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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, February 2019

Lots of winter activity in Affiliateland – enjoy!

FLORIDA

The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access will offer a teacher professional development workshop on using digital resources in collaboration with the Frost Art Museum in Miami, 2.2.

Tower at the Stockholm airport, featured in the Art of the Airport Tower exhibition.

The Mennello Museum of American Art opens the Art of the Airport Tower exhibition from the National Air and Space Museum, in Orlando, 2.4.

IOWA

Affiliations staff members will visit the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library for their affiliation announcement in Cedar Rapids, 2.8.

CONNECTICUT

Paula Johnson, curator at the National Museum of American History, will present a lecture about cookbooks and mid-century American food culture at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, 2.16.

ILLINOIS

Eduardo Díaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center will deliver a talk on Latino representation at the Smithsonian at the Schingoethe Center of Aurora University in Aurora, 2.21.

ARIZONA

Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, will open Paul Calle’s Life of Exploration: From the Mountains to the Moon exhibition with loans from the National Postal Museum and the National Air and Space Museum, in Scottsdale, 2.4.

NEW YORK

The Rockwell Museum will open Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery, 2.8. National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet will deliver the kickoff talk for the Museum’s spring lecture series on Questioning Identity, in Corning, 2.26.

NATIONWIDE

The Smithsonian Channel is collaborating with several Affiliates to screen their new show: The Green Book: Guide to Freedom during Black History Month –
at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, 1.31
at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, 2.6
at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 2.7
at History Colorado in Denver, 2.13
at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, 2.19
at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, 2.19
at the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, 2.22
at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, 2.26
at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, 2.28

 

 

 

February in Affiliateland

Is the Smithsonian in your neighborhood? Probably so! These Affiliates are bringing the Smithsonian to communities across the U.S. in February!

Kitchen Table in Julia Child's kitchen

The kitchen table, sink, and some of the countertop equipment in Julia’s kitchen at the Smithsonian

North Carolina
National Museum of American History Curator, Paula Johnson, travels to the North Carolina Museum of History for a public program about Julia Child’s kitchen, in Raleigh, 2.2.

South Carolina
Staff from Smithsonian Affiliations and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation celebrate the opening of Spark!Lab at the Children’s Museum of the Upstate, in Greenville, 2.4

Illinois
Affiliations Director Harold Closter will be on hand to announce the Smithsonian’s new affiliation with the Schingoethe Center of Aurora University, in Aurora, 2.7.

Texas
Smithsonian Science Education Center Director Carol O’Donnell talks about the current state of STEM education at Space Center Houston, in Houston, 2.9.

Nebraska
The Durham Museum opens Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project, a SITES exhibition, in Omaha, 2.18

Michelle Wilkinson portrait

Photo by Jati Lindsay

New York
The Rockwell Museum presents its Smithsonian Speakers Series featuring Michelle Wilkinson, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Corning, 2.21.

Washington, D.C.
Students from nine Smithsonian Affiliate communities will host public programs at the National Air and Space Museum as part of the Youth Capture the Colorful Cosmos National Youth Summit, in Washington, D.C., 2.22-23.

Special screenings of the original Smithsonian Channel program, The Obama Years: The Power of Words, will take place at multiple Affiliates in February during Black History Month, some with Smithsonian National Museum of American History Curator of Political History Claire Jerry:

At the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, in Baltimore, 2.9.
At History Colorado, in Denver, 2.13.
At the African American Museum in Philadelphia, in Philadelphia, 2.15.
At the Museum of History and Industry, in Seattle, 2.22.
At the Senator John Heinz History Center, in Pittsburgh, 2.23.
At the Western Reserve Historical Society, in Cleveland, 2.24.

Last Chance at Affiliates:

Things Come apart

Things Come Apart exhibition at Upcountry History Museum

South Carolina
Things Come Apart, a SITES exhibit, closes on 2.19 at the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville.

North Carolina
Greensboro Historical Museum closes I want the Wide American Earth, also a SITES exhibit, on 2.26, in Greensboro.

 

 

 

visiting Affiliate artifacts… in Washington

In Affiliations, we like to say that our partnerships are two-way streets. We learn as much from our Affiliates as we share. Our Affiliate partners lend ideas, energy and expertise not only to the Smithsonian, but to each other. They also lend artifacts, and often, the very best, rare ones they have in their collections.

Recently, I took an afternoon out of the office to visit the handful of loans currently on view from our Affiliate partners to the Smithsonian. What better pleasure to run in to our Affiliate friends across the country than by discovering pieces from their collections here in Washington?!

A case featuring inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

A case featuring inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame

My first stop on this walkabout was the National Museum of American History and its newly-opened innovation wing. The Inventing in America exhibition features a case that honors inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, our Affiliate in Canton, OH. Visitors can marvel at a selection of inventions made by some of the 500 men and women who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and learn about inventions such as the first intravascular stent from 1984, 3M sticky notes, the first digital camera from 1975, and the 1976 Apple computer.

exhibitcase4_atNMAH.Jan2016

Descriptions of the inventions of Hall of Fame inductees

Notably, the case explains the invention of Kevlar, the high strength fabric (used for example, in bullet-proof vests) invented by Stephanie Kwolek in 1965 while she worked at DuPont. Luckily, our Delaware Affiliate, the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, has an extensive collection of material about Kevlar (including Kwolek’s papers) and lent two artifacts from their collection to bring her story to life.

I wandered over to the National Portrait Gallery to see its Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872 exhibition. At one time, Gardner worked for the famous photographer Matthew Brady before casting out as an influential documentarian in his own right. The profound Civil War-era images on view in these galleries are haunting still. Among them are important works from three Smithsonian Affiliates.

at_NPG2.Jan2016

Field of Antietam photo book on loan from the National Civil War Museum

The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA lent a photographic book titled the Field of Antietam from 1962. Before photomechanical reproduction, books like this one were made by printing each of the original photographs by hand, adhering them to mounts, and binding them as a book. Knowing this process makes the book feel all that more special.

Our Affiliate in Indianapolis, the Indiana Historical Society lent chilling images of the executions of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Notably, Alexander Gardner was the only photographer allowed to document the hangings, and his position on the wall of the prison grants a panoramic view that is searing and unforgettable.

Sketchbook of the War, on loan from the Western Reserve Historical Society

Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War, on loan from the Western Reserve Historical Society

Finally, the Western Reserve Historical Society, our Affiliate in Cleveland, OH also lent several works to the exhibition, including what feels like an incongruous view of a picnic in the woods. Alas, one discovers its main subject is Walt Whitman, who lived in Washington, D.C. for part of the war, writing letters for injured soldiers. It’s an unsettling yet bucolic image among the battlefields represented on the walls around it. Another impressive loan is Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War in two volumes. This large-scale folio published in 1866 features 100 images from Gardner’s vast collection that successfully distill the chronological narrative of the war in a meaningful and emotional way.

Finally, I ended my excursion at the Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian. This retrospective – her first major one – traces the artistic journey of WalkingStick, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Emerging from the art world of New York in the 1960-70s, the show traces her 40+ year career from early figurative work through her famous diptychs to recent paintings of monumental landscapes with symbolic references to their Native links.

Three Affiliates are represented in this exhibition as well. One of our newest, The Rockwell Museum in Corning, NY lent a diptych, Letting Go/From Chaos to Calm from 1990. These rich paintings of mixed dry media on sculptmetal juxtapose the figurative and abstract, the visual and visceral in stimulating and thought-provoking ways.

Visitors can leaf through a touchable version of WalkingStick's artist book, on loan from the Heard Museum.

Visitors can leaf through a touchable version of WalkingStick’s artist book, on loan from the Heard Museum

The Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ (where the show will travel after Washington) lent two works. One canvas, Cardinal Points from 1983-85, uses acrylic paint and saporified wax to achieve a textured and active surface that rewards prolonged study. Her artist book on loan from the Heard contrasts depictions of herself with the kinds of stereotypical comments about her identity that continue to plague Native people. (Flip through the book here.)

Finally, the Denver Art Museum lent a commanding diptych of a different style, Farewell to the Smokies from 2007. This oil painting on wood blends two views of a majestic mountain landscape, with silhouettes of figures walking across their base. It’s a powerful reminder of Native history, and at the same time, of the indelible legacy of Native peoples on the American landscape.

Thank you Affiliates, for all the ways that you enrich the Smithsonian!

Farewell to the Farewell to the Smokies, 2007. Oil on wood panel, 36 x 72 x 1 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2008.14. Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

Farewell to the Smokies, 2007. Oil on wood panel, 36 x 72 x 1 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2008.14. Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

 

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kudos Affiliates! August 2014

Great news from Affiliateland!  Bravo to all!

FUNDING

The National Civil War Museum (Harrisburg, PA) received a $5,000 donation from the Hall Foundation to support educational programming. The Hall Foundation is the title sponsor of the new exhibit “In the Hands of the Enemy: The Captivity, Exchange & Parole of Prisoners of War,” that highlights the brutal conditions of prisoner of war camps, Confederate and Union. The exhibit will have rare artifacts from the National Civil War Museum’s collection on display, and information panels will address and explain the conditions of the camps and daily prisoner life.

The Hawai`i State Legislature approved $500,000 in State Grant-in-Aid funding toward the new Island Heritage Gallery exhibit at the Lyman Museum (Hilo, HI).  The new exhibit will explore a historical timeline of the many people, cultures, events, and ideas that left their mark on Hawai`i Island and contributed to the rich, diverse mosaic of modern Hawai`i.

The Hall Family Foundation has donated $4 million to help fund capital improvement projects at Union Station Kansas City (Kansas City, MO). The funding will be used to make improvements to Science City as well as the development of a pedestrian bridge and a new lower-level entrance.

Two Affiliates recently received Museum Grants for African American History and Culture (AAHC) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS):

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture (Baltimore, MD) Award Amount: $69,674

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture will hire a curatorial graduate student intern, create a postdoctoral fellowship in African American history, and establish a professional development fund that will allow staff at all levels to take advantage of training programs relevant to their work as museum professionals.

American Jazz Museum (Kansas City, MO) Award Amount: $133,050

The American Jazz Museum will hire a registrar to enhance the accessibility of the museum’s collections and create four semester-long paid internship positions focusing on collections and education.

The Ellen Noël Art Museum (Odessa, TX) received a grant from the Junior League of Odessa for the “Little Free Library”, a decorative receptacle and will be filled with books for children and young adults to “take a book, leave a book.”  In addition, the Ellen Noel Art Museum has received a $20,000 grant from National Endowment for the Arts for their innovative research in the 3D printing lab meant to assist the visually impaired.

GAR Foundation distributed awards to teams of Ohio educators through its annual Educator Initiative Grant program. The awards support teacher-initiated, classroom-based projects and methods that demonstrate gains in student achievement and include the following affiliates:

  • National Inventors Hall of Fame (Akron, OH) STEM Middle School, $9,500, for “STEM E5d.”
  • Akron Public Schools, National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School, $4,999, for “Survivability of an Impossible Situation.”
  • Western Reserve Historical Society (Cleveland, OH) $10,000 for Hale Farm & Village’s Adopt-a-School Program at Leggett Elementary.
  • Western Reserve Historical Society, $5,000 for Hale Farm & Village’s Wetmore Barn Preservation.

Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, MA) announced that the Massachusetts budget for 2015 includes $2 million funding for the restoration of Mayflower II, a replica of the original ship that brought the Pilgrims to Massachusetts.

The African American Museum in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA) received a $50,000 award from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation  to enhance two current art exhibits: the photography of “Distant Echoes: Black Farmers in America,” and the sculpture of “Syd Carpenter: More Places of Our Own.” The Knight-supported programming, dubbed “Beyond Sustenance,” will encompass interactive storytelling, art-making, community dining, and workshops centered on African-American traditions in farming, cooking and more.

Mystic Seaport and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center (Mystic, Mashantucket, CT) received a $30,095 grant from Connecticut Humanities to support a project called Connecticut Indian Whalers: Work, Community, and Life at Sea.  The project features digital, exhibit and program offerings designed to raise school and public awareness about the men of color from Connecticut who labored on 19th century whaling ships, in particular Native American men whose work experience was strongly intertwined with their social and kinship networks.

Staten Island City Council allocated $3.7 million to Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden for building renovations.

ACHIEVEMENTS & RECOGNITION

The Institute of Museum and Library Services announced that North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (Raleigh, NC) was one of 10 recipients of the 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The National Medal is the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community.

Charlene Donchez Mowers, executive director of Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites (Bethlehem, PA), received the Strategic Partner Award from the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.  Historic Bethlehem has recently been designated a National Historic Landmark site.

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) proudly announced the winners of the 69th annual Leadership in History Awards, the most prestigious recognition for achievement in the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Below are the Affiliate recipients for the 2014 Awards:

Conner Prairie (Fishers, IN) has been chosen by FlipKey Vacation Rental as one of its “Top Family Attractions Worth Traveling For.”

The Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point state park (Pioneer, LA) have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This prestigious designation is a global recognition of the site’s outstanding universal value.

PA Museums announced that the Senator John Heinz History Center (Pittsburgh, PA) received the President’s Award for its national award-winning exhibit From Slavery to Freedom.


LEADERSHIP

The Board of the Western Reserve Historical Society announced that Kelly Falcone-Hall has been selected to be the new CEO. Falcone-Hall had been serving as interim CEO during the selection process.

 

kudos Affiliates! April 2014

Affiliates are bursting into spring with impressive awards and recognition. 

FUNDINGP

The National Civil War Museum (Harrisburg, PA) has received a $30,000 grant from the Kunkle-Rutherford Foundation to pay for upgrades to the museum’s galleries audio system.

The George Gund Foundation awarded a $150,000 grant to the Western Reserve Historical Society (Cleveland, OH) for the restoration and installation of the Euclid Beach Carousel at its University Circle facility.

Thanks to a $2,000 grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum (Manitowoc, WI) will create four new guides on the Manitowoc River, focusing on a different facet of the river and its heritage.


RECOGNITION

Drumming at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

Drumming at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

Two Affiliates – California Science Center (Los Angeles) and Musical Instrument Museum (Phoenix, AZ) – made the list of USA Today’s 20 Best Museums for Families across the USA.

As part of a marketing campaign planned for this spring, the Nebraska Tourism Commission surveyed Nebraskans and non-Nebraskans alike on what Nebraska attractions and events are the most iconic. The Strategic Air & Space Museum (Ashland, NE) came in at #7 and was the only state museum in the top-10.

Peter Aucella, assistant superintendent of Lowell National Historical Park (Lowell, MA) is the 2014 recipient of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Lowell’s Thomas G. Kelakos Community Spirit Award, which recognizes people who give back to the community.

The Abbe Museum (Bar Harbor, ME) received the 2014 Maine Office of Tourism Leadership and Growth Award.

The Army Heritage Center Foundation (Carlisle, PA) announced that its education director, Jeff Hawks, will receive the Adler Friend of Education Award from the Pennsylvania State Education Association for his work as state coordinator for National History Day in Pennsylvania.

Students celebrate National History Day in Pennsylvania

Students celebrate National History Day in Pennsylvania

The Building Museums Symposium selected the Museum of History and Industry (Seattle, WA) as one of two museums to be awarded the 2014 Building Museums “Buildy” Award in recognition of their exemplary accomplishment in leading their institution through the challenging process of creating new museum space. The museum converted an historic Naval Armory building into museum space, while retaining the architectural integrity of the historic landmark.

The Antique Automobile Club of America Museum (AACAM in Hershey, PA) was recently awarded five NAMMY awards, bestowed by the National Association of Automobile Museums (NAAM) at their annual conference in California last week.  AACAM took home first place awards for Events & Public Promotion, Collateral Materials, and Interpretative Exhibits; and third place awards for Newsletters and Magazines, and Websites.  Mark Lizewskie, Executive Director of the AACAM, was also elected to the NAAM Board of Directors.

 

Congratulations to all!