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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

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.

Take Two and Call Me in the Morning

I am often called upon with strange and unusual questions. How do I make a mannequin look less scary? What is the white powder covering the taxidermied elk? How do I get a raccoon out from under a historic house? These are all actual museum problems; however, it is generally easier to deal with the mannequin than the raccoon. So how is it that I get so many odd phone calls?


Who would evict this cute little guy?

My job here at the State Historical Society of North Dakota is to provide outreach services. I work with museums throughout the state to identify professional training opportunities. I can work with individuals one-on-one, or hold a workshop or training seminar for a group of people. I also help museums in our region stay on top of industry trends, standards, and best practices. I field questions about the basics of running a museum, and I work with museums to analyze their basic health and diagnose underlying problems. Essentially, if you compare what I do to the medical field, I’m a general practitioner. I know a little bit about a lot of things.

Ask More Questions sign

In North Dakota, a lot of museums are staffed by dedicated volunteers with little professional training. My job is to help these museum laypeople access the same resources the experienced professionals know about. They call me for a general diagnosis of a problem they are having, and just like a doctor, I help them assess their overall health and analyze some potential problems. It often happens though, that a museum has a unique issue that needs further consultation. In cases like this, I recommend them to a specialist who works with that specific issue more than I do. Just like a doctor will recommend that someone with diabetes see an endocrinologist, I will recommend a consultation with an architectural historian to learn more about appropriate roofing materials for a historic house. While a doctor might have someone with headaches see a neurologist, I will direct someone with questions about digitizing a photo collection to an archivist. A doctor might recommend a pediatrician to a new mom, and I will recommend someone call a professional conservator to help stabilize the historic textiles in their collection. You get the picture.

Plastic Head

Museum work is really nothing like neurology.

On a national level the museum community is relatively small compared to other industries, and specialists are often surprisingly accessible if you know who they are and what they do. My office serves as a sort of clearing house, providing access to the wider range of museum field services. There are professionals all over the country who are available to North Dakota museums through the existing networks of professionals, specialists, and other consultants. While I can’t answer every question that comes my way, I usually have an idea of who we can call for more help. I don’t have an answer for every question. I still don’t know why Eleven likes waffles so much, or who Jon Snow’s father is, but trust me—I’m diligently working on the answers.