“The strength of history museums lies in their collections, their objects. But students and teachers often lack the skills to make sense of historical objects, to analyze them closely and tease out their larger historical significance. Many students aren’t even in a position to visit a museum, making it even more difficult for them to engage in close analysis of historical objects.” -Object of History staff
Developing Primary Source Analysis Skills
The problems laid out in the above quote were the main goals driving the creation of the Object of History. According to the project staff, teachers were demanding new and low-cost ways for students to interact with primary sources. This interaction is essential because the National Standards for United States History outline not only the historical content that students should learn but also the historical skills that students should develop, including the ability to research, analyze, and interpret primary sources. To be as useful as possible, the Object of History is tailored to the National Standards for United States History.
Connecting with Material Culture and Curators
In the early 2000s, other CHNM projects like History Matters and World History Matters were “meeting the need of teaching students how to analyze documents and introducing them to the documentary expertise of professional academics,” but there was a lack of resources that would allow them to do the same with material culture. The need for such resources became apparent in the large response from teachers when NMAH created two “electronic field trips” for the Separate is not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education exhibition in May 2004. These “field trips,” one for middle school students and one for high school students, took the form of online video broadcasts that included a tour of the exhibition led by its curators and a live Q&A session between NMAH curators and students from across the country. As popular as the experimental “field trips” were (nearly four million students participated live), the challenge and the cost of the high technology that was required at the time meant that it could not be easily replicated. Efforts to come up with a new, lower-cost model resulted in the idea for the Object of History.
It is important to note that NMAH and CHNM staff intended the Object of History to be a resource just as much for teachers as for students. Not all history teachers have a background in history, making it a challenge to know how to incorporate primary sources in the classroom. To empower teachers to teach history through objects, the Object of History provides lesson plans and annotated lists of external resources for each object.