Meaningful Object Funny Essay

Carefully curating a limited set of objects has lately become a popular way for museums and historians to tell vast histories (e.g., the history of the world, or of New York City). After all, artifacts can help us visualize the past and see complex events as something tangible or relatable.

We can use the same approach to tell our personal histories as well. A sentimental T-shirt, a kindergarten drawing or a dog-eared book? What objects tell the story of your life?

In the Sunday Review essay “Object Lessons in History,” Sam Roberts discusses how telling history through objects is “emerging as history’s lingua franca”:

Five years ago, the BBC and the British Museum collaborated on a hugely successful radio series and book called “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” Last week, the Smithsonian followed up with its “History of the World in 1,000 Objects.”

It’s not that 900 more transformational artifacts suddenly materialized since 2009. Instead, think of the two histories as 3.2-pound bookends flanking a welter of similar collections that showcase the mesmerizing and metamorphic power of artifacts, from a 230,000-year-old female figurine to a jar of dust collected in Lower Manhattan after 9/11.

Thanks in part to a recent proliferation of best-selling biographies of major political and military figures, history is hot. And objects seem to be emerging as history’s lingua franca. The “100 Objects” book has been reprinted in 10 languages. Downloads of its companion 15-minute podcasts have topped 35 million. This summer, when the Smithsonian polled the public on the “most iconic” object in its collection, more than 90,000 people weighed in.

That success has not gone unnoticed. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is currently displaying 99 “disobedient objects” representing movements for social change, including a “Silence = Death” poster created in response to the AIDS epidemic. The Israel Museum is curating 12 objects that define humankind for display next spring.

“It is only in the world of objects that we have time and space,” T. S. Eliot wrote. Think of the marks that things — the wheel, the crucifix, the credit card or the computer chip — have made on civilization.

Students: Read the entire essay, then tell us …

— What objects tell the story of your life? Can you identify five or 10 objects that you would include in an exhibit or book about your life?

— Why did you select each of those objects?

— Do you think telling history through objects is a “a clever way to hook people on history”? Do objects tell a story that words or images aren’t able to convey quite as effectively?


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Questions about issues in the news for students 13 and older.

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