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Using Objects in Teaching

Geralyn Ducady

Geralyn Ducady is the Curator of Programs and Education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

I am the Curator of Programs and Education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Because I’m lucky enough to work at a museum, I am able to scaffold my teaching with material culture. Since we are an anthropology museum, we aren’t necessarily teaching only about history. We look at contemporary cultures, too (and even subcultures within the “American” culture). I’m sure many of you know that people (kids and adults) learn differently. Some people learn best through lecture (auditory learners), some learn better by seeing (visual learners), while others learn better by feeling (tactile learners), and, really, we are all some combination of those. Traditional teaching tends to do well with the first two; combining lectures with a PowerPoint or with assigned readings. The last one, tactile learning, tends to get left out. Most teachers aren’t necessarily trained to teach using objects and relevant objects can be difficult to come by. For this post, I will highlight a few of our most popular programs and explain how we use material culture in teaching.

In our Culture CaraVan outreach programs, we have objects that complement the subject-matter from the Museum’s educational collections. Education collections are separated from regular museum collections (the one people usually don’t get to touch) and are specifically selected so that they can be touched (and sometimes roughly handled by children). Some objects were ethnographically collected specifically for educational use, some are replicas made by Native American artists using traditional means, and others were re-created by volunteers (but we are trying to move away from the latter). Aside from “objects,” we also gather examples of plants and animal parts that were used in the past. Examples are pieces of ash splint alongside an ash splint basket or deer antler alongside tools fashioned from antler. In one of our most popular programs, Native People of Southeastern New England, students can feel a soft deer skin moccasin that would have been worn by Indigenous people in the early contact period compared to a hard-soled moccasin worn under influence of the English colonists. Sometimes called ‘realia’ by Pre-K to 12 teachers, learning from objects makes the experience more tangible.

Used to seeing things on television or the Internet, students often ask “is this real? Like really real?” The experience excites them into wanting to learn more and leads them to remember more details at a later date.

Brown University students in CultureLab completing a class assignment. Courtesy of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Brown University students in CultureLab completing a class assignment. Courtesy of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

We are a university museum and have a section dedicated to the CultureLab. CultureLab’s primary function is to serve Brown University’s students and faculty. Since our collections facility is located far from campus, CultureLab gives us the opportunity to make our collections available for study and university teaching. Faculty request objects from our collections to be housed in CultureLab so that they can host a class in the space or create an assignment for students who then visit on their own to research an object or group of objects. Objects deemed too fragile for handling by the curators are displayed in cases. Objects okay for gentle handling are available in a locked case. A Museum curator trains faculty and students on proper object handling techniques, brings select objects out on padded tables, and is always present while objects are being handled. Like the younger school kids, object study scaffolds the lessons learned in class and the opportunity to handle objects leads to more questions from students and increased recollection. For example, in a course taught by Elizabeth Hoover (Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies, Brown University) titled “Thawing the Frozen Indian,” students examined the history of collection and display of “Indians” and “exotic objects” in museums and their contributions to stereotypes that still linger today.

Aside from university courses, I use CultureLab with some of the school groups that come to the Museum. Again, a museum curator determines what objects can be used for gentle handling. We have a long-standing sixth-grade program called Think Like an Archaeologist, a partnership between the Haffenreffer Museum, RISD Museum of Art (Rhode Island School of Design), and the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World (Brown University). This program has four in-class sessions and a fifth museum visit session at the RISD Museum or the Haffenreffer. Throughout the program, students learn to “read” objects; they use descriptive terms to explain what they see and feel. They then draw conclusions about the object or group of objects using their descriptions as evidence to back up their thinking (a skill required by the Common Core). To learn more about how the program aligns with the Common Core, see our website and look for our upcoming article to be published in the October 2016 issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice. Object lesson plans associated with this program are also on the website and are free for you to download and use.


Students from Nathaniel Greene Middle School at the Haffenreffer Museum, (photography by Sophia Sobers, courtesy of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University).

We also have a long-term partnership with the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center. After practicing object handling with objects from the education collection in their classrooms, the preschoolers visit the Museum to learn from real museum objects. Like the sixth-graders, students learn to describe what they see first and use their descriptions to conclude what an object is. They then hear more about it and may see pictures of it being used. In later class meetings, students recalled much of the background information along with details such as texture and even smell.

You may be wondering, but how do I get objects to teach with? Depending on the topic, you may be able to start a small teaching collection with objects purchased from antique shops. You can also commission traditional tools and such to be made by a local artist. Of course, you need a budget for these. Another option is to work with the educator at a relevant museum. Some museums have lending kits. Most have outreach programs and in-museum programs. Not all museums allow objects to be touched, but many do have a teaching collection.