachers can select individual objects, primary sources, or curator interviews and assemble them with commentary into a Virtual Exhibit.  The result is a "slide show" with a unique URL that students can email to their teacher.

While these elements of the site contribute significantly to the teaching and learning of history, _The Object of History_ has the simultaneous goal of helping the smaller museums to conduct similar types of educational outreach with their collections.  Thus, we have released a set of materials (both software and documentation) that will allow institutions to create their own "object lessons."  Using CHNM's popular open-source web-publishing platform, Omeka <>, the materials provide museum educators and curators with the following:
*  The ability to easily create online exhibits using materials from museum collections
* The opportunity to use museum objects as the keystone of classroom activities
* A repository for lesson plans and classroom activities that are tied to state standards of learning
* An Interactive online activity for users to create their own virtual exhibits using materials from the Object Lessons
* Space to publish a guide to analyzing and understanding the types of objects featured on in the Object Lessons
* A platform to host curator and educator podcasts associated with the Object Lessons

In sum, _The Object of History_ is an exemplary teaching and outreach project that presents core objects from NMAH collections, the voice of curator expertise, and interactive activities that reinforce both content knowledge and historical thinking skills.  The project serves as a model to other institutions that would like to do similar outreach using our software and guidance.

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