Best for: Introducing the idea of objects as evidence and honing visual and archaeological literacy. I often do this at the start of a unit, to help students understand the challenges inherent in piecing together the story they’re reading. It’s also a way to confront students with the alienness of the past, an element we often forget.
What I do: Print out images of objects from a museum collection (historical societies are often better for this than major museums, because they have more odd objects) or archeological dig. Give each student a picture to consider, ask them to spend some time with it, and then give them a task to do with it or a set of questions to answer about it.
Note: This works best with objects that are a little odd, such as a powder horn, a scarab, or an adult crib (used for invalids in colonial America) but not utterly unrecognizable. You can increase the difficulty as students get more used to the task. The objects don’t have to be dug out the ground–confusing posters work very well here, for example.
I generally ask students individually to form a hypothesis about what their objects were, why they were there, and what we can learn from them. Then I put them into small groups and ask them to think, as a group, about what they could say about this time/society/event based only on the physical evidence before them. This requires stitching together their various insights. For an archeological site, it’s fun to group students by rooms or areas, so that each group winds up with a set of artefacts from a shared context.
Variations: This can be a take-home exercise, with students coming to class already ready to talk about their object. You can let students choose their own from a website–although the mystery element tends to get lost if you do that, and the exercise becomes more like objects-as-evidence–or from a set of images you post for them.
I usually keep my initial questions very broad–I want my students to confront the objects with as little intermediary as possible–but you could easily develop a more detailed questionnaire to draw attention to the finer points of visual analysis. I’m aware that I’m sometimes sacrificing subtlety of results–especially at first–for an added sense of ownership and authenticity.
The length of this exercise is almost infinitely adjustable. It can be a quick intro–think about your object for 5 minutes, then whip around and ask students to share their thoughts–or it can be the basis for an exploration that stretches several days. The major factors here are how many pieces you throw into the mix and what you ask students to do with the conclusions they draw about the objects–share them, write about them, use them as the basis for a historical illustration or imaginary diary entry, form a thesis and write an essay about life in that time–anything you would do with any other kind of evidence is fair game.
Watch out for: Some students will draw wildly improbable conclusions about their pieces, and you need to decide before hand how you will deal with that.