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For Teachers: Using objects to find out about the past

A multi-tool from Roman times, simmilar to today's Swiss Army Knives

A Roman 'Swiss Army Knife'

© The Fitzwilliam Museum

    • Museums are full of objects with much to reveal about the past. By helping your students to ask the right questions, you can unlock an object’s secrets and stories. Museums often have handling collections so that you can get really close to different objects, look at them from all angles, feel them or even smell them. The real thing never looks quite like it does in a photo or online – it’s always, bigger, smaller, has brighter colours or smells weirder than you expected. The more senses you can use to investigate an object, the more memorable your investigation will be and the more you will reveal.

      Lots of museums have high-resolution images of their collections  - some even in 3D - that can be printed, used on whiteboards or added to programmes and applications.

      Some pointers for using online collections can be found here.

      Here are some questions to help with your investigations. Is every question relevant? Could you add more?

      1.  What does it look, feel, smell, sound like?
      -    What colour is it?
      -    What does it smell like?
      -    Does it make a noise?
      -    What is it made from?
      -    Is it a natural or manufactured material?
      -    Is it whole or are some parts missing?
      -    Has it been altered, adapted, mended?
      -    Is it damaged or worn?
      Why?

      2.  How was it made?
      -    Was it handmade or machine made?
      -    Where was it made?
      -    Who was it made for?
      -    What sort of person made it?
      -    Was it made in one or several pieces?
      -    How has it been fixed together?
      -    Does any part move?
      -    How does it move?
      Why?

      3.  What was it made for?
      -    What do you think it was made to do?
      -    Has it been used in a different way?
      -    Who used it?

      4.  Design: has it been designed to do a job or simply to look good?
      -    Does it do the job it was made to do well?
      -    Were the most suitable materials used?
      -    Is it decorated?
      Why?

      5.  Value: what is it worth?
      -    To the people who made it?
      -    To the people who used it?
      -    To you?
      -    To a museum?
      -    To a bank?
      Why?

      Golden rule for teachers: keep curiosity and motivation alive by not revealing what an object is or the answers to pupils’ questions (if you know them) until the end of the investigation. Do prompt with further questions though…

      Show Me has some great examples of interesting, intriguing and quirky things that can be found in museums and can be used to bring your classroom work to life across the curriculum.

      Curriculum links

      Use museum collections in this way to help build skills in independent enquiry, discussion and debate across all phases including:
      -    Developing language and vocabulary
      -    Identifying and using useful primary sources
      -    Gathering, selecting, assessing and presenting evidence
      -    Questioning
      -    Assessing reliability and bias
      -    Looking at multiple perspectives – was everyone’s experience the same..?
      -    Thinking about what/which voices might be missing?
      -    Developing and substantiating an answer, argument or narrative

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