A few of our favorite things

As museum professionals, we’re often asked about our favorite artifacts in the museum. In the Thinkfinity online community, this question appeared shortly after my colleague Jenny and I were debating the question ourselves. You can find that discussion here and more of our favorites in the bios of several of the museum’s regular bloggers—including the Greensboro lunch counter, one of our most famous and powerful pieces—and more from our curators.

Last week, a fellow educator and I were asked to lead a tour for teachers highlighting a few of our favorite artifacts, with an emphasis on those that we think can be used most effectively with students. So, it seemed fitting to share a few on the blog!

Lincoln's Hat

Abraham Lincoln's Top Hat

This may be an obvious choice, but in addition to being a defining artifact from one of America’s greatest presidents, it’s also a great opportunity to encourage careful observation and critical analysis of artifacts among students. We probably think we know all there is to know about the hat, but have you ever taken a really close look? Do you notice, for example, the black band above the rim, and have you wondered about its purpose? Or, have you ever stopped to think what the hat is made of? Or why a man so remarkably tall would have chosen to wear such a tall hat in the first place? These kinds of questions, asked of this or any other artifact, may help students stop and think about an object, a document, an event, an idea that they may have thought they already knew.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection

Note and Colt 45 Beer Can from Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Note states: "Hey Bro!, / Here's the beer I owe you - 24yrs late. You were right - I did make it back to the world. Great seeing you again. Sorry not to be with you but I"ll be along soon. / Thanx / Sarge"

One of my favorite series of artifacts—objects left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and currently on display in our exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War —actually belongs to the National Park Service. I love these items because I find the use of symbolism and the small window these provide into personal experiences fascinating. I appreciate the way in which visitors have, from the beginning, made quiet but profound political statements through these personal items, and I think it’s important to remember, especially in an museum like this one that is so full of artifacts from presidents and other famous and powerful people, that each of us is an actor in our national story. These artifacts could be easily combined with a lesson on Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which begins by enumerating the physical things soldiers in Vietnam carried and is an account of how to carry that experience, while the book can be seen as an act of putting that experience down—on paper, emotionally, of making sense of it. It seems to me a parallel to the act of leaving these artifacts—many of them the physical things the men carried, which symbolize the experience, and the act of understanding or coming to terms with it by returning these artifacts to this symbolic home.

What are your favorite artifacts in the collection? Do you find the Star-Spangled Banner awe inspiring (if you haven’t heard, Tim Gunn does too)? Or perhaps you prefer photographs, like this one from the Scurlock Studios collection, or posters like this celebrating Earth Day? Tell us your favorites and how you have used them with your students!

Naomi Coquillon is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 9:51 am EST in From the Collections,Teaching & Learning