Becoming America: Thinking through Identity, Culture, and Traditions in Early America

How to Read an Object

Everybody Collects

The kinds of objects, artifacts, and artworks that people collect communicate different ideas. They can be a record of events that happened in society. They can also be a reflection of cultural values, identity, and many other experiences. They can be collected for their aesthetic or monetary value. The kinds of things that people collect gives us an insight into what they think is important.

You don’t need to be a museum or an art aficionado to create a collection of objects that you love or find interesting. Every person has objects that they’ve acquired just because they want them, not because they need them. Collections of Pokémon Cards can be just as interesting as a collection of oil paintings. As we have seen from the many object stories included in this series, individual objects can give us clues about who we are. But a collection of objects together also tells a different kind of story about the people who created the objects, the people who collect them, or the museums that display them.

Who Collected These Objects?

Jonathan and Karin Fielding built their collection over the course of many years. They started collecting with the intention of decorating their historic home in New England with furniture and art from the same time period, but then began collecting a much wider array of objects because they enjoyed them!

Every collector’s life experience and point of view affects the objects they select. These objects are not an official version of United States history nor are they meant to be. They illustrate the interests and tastes of real people. That’s why it is important to put a face on the people behind this collection of interesting early American objects. Knowing a bit more about the collection as a whole helps to tell a story.

Whether looking at the whole collection of a museum, or an individual collection, we can ask different questions to help make sense of how and why the objects might be important and the kinds of stories they can tell.

  • Where do the objects come from?
  • Why are these items collected?
  • What kinds of things do the objects share in common?
  • What time periods do the objects represent?
  • How far are the objects from their original locations? How did they get to where they are now?

What ideas, experiences, or influences might inform the kinds of objects a person collects?

How does the presenting and sharing of objects, artifacts, and artworks influence and shape ideas, beliefs, and experiences?

Object Explorations and Activities