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

How to Read an Object

Understanding Context: Different Ways to Make Sense of an Object

The best way to think about objects as primary sources is to consider how they came to be. We can start with basic questions:

  • Who made this and why?
  • What influenced their thinking in making it?
  • How did this object play a role in everyday life?

Each story that an object can tell provides a different context that helps us understand what an object might mean or represent to people and how it helps us make sense of history.

For example, imagine someone gave you a Tickle Me Elmo stuffed toy when you were young. You slept with this toy for several years and it became a cherished part of your childhood memories. That is a personal context. There is also a societal context for Elmo. Although the Sesame Street TV show began in 1969, the Elmo character wasn’t introduced until 1980. The fact that you loved your Elmo toy in 2010 is a testament to his societal popularity over several decades. Another context is the maker of the toy. The first version of the toy was called Tickles the Chimp, designed by Ron Dubren for Tyco Toy Company. Dubren was inspired to make the toy by hearing the laughter of children playing on the playground.  

Which of those stories is more important? Which is more meaningful to you? Historians and museum curators write labels for objects on view. They often have to decide which information to include and which to exclude. They have to interpret many contexts to create a coherent narrative. For example, an art historian might focus more on how an artwork was made and why it is important to us aesthetically; another historian might focus on the role of an artwork in depicting an event; and a different historian might be very interested in the story an artwork can tell in how a community came to be.

Objects can give us clues related to different contexts, such as the person who owned it, the society that person lived in, the maker of the object, and even the person living in the current day who is viewing that object. But ultimately historians and museum curators decide which context to feature most prominently.  

How does art help us understand the lives of people from different times, places, and cultures?

Object Explorations and Activities