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The Object of History

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Purple velvet dress owned by Mary Todd Lincoln, 1864, Object of History

The Center for History and New Media and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History created this website to model both historical thinking about artifacts as primary sources and possible best practices for sharing museum collections online. With the site, students can curate their own virtual history exhibits, using documents and expert interviews related to six core artifacts from different time periods.

The "Guide" section introduces users to how and why artifacts are important to historians. Seven 300- to 600-word essays argue that artifacts tell stories, create connections between people, hold many different meanings, capture moments, and reflect changes.

After learning how historians relate to artifacts, users can tour model exhibits in "Objects," focusing on six Smithsonian-held artifacts: Thomas Jefferson's lapdesk, the gold nugget that started the California Gold Rush, a dress that belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln, an 1898 voting machine, the Woolworth counter where a sit-in took place in 1960, and a short-handled hoe used by farmworkers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Using the more than 220 expert interviews and primary sources from the "Object" model exhibits, students can create their own six-item exhibit.

An "Introduction" for each artifact includes a short introductory video placing it in its historical context and a virtual version of the artifact. Users can zoom in and out on the virtual artifact, rotate it, or click to discover interactive hot spots. Clicking "Explore" in each exhibit provides further information on the object, its place in history, and its history as a museum artifact. Interviews with Smithsonian experts and related primary sources enrich "Explore" sections. "Tour" demonstrates how the interviews and sources in "Explore" can be pulled together into exhibits: either a short 4- to 5-piece "Brief Tour" or a 5- to 13-piece "Extended Tour." "Resources" rounds up annotated links to websites with more information on topics related to each artifact.

"Activity" is the heart of the site. Using the more than 220 expert interviews and primary sources from the "Object" model exhibits, students can create their own six-item exhibit. After selecting the objects that reveal the perspective or tell the story they wish to convey and labeling the objects with interpretative text, students can email their finished exhibits to their teacher (or to themselves).

For even more information on the six core artifacts, users can listen to experts' recorded answers to questions about the artifacts in "Forums." The 16 recordings run from 13 minutes to an hour.

The site may take time to learn to navigate and use, and sorting through the many interviews and primary sources to curate an exhibit can be frustrating (interviews and sources can be displayed by collection, but not searched). However, the site can still provide an introduction to what makes artifacts unique as primary sources, and the skills historians use to interpret artifacts and create museum exhibits.