Using Artifacts to Inspire Critical Thinking

This article has been re-posted from the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access page. It was written by Mary Manning, College and Career Readiness Specialist, at Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Ohio.

You don’t need to be a museum curator to use artifacts in a classroom. If you decide to use visual thinking strategies, which offer powerful ways to unravel all the symbolic power of artistic images, they may not seem to apply to artifacts, especially those used in daily life that may not carry symbolic meanings. However, artifacts are the most often forgotten yet most compelling kind of primary source—they may not tell us a story in words and figures, but they can lead us down trails of questions that can stimulate critical thinking and research in the classroom.

Sasaki Family Photograph, 1960.

Sasaki Family Photograph, 1960.
Members of the Sasaki family are shown in their kitchen, preparing the actual cakes and treats that were made from the sticky mashed rice created in the mochi barrel. Cleveland History Center.

Making Sense of Mochi

When I began to design a Learning Lab collection that featured Asian Pacific American stories from the Cleveland History Center’s collections, I found one such compelling artifact—a mochi barrel used by the Sasakis, a Japanese-American family that lived in Cleveland, Ohio. At around two feet tall, our mochi barrel is a deceptively heavy contraption of wood curved around the cement dish inside. Inside the lid, a series of Japanese characters confirms that the barrel  was made in Cleveland in 1947. I became fascinated by this object, so I began exploring its history through all the questions that it brought to my mind.

First, who was the Sasaki family? How did they come to Cleveland? I knew that much of Cleveland’s Japanese population arrived during World War II, and indeed, after being interned on the west coast, they were placed in Cleveland through the local War Relocation Authority office and efforts of local churches. Telling the story of the Sasakis and their mochi barrel meant combing through these local records, seeking references to the specific family or to situations that mirrored their experience. I also realized that I couldn’t explain how the barrel was used.

After some searching, I learned that making mochi could be a very intensive process, but one that has persisted through centuries of Japanese New Year celebrations. Telling the story of the mochi barrel then became about the process and science behind its function. The more I learned the more I saw these lines of questioning coming together: I wondered if their oppressive experience in internment camps made even more important to preserve cultural rituals like mochi making in their lives.

Questioning Through Artifacts

If you ever find one compelling object or image, don’t hesitate to bring it into your classroom, and use it to build out a lesson. Students are curious; when you let them observe an object for some time, and then ask what they see, they often respond with questions that cut to the core of why the object exists in the first place. They are often able to intuit the purpose of an unfamiliar object from what they already know. They can use their questions as a guide to research the historical context that fills in gaps of knowledge about the object and, potentially, creates more questions. In this process, there doesn’t always have to be just one story—strands of history inherently relate because they all tie back to that one original object.

Through this process, students seek a holistic view of an artifact or image, weighing information for value and bias and how it does or does not fit into the object’s story.  There may be no bad questions, but there are certainly deeper questions that lead to higher-quality answers. By pushing students to question what they see through an intensive engagement with a single object, you hone a process of learning to interpret and draw meaning that enhances the way that students view the world around them. The Sasaki family and their mochi barrel provide the perfect example of why these skills serve students so well. The Sasakis do not play a role in any of the great triumphs and magnificent failures that would characterize a history of Cleveland in the twentieth century, but the ways in which they experienced internment and remade their lives tell us much about what is possible to find in between the events in our history books.

The Cleveland History Center is a Smithsonian Affiliate museum that collaborated on the Teacher Creativity Studio program. This program received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Things Come Together for “Things Come Apart”

Disassembled flip clock

Flip clock made by Sanyo in the 1970s, component count: 426 © Todd McLellan

Special thanks to Rene Rodgers at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum for sharing this blog with us. Things Come Apart, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, is on view at the museum through October 8, 2017.

“Things Come Apart is not our “usual” type of exhibit, one where the focus is on the history of early country music, the musical legacy of this region, or other related social and cultural topics. However, one of our aims with the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery is to also choose interesting and engaging exhibits that will serve to bring new audiences into the museum and expand the educational resources offered to our local community. With this type of exhibit, we also work hard to find ways to relate the exhibit’s subject to our content or to music, for instance through panels and artifact supplements or the related programming and outreach.”

Read the whole blog post here.

Supersonic Challenges: The Installation of the F-5 Fighter Jet

Special thanks for this guest post to Dr. Jorge Perez-Gallego, Curator of Astronomy and Exhibition Developer, Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science.

Riddle us this: what moves faster than the speed of sound and lives in a gallery?

Give up?

Gulf Stream Aquarium Oculus

Gulf Stream Aquarium Oculus at the Frost Museum of Science. Photo by Ra-Haus.

The answer: a Northrop F-5B Freedom Fighter, on loan to the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science from the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The supersonic light fighter is capable of speeds faster than 1,000 miles per hour and you’ll find it hanging right over your head in the Feathers to the Stars exhibition, located in the Batchelor Foundation and Christine Allen Gallery, in the museum’s North Wing.

Frost Science, which officially opened its doors in Downtown Miami’s Museum Park on May 8, is truly a marvel of both architectural and engineering feats. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum features a three-level 500,000-gallon cone-shaped Gulf Stream Aquarium teeming with hammerhead sharks and dolphins, anchored by a 31-foot oculus lens that peers into the waters above. The Frost Planetarium, one of the most advanced facilities of its kind anywhere in the world, uses a 16-million-color, 3-D 8K visual system to send visitors hurtling through space and into the depths of the ocean. And with a fascinating roster of interactive exhibitions, it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring and being immersed in the power of science.

Now, about that Northrop—exactly how is an 8,000-pound airplane moved into a gallery? Teamwork. Lots of it. For that, Frost Science enlisted the help of an invaluable group of experts, including first-class airplane movers and riggers. The aircraft was brought into the building in three pieces (the fuselage, the wings and the tail) through a tight opening between the Frost Planetarium and the level three terraces. The intricate task took our crew 10 hours from beginning to end.

Breaking through the sound barrier is a relatively recent feat in human history. On October 14, 1947, Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager became the first to do so. Manning a rocket engine-powered Bell X-1, Yeager reached Mach 1.06— exceeding the speed of sound in level flight. (At 768 miles per hour, Mach 1 is equal to the speed of sound.)

Feathers to the Stars exhibition at Frost Museum of Science. Photo by Ra-Haus

Because sound waves move at a finite speed, moving sources can catch up with the sound waves they emit as they accelerate. As this happens, sound waves pile up in front of them. If the aircraft is fast enough, it can burst through them causing a sonic boom. The loud noise is a consequence of the change in pressure as the aircraft outruns all the sound waves ahead of itself.

That accomplishment came just over 40 years after Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, sustained flight of a heavier-than-air powered aircraft on December 17, 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. And just over 20 years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. In less than a lifetime, humans mastered the sky and knocked on the door of space exploration.

Feathers to the Stars will carry you through the amazing story how ancient evolution gave birth to animal flight, and how humans used imagination and engineering to get airborne and explore the infinite possibilities of space. The exhibition also features a rocket engine, a rocket tail piece with jet deflector vanes, and a model of a V-2 missile (the world’s first guided missile) on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Ultimately, Feathers to the Stars is a story driven by challenges—and perseverance. Ready for take-off? You can find more information on the exhibition here.