Exploring Our National Treasures

To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me, it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.”

David McCullough, author, NEH 2003 Jefferson Lecturer interview
 

This past July I joined 34 educators in Washington, D,C. for a week-long teaching seminar sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Denver Brunsman, associate professor of history, George Washington University, led the seminar, The Making of America: From the Founding Era through the Civil War. Mary Huffman, 5th grade teacher and Master Teacher for Gilder Lehrman, assisted in afternoon sessions that demonstrated how to engage students in explorations of primary sources. The seminar lectures and activities were informative and eye-opening, and attendees enriched the experience with spirited discussions of the topics and shared experiences of teaching history in their K-8 classrooms. In the afternoons, the educators and instructors set off on field trips to museum and archives, and exploring these national treasures was a highlight of the seminar.

Librarians know how crucial primary sources are to the research process: these sources can spur student curiosity, build empathy, foster essential questions, provide evidence to support claims, and grow an understanding of historical persons and events. During the seminar field trips, attendees viewed firsthand an exciting array of primary sources: a 1692 petition for bail from those accused as witches; Alexander Hamilton’s final letter to his wife, Eiliza, before his famous 1804 duel with Aaron Burr; Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 letter to Charles Sumner advocating for fair and equal treatment of black soldiers’ dependents; an 1881 illustration of the Battle of Little Bighorn by Red Horse, Lakota Indian; Orville Wright’s 1903 telegram announcing the first successful powered flight; a 1940s women’s baseball uniform; Susan B. Anthony’s inscription in a book telling the life of Sojourner Truth.

However, learning how to access these resources for our students was even more exhilarating. Each seminar attendee received a resource book from Gilder Lehrman that contained primary sources and suggested activities, and the good news is that Gilder Lehrman, as well as the museums and archives we visited in D.C., provide digital access and lesson plans for many of their items. Following are a few examples of the riches to be explored in our national treasures, the museums and archives of Washington, D.C.

As you explore these sites, you will discover your own favorite treasures.

Gilder Lehrman: History Now
Educators and students can set up free accounts to access curated documents, articles, videos, and essays by scholars.
Examples: Essay: “George Washington on the Constitution
Lesson Plan: “George Washington’s Rules of Civility

*Read more about Gilder Lehrman Teaching Seminars.

Shall Not be Denied: Women’s Fight for the Vote
The Library of Congress July/August magazine features articles and primary sources from this special exhibit, including “Women of Suffrage” info cards that can be reproduced.

Docs Teach (The National Archives) provides online documents and tools for educators to create interactive digital lessons for students.
Here is an example lesson I created with National Archives resources:
Women’s Suffrage
(*You will need to create a free account to view lessons and create your own.)

Yes, that is George Washington in a toga and sandals! This sculpture is on display at the National Museum of American History.

One of the featured exhibits at the National Museum of American History highlighted Inventive Minds. Here are a few videos that showcase design thinking:

Patricia Bath (laser cataract surgery)
Ralph Baer (Toy and Video Games)
Ingenious Women (article/podcasts)

Perhaps one of the most visually stunning and sensory-rich museums, the National Museum of the American Indian has several featured exhibits. A current exhibit is on treaties: Nation to Nation.

Primary source treaty documents

Indian Treaties blog

The National Portrait Gallery displayed this portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
Students might contrast symbols in this portrait (stormy skies in one window and hopeful rainbow in another window) with background floral symbols in the portrait of Barack Obama.

Image Citation: Stuart, Gilbert. George Washington. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. quest.eb.com/search/140_1642842/1/140_1642842/cite. Accessed 10 Jul 2019.


National Museum of African American History and Culture.
I was fascinated by how the design of this museum becomes a stirring experience as you move from floor to floor to view the history. Read more on the building design in this Smithsonian article. The architect David Adjaye describes the feeling as “praise”:
“When I say praise, I envision it as a human posture. It’s the idea that you come from the ground up, rather than crouching down or leaning. The form of the building suggests a very upward mobility. It’s a ziggurat that moves upward into the sky, rather than downward into the ground. And it hovers above the ground.”

The final historic site and museum that our seminar group toured was George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In addition to lesson plans for educators, Mount Vernon hosts several Professional Development Opportunities. You may be interested in applying for a program.

So many museums, not enough time. Though I did not visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during this trip, I did see the museum when it first opened, and the online photos, articles, and oral histories continue to serve as valuable resources for the classroom. Examine also education pages from The Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum.

Our nation has a rich history and a strong desire to tell the story of history. Continue to support your local and national museums that supply invaluable resources for our schools.

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