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Handling the Past

When youngsters handle artifacts in a historical museum, the past comes alive and becomes accessible. To turn kids on at our museum, the Tippecanoe County Historical Association (TCHA) uses an expendable collection and reproductions for its handling materials. The collection includes such items as: fossils, projectile points, stone tools, bone tools, mortar and pestle, miniature wigwam, woven baskets, pioneer tools, cooking utensils, toys and dolls, candle mold, lanterns and lamps, stereopticons and cards, thumb piano, school books, “try-on” period clothing, and laminated photographs.

Scholars use a systematic method to study artifacts. This procedure, however, can be adapted so that youngsters can learn how to read an artifact. We begin by identifying the object, then move to the story the object tells about the past. Finally, we compare the object with a modem day equivalent.

What is it? What is it made of? How was it made? Who made it? Is it well made or not? Is it special or everyday? Who used it? How did they use it? Do we have something like it today? How is it different than what we have today?

At the TCHA we also believe that children should move around the museum and discover exhibits. Search games provide a flexible framework, encouraging children to wander and at the same time have a direction. Search games are constructed with age levels in mind. For pre- and beginning readers. we offer pictures with a one word caption; the search games for more skilled readers involve more text and reading activities.

Equal to the power of the object is the strength of personal contact. We start visits with a welcome and introduction that explains all the fun things that will happen at the museum. We immediately engage youngsters in activities. Eye contact is established with all of the children by crouching, kneeling, or sitting at their level. We smile and project an informal, personal style. Young visitors are perceptive, and they reciprocate with enthusiasm.

Learning can be a socially motivated behavior. Young visitors — pre-K to second grade — are particularly verbal, curious, and openly energetic. The use of simple directions and positive reinforcement can maintain a productive learning environment. For instance, we openly praise youngsters to reinforce good learning behaviors such as listening and following directions. Invariably, the fringe sits up and takes notice.

To stimulate discovery, we ask questions. Inquiry is a developing process requiring self control and flexibility on the part of the inquirer. Questions get children thinking and involved. Acceptance and encouragement facilitate these important cognitive developments. Some of the questions I enjoy asking are:

How do you know this photograph is from the past? Can you tell me more? What do you think? Can you tell how the people in the picture feel? Which is your favorite? Do you wish you had more time?

The answer to the last question is always a resounding “yes!” Learning in a museum is exciting. It is a wonderful starting point for all kinds of journeys.

Cynthia Bedell is Assistant Curator of Education at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association in Lafayette, IN. She earned her B.A., and has graduate hours in Social Studies Education at Purdue University.

Bedell, Cynthia. “Handling the Past,” The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 15.


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