Objectives

In this lesson students will:

  • Assess and understand the value of objects as sources for studying history and cultures.
  • Use material culture to gain understanding of native Namibian peoples.
  • Recognize the role of the historian or museum curator in our understanding of history.
  • Understand how the presentation of historical objects tells a specific story.
  • Create an audio guide to their own mini-museum.

This lesson is part of the full Choices curriculum unit Confronting Genocide: Never Again? However, you do not need the unit to do this lesson.

Required Reading

Students should have read The OvaHerero-Nama Genocide.

Resources

Video: What is history from below? (Professor Omer Bartov)
Video: How do historians use material culture to learn about the past? (Tony Perry)
Slideshow of objects used in this lesson
Handout: Creating a Mini-Museum Audio Guide
Handout:
Object Analysis
Handout:
Audio Guide Feedback Form

Notes: The ability to project the slides or to examine them on computers will enhance students’ ability to analyze the objects more closely. Also, it may be best to do this activity over two classroom periods. On the first day, students could go through steps 1-3 of “In the Classroom” and on the second day, write their audio guides (step 4). If quiet spaces or a media center are available, students could record their audio guides. As homework, students could provide feedback on each other’s guides. Another online lesson related to Namibian history and culture is also available (forthcoming). 

In the Classroom

1. Set the Stage: Play the video What is History From Below? with History Professor Omer Bartov. Explain that students will be doing what Professor Bartov calls “history from below” and will investigate a group of objects that have traditionally not been used to tell history (though they have been used to explain cultures). Ask students to think about a museum they might have visited or a display of objects (a store window, for example, or even objects in the students’ homes) and to consider the following questions: How can historians be certain that they are telling accurate stories about the past when they use non-traditional sources? How do museum curators tell “stories” when they bring objects together in an exhibit or collection? How might the curator’s point of view change what they include in a collection, or how they interpret objects?

Two other videos from Professor Bartov, What is historical evidence? and What can we use to construct the history of an event? add additional context to the idea of non-traditional sources.

2. Understand Objects as Sources: Play the video How do Historians use Material Culture to Learn About the Past? from Dr. Tony Perry, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Explain to students that they will be working with objects originally from Namibia and asking many of the questions Dr. Perry asks in relation to the cradle created by enslaved people in the United States, as well as a few others. This guide from the Harvard Peabody Museum might also familiarize you with with object analysis. 

To save classroom time, you might ask students to watch the videos at home for homework prior to the lesson.

3. Curate a Museum Collection: Divide the class into small groups of two to four students each. Tell students to look through the entire slideshow for a few minutes, then explain that they will be selecting three objects to focus on and creating their own mini-museum. Distribute Creating a Mini-Museum Audio Guide and three copies of Object Analysis to each group. Have students work through the directions on the two handouts, being sure to follow the “Creating a Mini-Museum Audio Guide” handout first. If students struggle with the concept of a museum audio guide, you could play an example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. You might wish to model the selection of groups of three with your own example as described in step 1 on “Creating a Mini-Museum Audio Guide.” 

4. Tell a Historical Story: Each group should then write a script for their audio guide. If possible, have students record their audio guides, speaking clearly and more slowly than they think is necessary. Students can use apps on their phones or computers, or you may wish to use the school’s media center, if you have one. They could also record their guides as homework. Each person in the group should deliver part of the script. As a peer assessment, you could then have students listen to some or all the guides for homework and give feedback. An Audio Guide Feedback Form is provided for this purpose.

5. Final Discussion: Ask students to think about how their groups’ interpretations of the objects differed from other groups’. For instance, did some groups choose the same objects but identify a different story? Why might that happen? How might a museum curator influence the interpretation of an object? How might the students’ interpretations differ from those of OvaHerero or Nama people in Namibia? Some Namibians prefer to use the term “cultural belongings” when referring to these objects. Why might that be? If students identify them as “cultural belongings,” does their understanding and interpretation of the objects change?

Extra Challenge

Persuasive Writing: Since 2017, several of the objects, including some in this slide show, have been returned from Germany to Namibia. Many citizens of Namibia wish to see all objects returned. Some want them housed in museums there, some want them returned to the family or ethnic group members of the people who made the objects. Others argue that displaying the objects in museums around the world allows more people to learn about Namibian culture and history. Introductory information about the repatriation of the objects can be found in here: Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures. Using their knowledge of the history of Namibia and their experience creating a mini-museum, students should write a letter to a museum holding colonial objects in which they take a position on this statement: Objects made by people from a particular culture belong in that culture and should not be on display in museums around the world. 

Remind students to use evidence and examples to support their argument.

Thank you to the African Studies Center K-16 Education Program at Boston University for their support of this lesson.

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