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Introduction to Illinois History Teacher, Volume 5:2

Volume 5:2

History surrounds us. We might find it in an immigrant's painted trunk at the foot of grandmother's bed, or in the quilt on the bed. It might sing to us from a Louis Comfort Tiffany window or speak softly from Jane Roodhouse's diary account of her husband's death. It might laugh with us out of photographs of children in the clothing of a different age. Or move us to tears with photos of urban poverty during the Great Depression. We might find it hiding in our neighbor's house, the local post office, or the store on Main Street. It might be tucked into the Buck family Bible, on the back page of Mr. Million's estate inventory, or in a 1902 Sears catalog. History is everywhere.

This issue of Illinois History Teacher will help you, the teacher, find that history in your community and bring it into the classroom. Unlike earlier issues of this journal that concentrated on problems or eras in Illinois history, this issue focuses on techniques and resources available in your community for teaching national and statewide topics through local history. And lots of resources are available!

There are five sections in this publication, and each explores a different type of history resource. The first is an "umbrella" topic: material culture. Material culture is all things that we use in our lives from shoehorns to buildings. Those are the artifacts that you will find in your local museum or your own kitchen cabinet, on the streets or buildings in your town. It is all of the things that make our culture (or any other culture) what it is. Studying these objects will tell us more about that culture, where it came from, how it developed, and where it might go.

Family photo

The next section is on family history. It is a rich resource that too few of us value or know how to use. Our families all have made history. They might have been native to the area, maybe they came over on the Mayflower, or they came over last year, but our families have all helped make our history. We can study statewide and national movements and events through the actions of our ancestors. Textbook history is like a skeleton without muscle or sinew. Family history puts the meat on the bones. Books will tell us about the landing on Normandy Beach, but grandfather might tell us what it was really like under the constant barrage of German guns! And great-great-Aunt Nell's diary might include a much more graphic description of the fear and isolation experienced on the Illinois prairie during the horrible winter of 1832.

The last three sections focus on specific kinds of artifacts from our material culture that allow us to study history in new ways: buildings, textiles, and photographs. In each of the essays, the author asks us to look at artifacts with new eyes and to acquire new skills. Instead of just seeing a stained-glass window, maybe we can learn about changing architectural styles or new building techniques, or more about lifestyle in our community at a given time. A child's photograph may tell us about clothing styles, child-rearing customs, typical toys, or furniture styles. And a quilt or coverlet might tell us about available dying materials and techniques, regional trade patterns, social customs, or gender roles. If students are taught to look at these objects as messengers of culture, history takes on new meaning.

Decorative Plate

Your local museum, historical society, or historic house will be a great collaborator in this type of study. Like each community, each museum will be different and will offer different resources, but most will be excited to work with you. You and your students probably will not be allowed to work directly with the museum's collections, but institutions often have study collections that can be handled by students, or they may have trunks of objects that can be taken into the school. (If you are uncertain of museums in your area, please contact the Illinois Association of Museums office in Springfield at 217-524-7080 for a copy of our Directory of Illinois Museums.) Local, regional, and academic libraries are also an excellent source of photographs, documents, diaries, newspapers, and maps. Genealogical societies are good sources of information on families and settlement patterns in a given area. And do not forget the senior citizens in your area! They are often an untapped resource full of information they only need a couple of questions to trigger an outpouring of historical information. Several of the lesson plans call for oral history interviews and they can produce exciting results.

I hope you will incorporate some these essays and lessons into your curriculum and that you will use your local history museum as a resource and collaborator. I want to thank Keith Sculle and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency for the opportunity to act as guest editor for this issue, and to encourage all of you to explore Illinois' rich museum community.

Mary W. Turner
Illinois Association of Museums Coordinator
Guest Editor


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