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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.

Kudos Affiliates! February 2019

Congratulations to these Affiliates on their recent accomplishments! Do you have kudos to share? Please send potential entries to Aaron Glavas, GlavasC@si.edu.

FUNDING

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced $14.8 million in grants to support 253 humanities projects in 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. An additional $47.5 million was awarded to fund 55 state humanities council partners. The following Affiliates are included in the awards:

Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum (Chicago, IL): $178,961
Extending Zooniverse.org’s online platform to allow individual crowdsourcing project teams to review, compare, and edit transcriptions, and to work directly with raw text data generated from community transcription projects.

Michigan State University Museum (East Lansing, MI): $5,968
The purchase of two storage cabinets for a recently acquired collection of 433 items from Europe and the United States that were made or used by, or that represent, the Romani people.

Ohio History Connection (Columbus, OH) $6,000
The purchase of archival supplies to preserve the 800 dolls in the recently donated Lillian M. Bartok Doll Collection.

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Inc. (San Juan, Puerto Rico): $10,000
Development of a long-term preservation plan specific to the library and archives, physical relocation of collections, purchase of supplies, digital reformatting of VHS tapes, and preservation training for staff.

International Tennis Hall of Fame (Newport, RI): $6,000
A preservation assessment of a museum collection of approximately 30,000 artifacts housed in the historic Newport Casino, site of the first U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championship in 1881.

Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (Fort Worth, TX): $6,000
A preservation assessment of history, archival, and science collections related to Texas and the Southwest. The collections comprise more than 180,000 items, with emphasis on pre-Columbian, Native American, and ranch and agricultural life in Texas and the southwestern United States, as well as Fort Worth history.

Cape Fear Museum (Wilmington, NC) was awarded $3,000 from International Paper’s Riegelwood Mill and the International Paper Foundation. Funds will be used to enhance the Uplands Forest section of the Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery including hands-on, interactive components, construction materials, and print displays.

The Putnam Museum & Science Center (Davenport, IA) received a $200,000 endowment fund which will give the museum annual perpetual grants. From the estate of Louise Fidyke Potter McCarty-a grant of about $3,000 a year will be given to help support arts- and culture-related programs and projects.

AFL Telecommunications awarded a grant of $3,500 to The Children’s Museum of the Upstate location in Spartanburg, SC, to support after-school STEM education programs. The FIRST LEGO League program provides fourth through eighth graders the opportunity to learn more about science and engineering, and help spark an interest in STEM fields at a young age.

Springfield Museums (Springfield, MA) received $100,000 for literacy-based interactive exhibits in The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum. The state grant will allow the museum to add several bilingual interactive exhibits.

Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums, center, is joined by state legislators and representatives of the museums in praising a $100,000 state allocation for expansion of bilingual interactive exhibits for the Dr. Seuss Museum. (Peter Goonan / The Republican)

Bank of America presented $480,000 in grants to several nonprofits in the Philadelphia region in celebration of Giving Tuesday including $40,000 to the African American Museum in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA).

Abbe Museum (Bar Harbor, ME) received a $10,000 Enterprise Grant from the Maine Office of Tourism. The funds will be used to expand the reach of the Abbe Museum Indian Market – both before and after the May event – contributing to the wider tourism goals of the region. Projects include a podcast and online press room.

RCB Bank is partnering with the Cosmosphere International Science Education Center & Space Museum (Hutchinson, KS) to award a ten camp scholarship to students in sixth through eighth grade to attend a Cosmosphere Camp this summer.

AWARDS AND RECOGNITION

The USS Constitution Museum (Charlestown, MA) has been selected to receive a pro bono consulting study by Harvard Business School Association of Boston’s Community Action Partners (CAP). The study is scheduled to begin this fall. For the past 18 months the USS Constitution Museum has been working with the National Park Service, U.S. Navy, and Waltham-based design firm Sasaki Partners on a plan to make the Charlestown Navy Yard experience more unified, engaging, and relevant. The CAP study will look at the museum’s proposal to move to the Hoosac Warehouse next to USS Constitution.

The Abbe Museum received an excellence in marketing award from the DownEast Acadia Tourism Association (DART) for its new Abbe Museum Indian Market. DART recognized the market as an important event for the region’s tourism and creative economies.

Hyperallergic revealed its’ Best of 2018: Top 20 Exhibitions Across the United States featuring Unsettled at the Anchorage Museum (Anchorage, AK).

Conner Prairie Interactive History Park (Fishers, IN) has been named a Site of Conscience by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Conner Prairie is now one of more than 250 members across 65 countries to be honored for its high standards and initiatives to connect history to current events.

SITES Corner: New Exhibitions for a New Year

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) has some exciting exhibitions for 2019 and beyond. Check out what’s available and bring a Smithsonian exhibition to your neighborhood soon.

Soldier with painting.

Courtesy Matt Mitchell.

100 Faces of War
Featuring 100 portraits of Americans from every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, the subjects represent a cross section of those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and reflect a variety of military branches, job descriptions, and personal backgrounds. Each oil painting is coupled with a personal statement from the participant to create a fuller portrait. Tour through fall 2020.
For more information, contact Ed Liskey, liskeye@si.edu, 202.633.3142

Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic
The exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the iconic jazz musician’s public and private life just two years before her death at the age of 44. Includes 65 pigment prints with labels, panels, objects, ephemera, projected video, and vinyl excerpts from the work of renowned writer/author, Zadie Smith. Tour launches 2019. Special discounts for February 16, 2019 to May 12, 2019 ($10,000) and for September 29, 2019 to January 5, 2020 ($15,000), all plus shipping.
For more information, contact Michelle Torres-Carmona, torrescm@si.edu, 202.633.3181.

Girl in Red by R. Blackburn

Robert Blackburn, Girl in Red, 1950, Lithograph, 18 1/4 x 13 1/2, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Photograph by Karl Peterson

Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking
Explore the work of the Robert Blackburn, the first Master Printer for the Universal Limited Art Editions, and founder of his own highly influential Printmaking Workshop. Viewers will trace his artistic journey leading up to and during the “graphics boom” in American printmaking and his later experimental works. Seventy original prints by Blackburn and his contemporaries are included from significant public and private collections. Tour launches May 2020.
For more information, contact Minnie Russell, russellm@si.edu, 202-633-3160.

The Way We Worked
We are pleased to expand the offering of The Way We Worked, a highly successful exhibition from our Museum on Main Street program, to qualified venues. The Way We Worked explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the workforce and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the National Archives’ rich photography collections to tell this compelling story. Tour launches summer 2019.
For more information, contact Minnie Russell, russellm@si.edu, 202-633-3160.

Photo of children working.

Photo by Lewis Hine, 1909. Courtesy National Archives, Records of the Children’s Bureau

Kudos Affiliates! December 2018

Congratulations to these Affiliates on their recent accomplishments! Do you have kudos to share? Please send potential entries to Aaron Glavas, GlavasC@si.edu.

FUNDING

The National Mississippi River Museum received $5,000 from IBM to aid the development of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum at the museum.

Midlands Community Foundation has awarded $89,175 to 24 nonprofit organizations serving Sarpy and Cass counties. Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum received $3,300.

The Knight Foundation announced the winners of the 2018 Knight Arts Challenge in Detroit. The Arab American National Museum was awarded $100,000 to support the Arab American Arts and Cultural Festival.

AWARDS AND RECOGNITION

Burns & McDonnell made a multiyear, multi-million-dollar commitment to Science City at Union Station Kansas City. Burns & McDonnell will invest $2.5-3 million over the next five years, bringing the total investment over the last decade to an excess of $8 million. The first phase of offerings include:

  • Burns & McDonnell Battle of the Brains: Commitment for two more K-12 STEM competitions, with each to result in a $1 million permanent exhibit inspired by area students.
  • Field Trip and Transportation Fund: For an entire school year, Burns & McDonnell will award one field trip per week for a class to experience Science City.
  • Pop-Up Series: Burns & McDonnell and Science City STEM professionals will be on-site to present insightful talks and demos for students.
  • Summer Camp: STEM professionals from Burns & McDonnell will enrich Science City’s summer camp with industry trends and innovations and share tips and insights regarding careers in STEM.
  • Internship: A Burns & McDonnell Battle of the Brains participant will be offered an internship to work at Burns & McDonnell or Science City.

LEADERSHIP

Jody Blankenship, CEO of the Connecticut Historical Society, has stepped down to take the job as president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society. He will replace John Herbst, who served at the Indiana society’s helm for 12 years after leading Conner Prairie and the Indiana State Museum. Herbst is retiring at the end of the year, and Blankenship will take over Jan. 21.

The Newark Museum announced that Linda Harrison had been selected to succeed Steven Kern as director and chief executive officer. Ms. Harrison is coming from the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, where she has served as the director and chief executive since 2013. Ms. Harris will begin her new position in January 2019.

Smithsonian Learning Lab Webinar: Creating National History Day Collections

Learning lab elephant logoFor the past two years Smithsonian Learning Lab has been a tool for curating topic ideas for students participating in National History Day (NHD) research projects.

The Learning Lab team, along with educators from NHD and the National Endowment for the Humanities, will hold an online session on Thursday, August 9 at 4 pm ET around the 2019 NHD theme Triumph and Tragedy in History. Learn how to use Learning Lab to showcase your  collections and make them available to students around the country conducting research for their 2019 NHD projects. (See Learning Lab NHD collection examples here.)

In this session, designed for museum educators and other National History Day (NHD) content creators, participants will learn about the 2019 theme “Triumph and Tragedy” from NHD staff and hear from educators at the Smithsonian and National Endowment for the Humanities about their experiences in curating content for NHD students using the Smithsonian Learning Lab since 2017.

If you are new to NHD, read these two articles from Smithsonian staff in the 2019 NHD Theme Book to get a feel for how Learning Lab can help students spark ideas for their projects.

• Stories of Triumph and Tragedy found in the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery (pg. 22)
• Discover Digital Tools and Resources for Triumph and Tragedy in History (pg. 43)

RSVP for the webinar here! 

Part 3: Using Collections to Think About Immigration with the Smithsonian Learning Lab

After visiting three Affiliate communities in 2018, the staff at the Smithsonian Learning Lab wrapped-up their Teacher Creativity Studios at the City of Austin Asian American Resource Center (AARC), a Smithsonian Affiliate in Austin, Texas. As mentioned in Part 1, the goal was to increase digital access to museum collections and inspire students to investigate the world around them using objects, documents, videos and more, all available for free online. In this final installment, Hanna Huang, culture and arts education coordinator and acting supervisor at the Asian American Resource Center, shares her project, Austin’s Asian American Pacific Islander Roots.

Smithsonian Learning Lab in AustinThe AARC partnered with the Austin History Center to define Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) programming. Huang sees each AAPI community as special and unique in its makeup, much like the many cultures, ethnicities, and languages that comprise what we know as AAPI. To share this with a wider audience, the partners worked with the Learning Lab to create a collection for teachers based on a revived exhibition that covers Asian Pacific American history in Austin from the late 1800s past the 1980s.

As you work your way through, you can not only see all the images and texts from our exhibit but also find learning tools to help you with teaching topics such as Asian Pacific American history, immigration, Texas history, primary/secondary sources, and more!

Read Huang’s full blog– Austin’s Asian American Pacific Islander Rootshere.

And don’t forget about Part 1 and Part 2 in our Learning Lab Series!

Want to see more Learning Lab in Affiliate neighborhoods? Check out these blogs from past workshops at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh: Supporting Digital Innovation in Education with the Learning Lab
Every Collection Tells a Story
Creative Introduction to Geography
Smithsonian’s Home in Pittsburgh
Creating with the Learning Lab
Teach Digital Curation with Depth

The Teacher Creativity Studio program received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

f you are interested in learning more about the Smithsonian Learning Lab and how it could help your museum support teachers and students in your community, contact your National Outreach Manager.