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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Danielle Stuckle's blog

Spinning History into Gold

My favorite type of museum program to give is a demonstration. Over the years, I have learned to do all kinds of different crafts and activities in order to show the general public how people of the past did their work. Demonstrations are a great way to pull people in and get them excited about history. You can have a relaxed and informal discussion about how people at a particular site, or in a particular time period, lived. How is butter made, and what is the science behind it? How do you make a quilt and piece together a complicated pattern? Embroidery; wood carving; leather stamping; making rope, soap, and candles? I can do some of these projects better than others. Over the years I’ve picked up things here and there, learned from mentors, learned from friends, and learned from colleagues at living history sites. One of my favorite resources is YouTube video tutorials.

Drop spindle and wool roving

The author's drop spindle and wool roving

The newest thing I’m learning to do is spin wool to yarn by using a drop spindle. We have several talented staff here who know a lot about spinning, and they have been very nice to share some of their knowledge and expertise with me. This is very exciting to me as a museum educator. I am planning some programs to demonstrate how we go from sheep to mitten, and all the steps in between. This provides us with endless opportunities to interact with our visitors and teach them long forgotten skills that were once more commonly part of everyday life. After we have the yarn we can weave it, knit it, or crochet it—turning it into functional art like blankets, sweaters, and holiday ornaments. As our staff brainstorms all the different types of programs we can start doing, it is easy for us to get carried away. However, it is really fun to talk about everything from shearing a sheep; cleaning, carding, and dyeing wool; spinning it into yarn; and figuring out which of those programs would work best in our available space.

Drop spindle demo

The author demonstrating how to use a drop spindle.

I enjoy this process of learning how to do a new activity, and working at it until I can talk to other people about what I’m doing. Earlier this spring I sat in the Inspiration Gallery for about an hour practicing with a drop spindle. I am by no means an expert. In fact, I’m really not very good yet. However, I probably talked to about forty school children and several adults about what a drop spindle is; how it works; how it is related to a spinning wheel; and why people did (and still do) this kind of work. There are so many places to go to learn how to do projects like this. There are many books available about using drop spindles and spinning wheels. The internet is full of detailed video tutorials. This is probably my favorite part of working in a museum—learning how to do new things and showing other people what I’ve learned.

Spinning wheel

Spinning wheel on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum

Teaching People to See: How to Use Photographs as Teaching Tools

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
—Dorothea Lange

Photographs are one of my favorite tools to use as a museum educator. One technique I like to use, known as a Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS), is a very simple and effective way for people to start to see more in an image than they otherwise would have noticed. There are three main steps to follow:

  1. Show an image to your audience—either project it on a screen in front of a classroom, or pass it around so everyone can get a good look at the details.
  2. Ask students to sit silently and look closely at the image for a minute or two.
  3. Guide the students through a series of questions that help them think critically about the image and start asking questions of their own.

We might start with an image like this one:

Tintype Portrait

Tintype portrait of unidentified group of African American women. SHSND 10737-310.

After taking in all the details for a couple of minutes, I would first ask my audience to tell me what is going on in the photograph. It is important that we don’t tell them what we want them to know. We have to be patient and let them make observations; compare and contrast their own answers; and start asking questions. We can keep the conversation going by asking follow up questions—“What makes you say that?” and “What more can we find?” This will help students continue their observations and will help them associate details in the image with their own personal experiences or prior knowledge.

This is a great activity for teachers of any discipline. English teachers can use this activity to initiate a creative writing activity. Science teachers can use this to connect observations of an image to classroom lessons such as identifying physical properties of an object. Math teachers can use images this way to help make connections for students between the real world and abstract concepts—for example, you could ask younger students to find basic shapes or to add or subtract the number of items in an image.

This exercise is great for someone teaching North Dakota Studies or other history classes. We can talk about the clothing and interior décor styles of past decades. We can talk about how a historian or archivist could do some detective work to try to find out more about who these unidentified women are. We could even talk about the preservation of historic images, and the process used to create a tintype.

Using a strategy like VTS gets people to start noticing details and interpreting what is going on in an image. Students begin to understand how other people might have a completely different understanding of what is going on in an image than they did. I always try to pair appropriate images to any lesson I’m teaching so that students start to exercise their history detective muscles. It can spark an interest in students of all ages.