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The ”A, B, C’s” of Reading Objects

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; AH mimsy were the borogroves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

If this selection from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” seems gibberish to you, imagine how confusing it must be to someone who doesn’t read English. For, as nonsensical as the words first appear, most of us who speak English derive some meaning from them. We have a general sense of their meaning even if we have no definitions for the words.

We can read “brillig” as either a predicate noun or adjective because it follows the linking verb “was.” We can understand the “toves” (a noun introduced by “the”) are “slithy” (an adjective ending in “y”) and that they “gyre and gimble” (verbs preceded by the auxiliary verb “did”). We “read” the words of the sentence as part of the grammatical context of English. Some of these same techniques that taught us to “read” the words of our language and to derive meaning from them can be used by docents to teach museum visitors to “read” objects.

Visual Discrimination

A beginning reader first learns to discriminate visual difference in words – – to see that dog and bog, for example, are different words. Beginning observers, like beginning readers, first learn to make visual discriminations — to see the color of an object, its texture, size, shape, and to see it as different from other objects that may have similar traits or characteristics.

Object readers might begin by finding all the red objects in an exhibit, by noticing how a portrait artist made the sitter’s dress seem smooth, by telling which animals in the zoo are as small as a pet cat, by guessing what material a dough bowl is made of. As their “reading fluency” increases, object readers can learn to distinguish foreground, middle ground, and background in paintings; hypothesize about the composition of different minerals by examining their colors; or find camouflaged animals in zoo exhibits. And, when they reach the level of comprehension, object readers can be taught to interpret symbols used in religious painting; to discover what a copper ornament in a stone-age Mississippian culture exhibit implies about trade routes; and to infer a bird’s diet from the shape of its bill.

Treasure Hunt for Shapes in the Art Museum: Sample Activities Promoting Skills of Visual Discrimination

  • For beginning observers: Show your group paper cutouts of various geometric shapes and help them name these shapes. Then, give each smaller group of two or three children one of the cutouts to “match” to similar shapes within paintings in a particular gallery. After the children in each group have located their shapes, they should share their “treasure” with the other groups.
  • For intermediate observers: Use three-dimensional models of shapes, such as cones, cubes, and spheres. Discuss with students how an artist creates the illusion of three-dimensional objects appearing within two-dimensional paintings. Allow each smaller group of students to find examples of the shapes given to them, and to explain to their peers which devices (perspective, shading, color, etc.) the artist used to give the shapes their three-dimensional form or appearance.
  • For “fluent” observers: Using paper cutouts of a heart, diamond, circle, etc., discuss with students some of the symbolic meanings ascribed to certain shapes. Assign each group of two or three students to a particular gallery and ask them to find shapes that have symbolic meaning. Let each group identify and explain the symbolism they find to other groups.


Beginning readers must also learn sequencing before they can read words and sentences. They learn that English is written from left to right and top to bottom. Beginning observers, too, should learn how museums, zoos, gardens, and other such facilities are sequenced or organized. As you move through the exhibits, explain why you have chosen a particular path. Don’t assume your audience will understand the logic of your choices without discussion. Making them aware of the choices you made strengthens their appreciation for the concept of sequencing.

Since very young children have little understanding of historic time, chronological sequence is difficult for them to comprehend. In a history museum, for instance, it is easier for them to understand objects that are grouped by use. They may understand that carriages, wagons, bicycles, trains, ships, and automobiles are used for getting from place to place, without appreciating the time or place in history held by each method of transportation.

In a zoo or aquarium, visitors should be encouraged to discover why certain animals are grouped together. Are they similar species, or do they share a similar environment? In a garden, are the plants grouped by variety, type, climate, soil conditions, or aesthetics?

Once Upon a Time In a History Museum: Sample Activities Promoting Sequencing Skills

  • For beginning observers: As you show youngsters the clothing worn by children in the historical period of your institution, have them imagine putting on the clothes. Ask the children to teU how their own dressing “sequence” is different from that of the historical person they are pretending to be.
  • For intermediate observers: Give each student pictures or examples of items having similar uses, but from different historical eras. Ask the students to arrange themselves into a living “time line” with the oldest objects first in line. Discuss the criteria they used when deciding upon the sequence of the items.
  • For fluent observers: Invite older children and adults to “rearrange” the museum using an idea or theme of their choosing (e.g. – chronological order, grouped by use. related to a specific place or idea. etc.). Give them outline maps of the museum and let them “move” the exhibits. Allow time for them to explain their choices.


Finally, a beginning reader learns to connect letters and sounds. Likewise, a beginning observer should learn to connect objects with their use. Playing “historical detective” is a great activity to help accomplish this skill. Give groups of 4-5 children an object whose real use they are not likely to know (e.g. a fluting iron, a darning egg. an apple corer, etc. ). Ask them to make a list of as many uses for this object as they can think of. Having children find uses for an object (not THE use, but their own use) lets them explore many possibilities without having to find a right answer. Just as beginning readers know that they will be able to “unlock” millions of words with just the sounds of 26 letters, beginning observers will recognize that they will be able to give meaning to unknown objects by finding uses for them. They will also have greater curiosity about, and gain appreciation for, the actual use of objects.


It is not enough, however, to merely read words. Competent readers must also derive meaning from those words, and from the words in the context of sentences, paragraphs, and stories. When the mechanics of reading are mastered, educators are able to teach to reading’s purpose — comprehension.

When teaching visitors who are already capable of object knowledge, additional levels of comprehension can be added. A beginner may look at an object and know what attributes separate it from other, similar objects. A more experienced observer can understand how the object was/is used. And. the fluent observer can infer what the object says about larger concepts, such as the time period of its manufacture or the culture that made it.

Making Hypotheses in the Science Museum or Zoo: Sample Activities Promoting Skills of Comprehension

  • For beginning observers: Tell children to pretend that we have found a new animal, but we don’t know what to feed it. Have them guess what foods it would eat by examining its teeth, and comparing its teeth to those of other animals whose diets are known.
  • For intermediate observers: Have students examine three different specimens that share something in common with one another, such as three: minerals, shells, feathers, bones, pelts, or living creatures. Ask the students to determine which two seem most closely related to one another, and to explain how they made their determinations.
  • For fluent observers: Provide students with information about the size of a densely inhabited exhibit space, zoo enclosure, or aquarium. Ask them to develop a method for counting the organisms sharing that environment.

Developing Vocabulary

When learning new vocabulary, readers are taught to define words in context by using synonyms, antonyms, and examples. The same can be done with objects.

Just as a reader looks for words with the same meaning in order to understand new vocabulary, object readers can be taught to look for objects used today that have the same use as an object in a historical museum. Similarly, visitors can look for similarities between animal species with which they have great familiarity (such as domesticated animals) and those in zoos. They can learn to see plants in nature centers and botanical gardens as similar to the roots. seeds, and leaves they eat everyday. By doing this, they learn that museum objects have “synonyms” to those found in the more familiar world in which they go about their daily routines.

Antonyms, also, are a useful way of giving meaning to words and objects. Teaching children to think of everyday objects that have replaced historical objects, and to find reasons for these replacements, is an important way to help them see the objects in context. The whole idea of a zoo as an “antonym” — an opposite to the animal’s natural world — can help children understand the importance of zoos in the preservation of species and the reason why zoos attempt to recreate an environment as close to the animal’s natural environment as possible.

A child learns the meaning of the word “vegetable” by learning that carrots, peas, and potatoes are vegetables. The more often he encounters examples of vegetables, the greater is his understanding of the word. The more examples of a particular type of object the child experiences, the better is his understanding of that object. When your museum only contains one example, use pictures from other institutions to help your visitors see the characteristics that are common to all of a particular type.

Reading a Culture

Vocabulary is defined for a reader both alone and in context. Museum objects, also, can be seen as individual pieces of art, or craft, or as a way of “reading” a culture. To see an object clearly as a piece of art, viewers discern the elements from which it is made. They look at the relationship of part to whole and whole to part, just as readers look at individual letters, phonemes, and syllables. They notice the materials from which the object is made and learn to recognize the difference between crude and skilled craftsmanship. They learn to value an object for itself as beginning readers learn the value of individual letters and words to language.

To see an object as part of a culture, however, viewers must know more than simply the elements from which the object is made, just as readers must know more than letter sounds in order to understand an essay or poem. In the same way that readers learn to analyze a piece of literature for its deepest meanings, viewers are taught the relevance of an object by placing it in context. Who made it? Why is it made of this material instead of some other? Why was it made? Who used it? What does it say about the people who made it?

Docents who do a good job in this area of their audience’s education open the entire world of museum objects in the same way a good reading teacher gives students access to all written knowledge. And, since most of our knowledge of the world’s history comes from objects of past cultures, who’s to say which is the greater skill?

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “The ‘A, B, C’s’ of Reading Objects,” The Docent Educator 4.3 (Spring 1995): 8-10.

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