Everyday Objects with Unexpected Histories


How do objects help us understand the story of Wisconsin?


  • Why do we save things?
  • What makes the things we save important?
  • What questions can objects help us answer?
  • How do we unlock the meanings of an object?


Wisconsin Standards for Social Studies

Social Studies Inquiry Practices and Processes

  • Construct meaningful questions that initiate an inquiry. (Inq1)
  • Gather and evaluate sources. (Inq2)
  • Develop claims using evidence to support reasoning. (Inq3)
  • Communicate and critique conclusions. (Inq4)

Behavioral Science

  • Examine the progression of specific forms of technology and their influence within various societies. (BS4)


  • Analyze how decisions are made and interactions occur among individuals, households, and firms/businesses (Microeconomics). (Econ2)


  • Using historical evidence for determining cause and effect. (Hist1)
  • Analyze, recognize, and evaluate patterns of continuity and change over time and contextualization of historical events. (Hist2)
  • Connect past events, people, and ideas to the present, use different perspectives to draw conclusions, and suggest current implications. (Hist3)
  • Evaluate a variety of primary and secondary sources to interpret the historical context, intended audience, purpose, and/or author’s point of view (Historical Methodology). (Hist4)
Educational Goal Assessment
  • Identify the parts of an object.
  • Analyze the form and function of the object?
  • Compare and contrast the object to similar objects from the past or present.
  • Evaluate and interpret the importance of the object through object inquiry.


Suggested Performance Tasks

Students can show achievement through completion of class discussion and activities on:

  • Activity #1, Investigation

Have students investigate two interesting objects. One object should be common; the other object should be unusual and not easily recognizable. Have them fill out the worksheet below and then review with the entire class. (See this handout for options. Slide #1 – Soda can, Slide #2 – Boot Spurs, Slide #3 – Pencil, Slide #4 – Native American Courting Flute, Slide #5 – Forks, Slide #6 – Morse-Vail Telegraph).


  • Activity #2, Object Analysis

Have each student select an object/picture of an object they find interesting. Have the students write an analysis of the object. This activity is based on the work and methodology of Material Culture expert Jules Prown. (Use this guide on writing an object analysis.)


  • Activity #3, Museum Object Labels

Have students use the object from Activity #2 to write a museum label. (Use this handout the sources below to understand museum labels.)

Have a discussion on what an object label reflects or doesn’t reflect the story of the object. Why do we need exhibit labels in a museum?


  • Activity #4, Commercials

Divide students into groups and give each group select an object from Activity #2. (Individual work is an option as well). Have the students create a commercial that highlights the most important aspects and its history.

The commercial should be no more than 45 seconds and answer the following questions:

  1. What is the object?
  2. Where is the object from?
  3. Who uses the object?
  4. Where is it used?
  5. What are the top five features of the object to sell the object or have someone keep it?

After students complete their commercial, have a viewing party and discuss how marketers, advertisers, and museums use these descriptions to create an experience around an object. (follow links below for example commercials.)