At semester's end I sat down with my teaching assistants, Sven
Dubie and Paul Gilmore, to grapple with sixty-two research papers
submitted as the final requirement for History 112 "Introduction
to American History," at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU),
a moderate-size private institution best known for educating engineers
and scientists. The papers were the results of an experiment in
teaching a basic introductory history course. Seeking to dispel
the standard undergraduate misconceptions about history--that it
is boring, distant, nonrelevant, just dates, etc.--we had prompted
our students to get outside the classroom, to observe life on the
streets and neighborhoods around the university, and to use the
archival and material culture collections of a major museum in an
effort to understand a critical issue, unity or disunity in the
United States. Some of the resulting papers, as would be expected,
represented the bare minimum of work needed to pass the course,
but a few were transcendent. One student drove the streets around
the university taking pictures of the homes of the poor and the
wealthy. He then matched the images with statistical data on income
and race and argued that housing symbolized disunity in America.
Another interviewed local Asian Indian restaurant owners, checked
Web sites on ethnic foods, and talked to Asian Indian immigrants.
His conclusion was that the partial Americanization of Asian Indian
cooking and the growing familiarity with Indian food on the part
of the American public argued for unity. Another reviewed images
of children's and adolescents' costume throughout the twentieth
century and concluded that by the century's closing decades, labels
and diverging styles had made visible the racial and economic divides
within the country. These introductory-level students had engaged
with material culture, and they had not just learned history, but
clearly enjoyed doing so.
The history introductory or survey course provides an ideal ground
for changing perceptions and gaining converts within any college
or university. At Case Western Reserve University, two courses hold
this position: History 112, "Introduction to American History,"
and History 113, "Introduction to Modern World History."
For well over a decade the history department at CWRU has worked
to make these courses more meaningful and attractive. Faculty now
focus on issues such as gender and race and on developing writing
skills, introducing basic historical techniques, and personalizing
the past (students in the American introductory course are usually
expected to construct a family history and to place it in the context
of the American experience).
In the past two academic years, grant funding has allowed faculty teaching
these courses to move toward further innovations, including the
use of computer-based media in the classroom, permitting faculty
on our fully "wired" campus to catch up with the students.1
But by now, the Web is pretty much an inside-the-box experience.
Our challenge at CWRU was to go beyond easy access to virtual experience.
We determined to link introductory course work to objects and archival
materials, thereby lending some reality to theory and electronic
Fortunately, CWRU is adjacent to the Western Reserve Historical
Society (WRHS). A typical trans-Appalachian historical society founded
in 1867, WRHS has evolved into a major urban research center and
museum. For many years university students have used its archives/library
for work on local and regional topics as well as for public history
internships. Although some of the interactions were substantive,
none took full advantage of the historical society's resources.
Particularly underutilized were the society's material culture collections.
They offered the prospect of linking history to actual objects and
of introducing students to the growing use of material culture as
an interpretive historical resource.2
The administrations in both institutions welcomed the idea. Despite
the philosophical differences that sometimes separate the practice of public
history from academe, historical societies and departments of history face
the same problem, the need for audience. The quest to increase visitation
and through-the-gate receipts drives the programs of many history museums
in the same way that the pursuit of larger enrollments and more declared majors
spurs change in many history departments. Success in building numbers provides
proof of subject value and of success to college and university administrators.
Innovative teaching and courses devoted to new or popular topics play the
same role in academe as do hands-on exhibits, technological wizardry, and
public programming in many history museums. The hard core of individuals seriously
interested in history is usually too small to please all trustees, deans,
or other administrators. The question in both venues is how to attract and
please the marginally interested or the uninterested and, particularly, how
to turn them into return customers.
But could museum materials be used in a large American history
introductory course in which enrollments sometimes exceed one hundred students
each semester? Class size was a key concern. Another was the need to structure
the course so that the museum's resources were integral to its theme. We wanted
the interaction with the museum to be viewed as something other than a traditional
field trip; moreover, students' use of material culture and archival sources
had to be central to a final, gradable product.
The course was structured around a broad question--is the United
States a divided or a unified society? We identified three subthemes to underpin
that theme: food, clothing, and shelter, urging students to consider how those
essentials of everyday life might suggest either the unity or the disunity
of America. The subthemes proved immensely useful as they played on important
aspects of the students' own lives: they came to see how Tommy Hilfiger, Taco
Bell, and the number of bathrooms at home reflected sameness and/or difference.
Personal experience created an empathy with historical experience and provided
the basis of lively discussions throughout the semester.
The logistics necessary to make the museum collections integral
to the course work were difficult and forced us to deal with matters
both pragmatic and philosophical. While the WRHS's archives/library
as a matter of course focuses on providing access to the materials
in its collection and thus readily accommodates student use of manuscripts
and other unique items, its museum does not have that tradition.
Its focus is largely custodial, with exhibits the primary means
of public interaction with the holdings. How were the sixty-two
students enrolled in History 112 in spring 2001 to review the costumes,
food preparation implements, and other relevant items in the museum's
collections if no access policy was in place? Unlike the archives/library,
the WRHS museum does not routinely make its holdings available for
study. In addition, curatorial imperatives put students' handling
of objects out of the question. The only acceptable means of access
was show-and-tell sessions where WRHS staff selected, displayed,
and discussed items from the collection.3 Moreover, curators
wanted students to view the items at WRHS so that material would
not have to leave the museum, assuring that students would at the
very least visit this major public history institution. Other details
had to be resolved, including deciding the number of students who
could comfortably attend a presentation session given the space
limitations of meeting rooms and accommodating the visits to curatorial
schedules. An active exhibit program, an inventory project, and
a major movement of collections put curatorial time at a premium.
During the first two months of the semester, students had three
interactive meetings with curators at WRHS--a brisk ten-minute walk from their
classroom. At the first meeting the society's curator of costume and textiles
displayed and discussed items ranging from a c. 1900 London-made suit for
a rich American boy to a 1950s poodle skirt.4 At the second visit
the curator of collections brought out dinnerware and dining implements. These
ranged from a frontier-period horn spoon to an elaborate Victorian-era sterling
silver food warmer. The third visit was a tour of the society's Hay-McKinney
mansion, an early-twentieth-century Renaissance Revival residence built by
the widow of John Hay, the former U.S. secretary of state, in which a large
collection of decorative arts is displayed in period rooms.
On a recent visit to the Western Reserve Historical Society,
John Grabowski shows students in his "Introduction to
American History" course how everyday household goods
tell the story of American history, revealing the rapid development
from a new colony to an industrialized nation. Photograph
by Susan Griffith.
Once the visits were concluded, the objects went back to storage
and the students went back to the classroom. How were they to continue
to use material culture in their research? One solution was to select
and set aside in the society's library photographs, newspapers,
and magazines that related to food, clothing, and shelter and to
suggest that students use those in support of their investigations.
Another was to have the students review materials on exhibit at
the society. They included high-style furnishings in the Hay-McKinney
mansion, an exhibit of glassware, and the temporary exhibit "Pop
Up Culture," which focused on the social history of the toaster.
Students were also encouraged to walk the streets and to visit the
homes of friends or other sites that could provide insights into
the subthemes. An instructor-led class walking tour through an Italian
American neighborhood adjacent to CWRU helped students understand
how architecture and landscape could be used as sources. Lastly,
students were encouraged to use Web sites pertinent to the subthemes.
With few exceptions the papers we received would not stand up to
intensive theoretical scrutiny: that was not our goal. We had told
the students that their mini-theses were likely to be flawed. What
the papers did show was that the students (all but a handful of
whom were destined for careers outside history) had used nontraditional
evidence to explore a critical historical question about American
society. Although the collections of material culture did not figure
as prominently in their research as we had initially hoped, the
students had at least visited WRHS (most for the first time) and
had had the opportunity to meet and question its curatorial staff.
Papers, evidence of museum visits, and positive student reviews
of the course all suggested that our attempt to get out of the pedagogical
box had some success. But the experience also pointed out several
problems. The first relates to the World Wide Web. Given an equal
opportunity to use the Web or more traditional sources, students
will gravitate to the Web. Because of the difficulties in accessing
objects at WRHS, the course syllabus did not require that students
make use of its materials in their work. Although archival sources
were a readily available alternative at WRHS, many students still
opted for the ease of sitting in their dorm rooms and surfing. Images
and data pulled from the Web predominated in many of the papers.
That was not the most desirable result.
It occurred, in part, because of a second and more significant
issue arising from what some observers might characterize as the "curatorial
mind-set," which precluded a more intimate and extensive student interaction
with material culture collections. Ironically, while contemporary historians
are finding value in a growing variety of nontraditional sources, including
material culture, curators have become increasingly concerned about preserving
materials entrusted to their care. With such material, there is, I would argue,
a conflict looming between the needs of researchers and the concerns of curators.
It is not that curators are possessive about items in their collections or
unconcerned about their potential as interpretive tools.5 Indeed,
there is a lively debate in the museum world between those who value objects
as objects and the growing number of professionals who wish to use objects
in expanded ways, both intellectually and physically, in exhibits and displays.
That debate is, however, weighted on both sides by a growing body of information
about the preservation and conservation parameters for historical objects,
parameters that dictate increased caution in display and handling. Whether
the objects in museums will ever be as widely available as archival sources
is at this point an open question. Certainly, acknowledged experts in areas
such as costume, furniture, and decorative arts have been, and will continue
to be, able to examine relevant materials. But opening regular access to a
broader constituency, including students, poses enormous challenges both to
educators and to museum professionals.6
And there is another critical issue: the material culture collections
at WRHS, like those at many of its peer institutions, do not yet
reflect the broad spectrum of people and life-styles in the region
served. Most of the costumes students saw were either high-style
or special (for example, a Shaker costume was used in the presentation),
and much of the dinnerware was reflective of middle- and upper-class
life. The tour of the Hay-McKinney mansion presented only one aspect
of the story of housing, essentially, the life-styles of the rich
and famous, although the restored and interpreted servants' quarters
of the home provided an opening to an alternative story. The lack
of commoner, more everyday materials was detrimental for comparative
purposes, but it did open the issue of historical representation.
The students, the instructor, the teaching assistants, and the curators
used this to discuss collecting priorities, the realities of material
survival, and historical biases. In the end, the dearth of everyday
objects turned out to be the "dog that didn't bark in the night,"
and discovering it was a most instructive aspect of the course.
That unexpected result should be considered as typical of outside-the-box
experiences in teaching. History 112 did not come out exactly as we planned
it. However, the very act of planning is antithetical to stepping outside
the familiar and the routine. What did occur in History 112 was a learning
process in which sixty-two students moved well beyond the usual confines of
an introductory course and encountered new ways to view American history.
The course was also a learning process for those who conducted it. It required
academic and public historians to deal with the sometimes conflicting expectations
that divide the way they "do history." By leaving the boxes labeled
"professional duties" or "current standards," boxes that
restrict the scope of our activities and often our historical imagination,
both university historians and museum staffs can enhance their positions within
their respective administrative structures while building a better understanding
of the value of the discipline they serve. Many students are waiting for us
outside those boxes, free of professional conceits, unaware of limitations,
and therefore ready to examine the past in new and innovative ways.
John J. Grabowski is director of research for the Western Reserve
Historical Society and the Krieger-Muller Associate Professor of
Applied History at Case Western Reserve University.
1 Support from the McGregor Fund enabled faculty and student assistants
to compile a list of substantive Web sites related to American history in
general and to specific topics such as gender and technology. Funds were also
used to purchase two laptop computers, which permit realtime exploration of
Web sites during class and the presentation of PowerPoint programs.
2 On the role of history museums in the preservation and interpretation
of material culture, see Thomas J. Schlereth, "History Museums
and Material Culture," in History Museums in the United
States: A Critical Assessment, ed. Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig
(Urbana, 1989), 320. This essay hints at interface issues that arose
in History 112.
3 To select the objects seen by the students, a graduate assistant
at Case Western Reserve University used the Western Reserve Historical
Society's (WRHS) online catalog--accessible at <http://www.wrhs.org/searchme.htm>
(Dec. 4, 2001)--to locate objects appropriate to the course's themes.
His lists and copies of the syllabus and readings were then provided
to WRHS curators. They used it and their knowledge of the holdings
to make a final selection of items to show the students.
4 Most items in the historical society's extensive costume collection
(it contains over 30,000 items) are women's garments. This disparity, reflected
in the items selected for presentation, prompted questions as to why more
men's clothing was not preserved.
5 RHS curators did an extraordinary job in explaining the origins,
use, and importance of the objects they had selected. Questions from the instructor,
the teaching assistants, and the students helped put that information in a
more general historical context that included issues of gender, class, and
representation. The interplay of curatorial foci and student interests, one
of the most gratifying aspects of the course, argues for a larger role for
curators as educators.
6 Museums are making objects more accessible by accessioning some
"for use" rather than "for collection." Professionally,
this allows for more latitude in the way an object is handled or displayed.
WRHS marks for use materials employed in its K-12 education program and at
several living-history sites it operates. However, except in the case of exact
duplication, the designation of an object for use usually implies it is of
less than the highest historical or aesthetic value. The system may work well
for general education or public access, but it may not meet the needs of students
and scholars doing serious research.