What We Can Learn from Historical Artifacts

1860 secessionist cockade from South Carolina

1860 secessionist cockade from South Carolina

I was having at look at my friend Al Mackey’s blog this morning and came across a post linking to Virginia Tech’s Paul Quigley giving a talk for the American Civil War Museum, Nau Center for Civil War History, and Library of Virginia symposium held at the Library of Virginia. You can watch the talk HERE. First off, thanks for posting, Al…the video not only gave me some food for thought but it also helped reassure me of why I operate in similar ways in my own classroom. Dr. Quigley reminds us that 1) historical events are profoundly complex and seldom turn on irreconcilably simplistic binaries (think Ed Ayers “deep contingency”) and 2) historical artifacts can tell us a TON about history with very little.

In my own classroom, I have for some time tasked students with assignments (which, by the way, they seem to really enjoy) similarly following Quigley’s line of thinking. I have had kids curate virtual museum exhibits where they choose artifacts (from supervised Internet searches) that help us better understand the human experience in a particular time frame. They’ve done work accenting the Medieval Catholic Church and the Revolutionary (French, that is) Era National Assembly. On this side of the Atlantic, I’ve had my United States Honors Class and my advanced Civil War students create virtual exhibits that recreate the atmosphere in the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. What they invariably discover is that historical artifacts help us understand nuance and complexity. They help us see history through the eyes of individual historical actors. They help us understand perspective and motivation. In short…I find it profoundly instructive to - from time to time - step away from written texts and lectures (though I love to hear myself talk) to focus on individuals and material culture.

To my fellow teachers…have you given something like this a try? If so, how’d it go - I would love to compare notes in the comments section.

With compliments,