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  • Teaching with Artifacts and Special Collections
  • Lois Hendrickson

Artifacts, material culture objects from the past, fascinate students. They are intrigued with the unknown, consumed with curiosity, and delighted to discover the true identity of these items. At the same time, engaging students with artifacts and special collections enriches student learning, stimulates critical thinking, and increases historical literacy. Students gain skills in solving problems, analyzing and synthesizing evidence, and communicating the results. By being able to touch artifacts and think about who used them and how, and by contemplating the technologies, ideas, and assumptions of a given time, history is humanized for students.

The utilization of primary sources in teaching has been discussed in the literature since the mid-1980s. As Ken Osborne noted, the rise of “New History” in the 1960s and 1970s led to an increase in student-centered, activity-based use of historical documents and the need for archivists to act as educators.1 In the late 1990s, my archivist colleagues and I saw an upsurge in requests to lead sessions introducing University of Minnesota students to primary sources. Despite the decades of interest in teaching with primary sources, however, pedagogical engagements with material culture are focused primarily on curriculum units for K–12. The Library of Congress, for example, “offers materials and lesson plans to help teachers effectively use primary sources that meet Common Core standards, state content standards, and the standards of national organizations.”2

The plethora of scholarship on object-based learning for K–12 schools is matched by work being done with a museum focus.3 This work typically measures a visitor’s interaction with objects in an exhibit-centered, interpretative and place-based context. More recently, and again within a museum context, inquiries into the value of learning with objects in higher education has been undertaken at the University College of London by Helen Chatterjee and her colleagues. The rationale for the UCL project was that

little had been written on the particular benefits of this method of learning for university programmes—despite universities holding large and unique collections of art works, manuscripts, specimens, rare books and artefacts. This research is strongly linked to pedagogies of active and experiential learning, which sees hands-on engagement with the object of study as key to personal meaning-making and the long-term retention of ideas.4 [End Page 136]

Objects inspire critical thinking skills, and written and oral communication skills, and as Chatterjee points out, “Objects can be employed in a variety of ways to enhance and disseminate subject specific knowledge, to facilitate the acquisition of communication, team working, practical, observational and drawing skills, and for inspiration.”5

Dominique Tobbell and I are integrating learning with objects into the undergraduate classroom using the artifacts and special collections of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Medicine and Biology. In Technology and Medicine in Modern America, artifacts are both a constant thread throughout the course, as well as the focus of the final research paper (the course syllabus is online at Our initial step in this collaboration involved a conversation to gauge my interest and to understand the policies and parameters of artifact use. Following this, we met to look at her draft syllabus. For each of the potential themes; for example, technology and medical professionalization, technology and gender, and technology and the patient, I identified related primary printed texts, manuscripts, and artifacts. As the syllabus was finalized, some themes assumed more prominence, some were not well represented by artifacts in the collections, and some were outside of the timeframe of artifact’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century focus.6

We decided to focus on six sessions, and to have me bring artifacts related to the reading and/or lecture into the classroom for the final twenty minutes of a session. In the first session students examined four or five technologically interesting objects not related to the syllabus. This served to introduce me, the Wangensteen Library materials, as well as serving as an introduction to material culture and the correct way to handle artifacts. The inaugural class was a seminar size of [End Page 137] about twenty, so students worked as...


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