Objects Speak to Us

Just like a song or smell can spark memories and strong emotions, so too can objects. We all have personal objects that may seem ordinary to others, but are invaluable to us because of the person who gave it to us, the memory attached to it, and more. Museum objects can hold similar meaning to people, often for many different reasons. Objects, both every day objects and museum objects, are at the heart of our education pedagogy. We feel strongly that they can teach young children so much from critical thinking skills, to perspective-taking, to science and literacy skills.

A few years ago we published a blog, Objects Teach Us, that explored some of our faculty’s favorite museum objects, and now we’re back with another edition including favorites among our faculty and students.

Some objects are favorites because of the memories they hold and the people that the object reminds us of:

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Phoenix the Whale 

Charlotte, age five, enjoys Phoenix the Whale in the Ocean Hall of the National Museum of Natural History. She explained that Phoenix, “reminds me of my cousins because they all love to play in the ocean, and it [Phoenix the whale] is an animal that lives in the ocean.”

7The Doll’s House

Meredith McMahon, SEEC’s Executive Director, loves the The Doll’s House at the National Museum of American History.  Meredith explains, “I first fell in love with it when I visited when I was just 6 years old, back before NMAH was even know as American History (it was still the museum of history and technology!).  I loved all of the detail to it, and they had a small book about it that I got as a souvenir of our visit. I poured over the photos in the book, marveling at the detail and imagining myself as part of the story.  And now, every time I see it I’m reminded of the amazing experience I had that day with my mom and my older sister – it was my first trip to the Smithsonian, but clearly not my last!”

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Henry the Elephant

Director of Infant and Twos Program, Melody Passemante-Powell, loves Henry the Elephant who presides over the rotunda at the National Museum of Natural History.  Melody explains, “I always felt warmly about Henry and I feel even more connected to him since he was cleaned and renovated the year my daughter was born! For me it’s how iconic he is and was to me prior to working at SEEC and what it stands for now, a meeting place for our classes Halloween parade, an example of how things can change so much over time and still remain the same in some ways. A timeless symbol of the museum and in ways, our school.”

Some objects are special because they are multifaceted and allow multiple perspectives when teaching young children:

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Life in All Directions by Roxanne Swentzell 

Toddler teacher, Julia Smith’s favorite object is Life in All Directions by Roxanne Swentzell at the National Museum of the American Indian. She explains, “My favorite part of the piece is the the expressions on every mask in this piece. They are all expressing strong emotions but it’s not exactly straight forward what they are feeling. The kids tend to find the masks particularly fascinating and will call out lots of different emotions to describe their expressions.  The artist’s back story also adds to the context of this piece. Roxanne Swentzell had a speech impediment as a child that made it difficult for her to express herself so she turned to art to express her emotions. Roxanne’s story and the many faces in this piece are very relatable to the kids, and it is an excellent way to talk about their many emotions.”

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Tibetan Buddha Gautama

Cynthia Raso, Director of the Office of Engagement, loves this Tibetan Buddha Gautama located at the Freer Sackler. “Visually, I am drawn to the contrast of the gilded body and the rich blue of the hair. The artist captures both the compassion and serenity of the Buddha through the simple, curvaceous lines.  The way his fingers delicately dangle and almost enter the viewer’s space makes one feel like one is present in the moment when the Buddha becomes enlightened. Beyond the aesthetics of the piece, it is also one my favorites about which to teach. If approached in the right way, it can be a great experience for young learners. It forces them to look closely and explore the sculpture’s iconography. In this picture we are looking at the lotus flower on which the Buddha sits. Before we visited the Museum, we had fun playing with a lotus flower sensory bin full of real mud. It helped the children understand the significance of the lotus, a flower that grows up from the murky water into the sunlight.”

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Honoré Daumier Busts

Kindergarten teacher, Sharon Jensen, loves the Honoré Daumier busts at the National Gallery of Art for personal and professional reasons.  “I admire the artistic talent, but mainly I find them hilarious! The satire is clear immediately, and even removed from the context of political commentary, these faces will make you aware of the artist’s opinion of each man. I love the caricature-like features and ridiculous hairdos, but the exaggerated facial expressions are my favorite part! They remind me of the grotesques and gargoyles peeking out from medieval churches. They are a wonderful way to explore emotions with children, and how our faces can show how we feel inside.”

Other objects represent parts of our personality and passion:

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The Hope Diamond

Weekend educator, Christina Reitz loves the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History. “The diamond satisfies, for me, the two sides of being a museum-goer and a museum professional – enjoying rare objects and being inspired by the exhibit design. Both the diamond’s exhibit and the mineral and gem hall are perfectly designed to heighten a sense of wonder and awe. Every time I walk by and the room is filled with visitors, all waiting patiently for the diamond to turn toward them, I’m filled with both a simple joy at a beautiful object and a deeper appreciation for the work we do.”

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Fish by Alexander Calder

Director of Kindergarten and Toddler Programs, Maureen Leary is partial to Fish by Alexander Calder that is in the Hirshhorn collection. Maureen says the piece is special to her, “for a number of reasons. This mobile touches on my love for the ocean, my admiration for Calder as a versatile artist, and the importance of reusing/recycling, as Calder made the mobile using found objects. I have fond memories of visiting this piece with SEEC students to make a connection to the story “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni (who is one of my favorite children’s authors!).”

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Nature’s Best Photography Exhibit

Nature lover and infant teacher Mallory Messersmith enjoys the entire Nature’s Best Photography exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. “I love the variety, all the different colors and perspectives. I also like that it changes! Sometimes my favorite thing is just to go walk through and enjoy a little nature through a photographer’s lens!”

Other objects are favorites because of their function and purpose:

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Beaver

Nicko, age five, loves the beaver in the Mammal Hall of the National Museum of Natural History, “because I like when they cut down trees.”

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Acorn

While many of us are partial to objects within the museum complex, Dr. A’damski, our resident science teacher, favors an object that can be found outside of the museum: an acorn. He reasons, “It represents food for a host of animals large and small. And if it doesn’t get eaten may grow for a few hundred years into a majestic tree…”


Want to learn more about using objects to engage young children? Come to our Learning Through Objects workshop on March 14 and 15.