I bought my first antique when I was about nine. No lie. My family visited a doll museum while on vacation. A case in the gift shop offered a few old dolls for sale.
The doll pictured here captured my heart. As I recall, it was priced at about ten dollars. That was a lot of money for a kid way back when, but I had to have her. I think I blew my entire vacation stash that afternoon.
I loved the doll because she wasn’t perfect. I imagined some long-ago little girl, heartbroken because an arm somehow got broken from her beloved china doll. I imagined the child tearfully stitching a new doll’s dress with one armhole.
In my world, artifacts are most valuable for what they have to say about the people who once made, owned, or used them. That’s true for historical novelists, and it’s true for interpreters and reenactors. Most objects don’t offer such tangible clues as my one-armed doll does. But if we’re trying to engage readers and visitors, telling or suggesting stories can work magic. Facts and lessons and themes can come once folks are intrigued.
Last Saturday, I showed my one-armed doll to 19 young historians. We’d gathered for one of the “Calling All Scholars” programs offered by the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson, WI. What a joy—a room full of kids already excited about history!
Museum director Kori Oberle and I offered a variety of photographs and objects, and each child chose one of each. With just a little guidance, most were soon scribbling away…finding their own stories in the artifacts and images. It was awesome.
I hope some of the students went home and finished their stories. And I hope that the next time they visit the Hoard Historical Museum, they wonder about the real people who inspired each exhibit, or left each artifact behind. The next time you visit your local museum or historic site, why not give it a try?