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

How to Read an Object

Overview: How to Read an Object

You have probably read a history book or watched movies about historical events. But what does it mean to be a historian and actually “do” history? Historians are like detectives looking for clues about what happened in the past. They start with a research question and then dig through heaps of primary sources to come up with possible answers. Primary sources or original sources are often documents and texts, but they can also be objects: a tea pot, a painting, or even an Xbox. They are sources of information created during the time period we might be studying. In this unit we are searching for clues in art and artifacts that help us answer questions about American identity and personal identity in the early forming of the United States. We will also explore the idea that objects can tell us something about the identities of collectors, museum curators, and historians. 

Objects and activities in this unit will help you and your students build skills for reading objects as clues about history. Investigating each object’s origin, use, and symbolic meaning will help you to read objects and unlock the fascinating complexities about identity within them.  

Essential Questions That Frame This Unit

  • What can you learn about early American people and their identities from their objects?
  • What do your objects say about your identity and the times that you live in?
  • Does the meaning of an object change if it is considered in different time periods?
  • How do collectors and museums shape the perception of American identity?

Student Understandings

  • Objects can give us clues within different contexts: the person who owned it, the society that person lived in, and the maker of the object.
  • When historians are missing information about an object, they have to make decisions about how much they can say about that object.
  • The decisions that people make to collect or display objects communicate meaning and show how people differently interpret history.
Featured Object Stories