Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Teaching Shelburne Museum

Last week I found myself  brandishing a tape measure and scale to study ceramic plates from a hundred year-old shipwreck laid out on the carpeted floor of Pleissner Gallery. This engaging, hands-on workshop was part of an ongoing partnership between Shelburne Museum and Turning Points in American History, a professional development program for Vermont educators that supports teaching in the social studies and seeks to build strong school-museum relationships.

Turning Points educators examine a ceramic plate from a canal boat "shipwreck" to review historical methods

At last week's Primary Source Study Group, Turning Points Co-Director Scott McLaughlin staged an early twentieth-century Lake Champlain canal boat wreck for a lesson in historical methods. He drew a cross section of the boat as it was found in the lake on a swath of fabric and unfurled it on the gallery floor. He then laid out artifacts that archaeologists have found in different parts of the boat, including a coin, a pipe, and a handcrafted doll. The ceramic plates that we used as primary sources were similar to artifacts that archaeologists have found in such wrecks. Primary Source Study Group participants collected data including the plates' condition, function, size, and weight, and then analyzed, synthesized, and interpreted these findings in order to date and contextualize the ceramics. By the end of the workshop, we were able to make conjectures about the family that lived on this particular canal boat based on our detailed study of the "material culture" they left behind.

Archaeologist's perspective drawing of the Sloop Island canal boat shipwreck (Adam Kane, 2004)

As a young museum professional interested in how to use art and artifacts to teach history, I have been tagging along with Turning Points study groups during their Shelburne Museum visits. I will write again soon to share the innovative ways that Primary Source Study Group participants are using what they learn at the Museum to teach with primary sources in the classroom. Hint: it involves less textbook readings and more staged shipwrecks.

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