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Looking at Artifacts, Thinking about History

By Steven Lubar and Kathleen Kendrick

Telling Many Stories

These ways of looking at artifacts can tell you not just about the artifact, but also about history. They put the artifacts back into history. To do this, we have to find the story of the artifact, the people who used it, and the society and culture it was part of. We need to understand its story. In this essay, we do that by providing documents that relate to the artifact. In fact, you can think of the artifact as another kind of document—one that is sometimes hard to read, but which can tell you a new, deeper, more interesting kind of story. Read the artifacts and the other documents together, and you'll come closer to understanding how people of the past lived and thought and felt about things.

Artifacts are more complex than we sometimes give them credit for. In Telling the Truth about History, authors Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob argue that "Any history is always someone's history, told by that someone from a partial point of view. Yet," they continue, "external reality has the power to impose itself on the mind; past realities remain in records of various sorts that historians are trained to interpret." 3 Like documents, artifacts can suggest new stories, stories that the collectors might never have imagined. By imposing themselves on the mind, they demand explanation. "Objects," write Appleby, Hunt and Jacob, "arouse curiosity, resist implausible manipulation, and collect layers of information about them."4

Artifacts, because of their complexity and layers of information, can lead to many stories. Curators may have collected tools and machines to tell a story of technological progress, but those same artifacts can also tell stories of work, skill, and industrial organization. A First Lady's gown might have been collected to tell a story of fashion and upper-class sensibility, but it also can tell a story of the dressmaker who made the gown. Collections brought to the museum for one reason can be reinterpreted; they can tell new stories. Our perceptions of objects, and the meanings we derive from them, are shaped by the context in which they are shown.

This last point—the flexible, contextual nature of the artifact—might seem to be a weakness. In fact, though, it is a strength. Meanings in artifacts are made not just in their own history, but beyond them, in the thoughts and conversations that flow around the objects. The flexible nature of artifacts, which can be interpreted and reinterpreted, viewed and reviewed, and used to tell many different stories, enables everyone to participate in that search.

So as you consider the artifacts on this Web site, use them not only to understand the past, but also as a way to discuss the present. Discuss what they meant to the people who made and used them, but also what they mean to you. Your understanding of the artifacts, like the museum exhibit a curator designs around them, is only the beginning, for artifacts tell many stories.

3 Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, pp. 11.

4 Ibid., pp. 260.