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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.

Coming Up in Affiliateland in October 2018

Shark girls, genomes and zombies… oh my! It’s October in Affiliateland.

CONNECTICUT

Mallory Warner, Museum Specialist from the National Museum of American History, will give a talk on women’s medical uniforms in World War I at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, 10.11.

CALIFORNIA

LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes will host a workshop for teachers on Fostering Global Competence in the Classroom with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, in Los Angeles, 10.13.

The Japanese American National Museum will also host Fostering Global Competence workshops for teachers in Los Angeles, 10.20.

FLORIDA

The Orange County Regional History Center opens the Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code exhibition produced by the National Museum of Natural History, in Orlando, 10.13.

The South Florida Museum opens SITES’ A New Moon Rises exhibition in Bradenton, 10.20.

HAWAII

The Lyman Museum and Mission House will host a screening of Shark Girl from the Smithsonian Channel in Hilo, 10.15-16.

TENNESSEE

The American Museum of Science and Energy is holding a grand opening event to welcome visitors to its new location, an 18,000-square-foot space with a newly-designed exhibit gallery featuring state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and hands-on activities, in Oak Ridge, 10.18.

MARYLAND

The Smithsonian Associates’ day-long study tour, 18th-Century Annapolis: Architecture and Decorative Arts, will visit the structures and gardens of Historic Annapolis, 10.19.

OHIO

The Works: Ohio Center for History, Art and Technology will host the Let’s Do History workshop for teachers in collaboration with the National Museum of American History, in Newark, 10.22-23.

MULTIPLE STATES

Five Affiliates will facilitate teens’ virtual participation in the Smithsonian Secretary’s Youth Advisory Council, kicking off in Washington, D.C., 10.24. Thanks to the Rockwell Museum (Corning, NY); the Arab American National Museum (Dearborn, MI); the Upcountry History Museum (Greenville, SC); the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (Cincinnati, OH); and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (Fort Worth, TX) for your partnership.

PENNSYLVANIA

Curator Eric Jentsch from the National Museum of American History will discuss zombies in pop culture as part of Living Dead Meets Walking Dead at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, 10.26.

Coming up in Affiliateland in April 2018

Spring activity is blooming across the country!

MASSACHUSETTS
The Tsongas Industrial History Center at the Lowell National Historical Park will offer a Teacher Creativity Studios: Asian Pacific American Cultural Presence in the Classroom workshop for teachers with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access in Lowell, 4.7.

Dr. John Grant, geologist with the Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS), in front of a full-scale model of the Mars Rover Curiosity, will be a featured speaker at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

Framingham State University will feature a talk by National Air and Space Museum scientist John Grant on moving the Mars rovers as part of the Science on State Street Festival in Framingham,  4.21.

PENNSYLVANIA
Attendees to the National Association of Automobile Museums conference will spend a day at the Smithsonian for talks and tours, thanks to conference organizer the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, 4.10.

ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Teen teams from the Upcountry History Museum (SC), Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (TX), Arab American National Museum(MI), Rockwell Museum (NY), and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (OH) will digitally connect to the Smithsonian Secretary’s Youth Advisory Council meeting in Washington, 4.11.

NEW YORK
The Art + Science lecture series continues with a talk on Native responses to the environment by National Museum of the American Indian educator Ed Schupman at the Rockwell Museum in Corning, 4.12.

MISSOURI
The St. Louis Science Center opens SITES’ Destination Moon exhibition in St. Louis, 4.14.

CONNECTICUT
Mystic Seaport hosts a talk by National Museum of Natural History geologist Liz Cottrell on Expeditions to Arctic Volcanoes as part of its Adventure Series in Mystic, 4.19.

Mountain Climber by Rockwell Kent, 1933, is headed to Oregon thanks to the High Desert Museum. (woodcut on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Peter E. Blau and Andrew J. Blau in memory of their father, Alan J. Blau)

OREGON
The High Desert Museum will open Ascent: Climbing Explored exhibition featuring artifact loans including two paintings, brushes and palettes from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Bend, 4.28.

Coming up in Affiliateland in February 2018

Happy new year! We may still feel cold, but events are heating up at Affiliates across the country.

NATIONWIDE
Five Affiliates will host (via videoconference) the Smithsonian Secretary’s Youth Advisory Council meeting. Thank you to the Arab American National Museum, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Upcountry History Museum and the Rockwell Museum for sharing their students and spaces for this important dialogue happening in Washington, 2.7.

Eight Affiliates will host screenings of The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X , a new film from the Smithsonian Channel as part of their Black History Month programming. Thanks to the following Affiliates for sharing the film with your audiences!
2.1 – Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, MD
2.6 – Museum of History & Industry in Seattle, WA
2.7 – Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, PA
2.8 – African American Museum in Philadelphia, PA
2.12 – History Colorado in Denver, CO
2.22 – California African American Museum in Los Angeles
2.23 – Mennello Museum of American Art/Orlando Museum of Art, FL
2.26 – Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, TX

CALIFORNIA
The Riverside Metropolitan Museum presents the Uncovering Ancient Mexico: The Mystery of Tlatilco exhibition, exploring an ancient society in central Mexico that flourished 3000 years ago. The exhibition features 9 artifacts from the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian and opens in Riverside, 2.3

WASHINGTON
The Whatcom Museum opens Jeweled Objects of Desire featuring over 50 artifacts on loan from the National Museum of Natural History’s gem and mineral collection in Bellingham, 2.3.

FLORIDA
The Orange County Regional History Center opens the SITES’ exhibition Things Come Apart in Orlando, 2.10.

Take it Apart! A fun contest in Orlando for the Things Come Apart exhibition.

PENNSYLVANIA
A ‘rum runner’ ship model on loan from the National Museum of American History will be on view at the Heinz History Center as part of their American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition exhibition in Pittsburgh, 2.10.

OHIO
With a grant from the Ohio Arts Council, educators from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Accessibility Program will lead three workshops for teachers in collaboration with the Springfield Museum of Art on strategies for using art to reach students with multiple disabilities, in Springfield, 2.15-16.

MARYLAND
Annmarie Garden opens Big Fun Art, an exhibition of local and national artists juried by Jennifer Brundage, Smithsonian Affiliations National Outreach Manager, that explores playfulness, dynamism and joy, in Solomons, 2.16.

ARIZONA
Dr. Richard Kurin will be speaking on and signing his book The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, 2.20.

TEXAS
The Asian American Resource Center will host a teacher workshop in collaboration with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access entitled Teacher Creativity Studios: Asian Pacific America Cultural Presence in the Classroom in Austin, 2.21.

NEBRASKA
The Durham Museum will host a lecture by Dr. Krewasky Salter, Guest Associate Curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Double Victory: The African American Military Experience in Omaha, 2.27.

 

  

coming up in affiliateland, July-August 2013

Spend your summer at a Smithsonian Affiliate! Check out these events in your neighborhood in July and August.

MAINE
Kevin Gover, National Museum of the American Indian and Harold Closter, Smithsonian Affiliations, attended the public announcement of the Abbe Museum as a new Smithsonian Affiliate in Bar Harbor, 07.05.

Gabrielle Tayac (Piscataway), National Museum of the American Indian curator of the IndiVisible exhibit will give a public lecture on the similar histories of African-Native Americans and Acadian/Wabanaki relations at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, 7.10. 

FLORIDA

Lindsay Bartholomew, science curator at the Miami Science Museum, presented as part of the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access online webinar, Do It Yourself Astrophotography:  Applications for the Classroom and Beyond, along with Mary Dussault, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in Washington, D.C, 07.10.

MARYLAND
The B&O Railroad Museum collaborated with the Smithsonian Science Education Center for a Science Education Academy for Teachers workshop, in Baltimore, 07.10.

Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery curator, will guest jury the exhibition Humor Me! at Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center, in Solomons, 08.07.

COLORADO
National Outreach Manager Aaron Glavas will be speaking at the public announcement of the Telluride Historical Museum as a new Smithsonian Affiliate in Telluride, 7.29.

IDAHO

The Idaho Museum of Natural History will host the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) exhibit Native Words, Native Warriors in Pocatello, 07.20.

MISSOURI
The American Jazz Museum will host SITES’ American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, in Kansas City, 08.01.

MASSACHUSETTS
The USS Constitution Museum will host a teacher workshop featuring a lecture by Sidney Hart, Senior Historian from the National Portrait Gallery, in Boston, 07.26 and 08.09.

NATIONWIDE
Ten Affiliates are hosting student interns as part of the Smithsonian Latino Center’s Young Ambassadors Program, through 08.02—Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Musical Instrument Museum, California Science Center, Museum of Latin American Art, Chabot Space and Science Center, Miami Science Museum, Museum of Flight, and the International Museum of Art and Science.

Four Affiliates are participating in a Smithsonian EdLab teacher workshop, Connecting Classrooms, throughout July and August —the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre; the International Museum of Art and Science in McAllen, Texas; the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in San Juan; and Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum in Arizona.

LAST CHANCE! See these exhibitions in your community before they close!

CONNECTICUT

The SITES’ exhibit Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America closes at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, in Mashantucket, 07.21.

TEXAS
Within the Emperor’s Garden: The Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion exhibit closes at the International Museum of Art and Science, in McAllen, 08.18.

MAINE
SITES’ exhibit IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas closes at the Abbe Museum, in Bar Harbor, 08.04.