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Looking at Artifacts, Thinking about History

By Steven Lubar and Kathleen Kendrick

Artifacts—the objects we make and use—are part of American history. If we know how to look at them, they can be sources for better understanding our history. While textbooks focus on the great documents of the American past, or the important events, artifacts can show us another kind of history, another way of approaching the past. This essay will tell you how to look closely at artifacts and how to think about the ways they shape and reflect our history.

Why bother looking at artifacts, which can be hard to understand, when there are so many documents around, and when documents seem so much more straightforward? Why do museums save artifacts at all, when it would be so much easier just to save pictures of them?

There are two ways to answer this question. Artifacts, we believe, are, and were, important. According to anthropologist Daniel Miller, objects “continually assert their presence as simultaneously material force and symbol. They frame the way we act in the world, as well as the way we think about the world.”1 To understand the past, we have to understand the artifacts of the past.

But they are also important to us as a way to approach the past. Museum expert Elaine Gurian suggests that artifacts provide us a way into history. “Objects, in their tangibility,” she writes, “provide a variety of stakeholders with an opportunity to debate the meaning and control of their memories.”2 Artifacts are the touchstones that bring memories and meanings to life. They make history real. Moreover, it is a reality that can and should be viewed from different perspectives. When museums choose not to enshrine and isolate an artifact but instead open it up to new interpretations and different points of view, they provide opportunities to challenge and enhance our understanding of the past. Look at the artifacts on this web site, and around you, as reminders of the complexity of the past. To fully appreciate the complexity of artifacts—and of history—we must not only acknowledge their multiple and conflicting meanings, but embrace them.

As you look at the artifacts on this web site, think about them not as simple, unproblematic things—things with one story, one role to play in history. Rather, consider each artifact with its many stories as holding diverse meanings for different people, past and present. Think of them as bits of contested history. It is because of the contest and conflict they embody, and the way they combine use and meaning, that artifacts are such valuable tools for exploring the past.

Looking closely at artifacts, putting them into historical context, and using them to understand the past, is exactly the kind of work that goes on in a museum. Curators make it their mission to discover and tell these stories, to put objects back into history. So as you look at these artifacts, and the documents with them, imagine that you're curating your own exhibit. What stories do the objects tell? What documents, and what stories from you history books, help you to understand what the objects meant to the people of the past? What can you say about the past by using objects? How can you tell visitors to your exhibit what you've learned?

We suggest five ways to think about artifacts in history:

  • Artifacts tell their own stories.
  • Artifacts connect people.
  • Artifacts mean many things.
  • Artifacts capture moments.
  • Artifacts reflect changes.

You can look at any object in any or all of these ways. Here, we suggest some questions to ask, and give some examples. As you consider the artifacts in this website—or any artifact in museums, or in your daily life—you can ask similar questions. Think like a curator: use the artifacts to understand, explain, and present history.

1 Daniel Miller, Material Culture and Mass Consumption, pp. 105.

2 Elaine Heumann Gurian, "What is the Object of this Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums," Daedalus (Summer 1999), pp. 165-67.