Skip Navigation/Skip to Content

Looking at Artifacts, Thinking about History

By Steven Lubar and Kathleen Kendrick

Artifacts Tell their Own Stories

Looking at the artifact helps answer questions about its own history. What is it? When was it made? Where is it from? What is it made of? Who made it? How was it used? These kinds of questions establish basic information about the object; they help to identify and locate it in time and place.

This way of looking at an object can be thought of as looking inward. We put an object under a microscope—literally or figuratively—and discover the object’s own history. Often, these are the first questions to ask of an artifact. (On this Web site, we’ve provided much of this information.)

But this is only the beginning; a way to establish basic facts. (For a document, the similar questions would be: Who wrote it? When? Why?) The next step, for an artifact as for a document, is to take the object as a point of departure, opening up the world beyond the artifact. When we do that, we learn a different kind of history. Imagine the artifact not in a spotlight by itself, but rather against a variegated backdrop of people, places, and events. Now, many stories emerge. Here, we begin to ask questions about the people who used the artifact, the events that surrounded it. If we ask the right questions, and do the right research, we begin to understand the role an object played in people’s lives, the meanings it held to different individuals and communities, the way it reflected the knowledge, values, and tastes of a particular era. In short, we see the object as part of American history.

When placed in context like this, museum artifacts become passageways into history. Through a single object, we can connect to a moment in time, a person's life, a set of values and beliefs.