For Teachers: Using Museums to Find Out About the Past

Interior of V&A Museum of Childhood

Interior of V&A Museum of Childhood

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    • Museums are the perfect places to find things out about the past and develop skills in historical enquiry. They are full of weird and wonderful artefacts, paintings, photographs, letters – all with a story to tell. And if you put them all together you can develop a fascinating picture of people and events from times gone by.

      But they don’t always hold all the answers. There are still countless mysteries and secrets that historians are still trying to unlock – and some which may never be revealed…

      Follow these 10 easy steps to finding out about the past:

      1.    First, think of a good enquiry question, what is it that you want to find out? Or have you got a theory or idea you want to test? It can be as simple or complex as you like. Next, think about which primary and secondary sources you will use.

      2.    Primary sources are actual things - artefacts - that have been left behind from a particular time. Objects, paintings, letters, photos, films and maps are all examples of primary sources. Museums, galleries, archives and libraries are full of them. Sometimes you can find good ones at home or at school. People can be primary sources too – their experiences are collected as oral histories. The Oral History Society have some good tips on how to do this.

      3.    Secondary sources are someone else’s interpretation or opinion of a primary source or set of primary sources. Wikipedia is a great example of a secondary source. The labels you find in exhibitions are another good example.  Historians, curators, books and websites are all secondary sources, sometimes they don’t agree. How do we know who’s right..?

      4.    Using primary sources: museums often have handling collections so that you can get really close to different objects, look at them from all angles, feel them or even smell them. The real thing never looks quite like it does in a photo or online – it’s always, bigger, smaller, has brighter colours or smells weirder than you expected. The more senses you can use to investigate an object, the more memorable your investigation will be and the more you will reveal.

      Lots of museums have high-resolution images of their collections that can be printed, used on whiteboards or added to programmes and applications. Nowadays a few museums even have 3D images of their collections, a great example is UCL's Petrie Museum which has 3D scanned a number of their Ancient Egyptian objects. The great thing about conducting your search online is that you have collections from the whole world to choose from. Some pointers for using online collections can be found here.

      5.    Using secondary sources: the best secondary source is an expert that you can talk to and ask questions of. Experts come in many shapes and sizes – a museum curator who has studied for many years may be an expert on Egyptian mummies for example, but your Grandad might be a leading expert on what your street or school was like 50 years ago or what life was like for children after the Second World War. You can also visit museums, look online or in books of course.

      6.    How reliable is your source? Is it complete? Was the photo staged? Did the painter make the person in the portrait look younger, older, thinner, fatter? Historians don’t always get it right. Different people interpret things differently and objects can carry different meanings in different times and cultures. Did you know that the swastika symbol has been used for thousands of years? To this day it’s a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism for example, but its adoption by Hitler and the Nazis led it to carry new symbolic representations of violence and anti-Semitism. And we are finding out new things all the time, which can change what we originally thought. Our changing knowledge of dinosaurs is a great example of this. Did you know, when the Mantells first discovered Iguanadon they thought it had a spike on its nose like a rhino. More recent discoveries have completely changed our understanding of this dinosaur however, we now know the spike was on its thumb not its forehead.

      7.    It’s a good idea to record what you have found. It’s very easy to forget the detail when you can’t see something any more; you may want to use what you have found back in the classroom. Photos, sketches and notes can all help to jog your memory. Using a tablet with an app which can combine all of these is a great tool. How would you explain what you have found to someone else? When fossil hunter Mary Anning found the fossilized bones of a ‘sea dragon’ - Plesiosaurus - in 1823, the specimen was soon in high demand. She wrote this beautifully illustrated letter to a collector saying she would sell it to him for ‘one hundred and ten pounds’.

      8.    Have you got all the information you need? Who’s history is the source telling? Most of the things collected from the past belonged to wealthy or privileged people. Often the belongings and stories of ordinary people, of women or of people from particular cultures weren’t kept or haven’t been collected, saved or displayed by museums.

      9.    Can you answer your question from the sources – the evidence – you have looked at? Can you be definite or do you just need to make a best guess? As long as you can justify your answer – as long as your evidence supports it – then you have done a good job. Did someone else in your group or class come up with a different answer? Who do you think is right?

      10.    Where will your investigation take you next? Most historical enquiries give us just as many questions as answers. That’s one of the things that makes the past so intriguing…

      The National Archive has a really useful resource to support historical enquiry:

      Curriculum links

      Historical enquiry
      -    Identifying and using useful primary sources
      -    Gathering, selecting, assessing and presenting evidence
      -    Questioning
      -    Assessing reliability and bias
      -    Looking at multiple perspectives – was everyone’s experience the same..?
      -    Thinking about what/which voices might be missing?
      -    Developing and substantiating an answer, argument or narrative


      -    Developing language and vocabulary
      -    Persuading and arguing
      -    Qualifying and justifying
      -    Discussing and debating
      -    Communicating in different forms for different purposes


      -    Effective searching
      -    Analysing
      -    Selecting
      -    Evaluating
      -    Presenting
      -    Repurposing
      -    Combining multiple applications

      Artsmark and Arts award

      Artsmark is a nationally recognised sign of commitment to high quality arts and cultural education. It enables education settings to evaluate, celebrate and strengthen a quality arts offer and contributes to the cultural aspect of Ofsted’s requirement that a school promotes students’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Using museums and galleries to support classroom work, or developing you own museum, gallery, archive or exhibition is a great way for your school to gain Artsmark.  Find out more about Artsmark and its impact here.

      Arts Award is a range of unique qualifications inspiring young people to connect with and take part in the wider world of arts, heritage and culture through different challenges at different levels. Through Arts Award young people gain a nationally recognised qualification enabling them to progress into further education and employment. Find out more here and how museums and galleries can support young people in gaining Arts Award.

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