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Introduction to
Writing History

Handout 1
Handout 2
Handout 3
Handout 4
Handout 5
Handout 6

Writing History with Objects and Documents

Teacher's Note
Student's Guide

Introduction to Writing History

Artifacts and objects give history its tangible form. Our picture of the past would remain disappointingly vague in the absence of material evidence. How, for example, would we envision the perilous transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in 1927 if we could not see The Spirit of St. Louis? The millions of visitors who have examined this airplane in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum have an intimate sense of how primitive that aircraft was by modern standards.

Or consider how little sense we would make of Francis Scott Key's verses about a battle in 1812 were it not for the Star Spangled Banner itself, now housed in the National Museum of American History. This huge banner inspired the national anthem of the United States and invites awe due to its monumental scale.

In both of these instances, artifacts actually help us understand history. Objects are as important and useful as are letters and other documents; all of these are the primary sources of history. For students to know how to decode visual material such as objects requires experience with several of the techniques historians and curators use. This publication features a strategy for acquiring them. It includes a series of cumulative activities and assignments through which students may learn how to analyze artifacts, visual material, and other primary sources.

This site is the electronic version of the Smithsonian publication Artifact & Analysis. The section titled "Consumerism" follows the print version. The "Expansion of the Nation" section is new. Full-color transparencies of the "Consumerism" objects are available from the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies.

Teachers traditionally help students learn to analyze written primary sources. Students, however, do not have enough opportunities to think about artifacts and artworks as primary sources. This website provides the opportunity for students to decode the significance of objects for themselves. Not only do students learn from this that careful scrutiny of artifacts is good historical practice, they also become aware that artifacts have numerous meanings that are equally valid.

On this site, explanatory material accompanies each object in the form of a label. If the object were on view at the Smithsonian, this information would probably be on the label displayed with it. Our labels give dates, donor and collection information, and basic contextual information.

Passages of text also accompany each object. These documents help place the object in a historical context. Historians usually seek documentary evidence from textual sources such as these to confirm or revise their initial perceptions of an object.

How to Use This Website

Part I

Begin by examining the artifacts and reading the documents, then review the instructional material. There are many ways of implementing the projects and assignments; thus, teachers may wish to select only a few of the exercises based upon their specific classroom goals. The activities and assignments are arranged cumulatively so as to lead students toward gaining competence in interpreting visual material as a basis for writing essays.

To use the first step in the process, "Generating Questions about Artifacts" (handout 1), select one of the study objects or any other object that points toward a historically significant issue. Students can give shape to the investigation by generating their own questions about the artifact at hand after they have articulated what they already know about the given object.

Student handouts 2, 3, and 4, "Artifact Study," "Document Analysis," and "Comparing Artifacts and Documents," have been arranged so that the artifacts can be analyzed prior to investigating written documents. The purpose of this placement is to emphasize that one analyzes an object much as one reads a written document. After completing these activities, students will perceive more similarities than differences between artifacts and documents. They should begin to feel comfortable with object study.

Handout 5, "Artifacts in Historical Context," is a strategy for investigating the culture that surrounds a given object. It takes students through the steps outlined by Lubar and Kendrick in "Looking at Artifacts, Thinking about History." The authors present a cogent and compelling case for the importance of artifacts to the study of history.

"Skill Building and Writing" (handout 6) is for students who choose one object in the study collection. Careful observation of the artifact is the first step in the students' inquiry process. Next, the students should pose questions about the object, hopefully opening up an interesting historical issue; this question will drive the investigation. Students should then turn to the documents that accompany their object. After investigating these resources, they should be able to formulate a preliminary hypothesis that responds to their original question. The hypothesis may serve as the backbone of an argument for an essay.

Part II

The second part of the site focuses on skills that come into play when writing historical essays. "Writing History with Objects and Documents" is intended for teachers; it spells out a process of investigation and essay writing. The Writing Assignments section includes questions and pointers as to which objects and documents might be most useful. Teachers may wish to review "The Culture of Consumerism" for background on the topic. The "Student's Guide to Writing Effective Essays" may be useful as a handout in completing the assignments.

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