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Teaching Yourself History Wherever You Find It

In order to get the most out of a visit to a museum you must try to think like a historian. To do this, it is important to ask the question "So what?" It is up to you, the visitor, to determine the real importance of a historic house or site. A good historian utilizes the following when studying the past:

Step One: Choosing Interesting Problems

Historians cannot have questions about the past without first formulating historical problems in need of solution. So each visitor needs to find a problem worthy of attention, one whose answer promises to tell something that may be important to know. Once you have identified a problem see what the evidence shows before you decide what it means. Exhibiting historical evidence is something museums do very well.

Step Two: Asking Leading Questions

Museums offer so much information and resources that it is important to ask key questions to assist in sifting through the historical evidence. Six instructive questions to ask are:

  1. Where am I? What was this place?
  2. What activities took place here?
  3. Who performed the activities that normally happened in this place?
  4. How did these people work with each other to make these activities happen?
  5. How have people's circumstances and relationships with one another changed from then (whenever that was) to now?
  6. What explains the contrast? What has happened to make things so different today from what they were back then?

Step Three: Finding Useful Answers

Select those facts and artifacts that will help you answer the questions that are in most need of answering. Not all facts will be equally useful, so it is important to select the most pertinent evidence to assist you in solving your problem. Identify artifacts that will help you answer the questions of where, what, who and with whom. Ask questions that will lead your imagination from objects to uses to users to social relationships.

Step Four: Explaining A History Worth Knowing

Strive to identify how peoples' circumstances and relationships have changed from one period to another. Equally important is the endeavor to explain what has happened in the meantime to make things so different today from what they were.

A museum has done its job if it starts visitors thinking critically, helps them ask the right questions, gives them reliable information to build on, and implants in their minds unforgettable images of a meaningful past.

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Adapted from "Teach Yourself American History: A User's Guide to Historic House Museums"; Winterthur Library Lecture, September 26, 1996; Cary Carson, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.