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Artifacts in the Classroom

Students examining artifacts

Artifacts Teach Experience: Surrey's Museum's Education Specialist

Children huddle around me in the Surrey Museum’s History Gallery, inspecting the item in my hand. A number of them whisper, “What is that?” Giving each child an opportunity to hold it, feel its weight and take a closer look, I ask, “What do you think it is?”

Guesses range from “something to cut meat with” to “eyebrow trimmer." With each incorrect guess, I play out a scenario that highlights why their guess may not be right. I hold the artifact up to my eyebrow. “Well, it could be an eyebrow trimmer but look, it is quite big, and covers up a bit of my other eye. Do you think I would do a good job trimming my long eyebrows like this?” The children shake their heads “no” in unison.

Narrowing It Down

I then ask the children to describe the artifact in as much detail as they can: what material is it made out of, is it heavy or light, how would you hold it, what might fit inside its cup-like attachment? The language students use to describe it is clear and well thought-out, though they still have not identified the artifact correctly. Time for a scenario to help them along.

“Ok, everyone, remember when we were in the 1870s Anderson cabin? Were there a lot of windows? [No]. Did pioneers have electricity? [No]. What would they have used for light? [Oil burning lamps, candles].”

A light bulb goes off! “It was for cutting the burning part of a candle!” Smiles spread across the students’ faces as they all see clearly what this artifact is: a wick trimmer.

The Power of Artifacts

This whole process only lasted ten minutes, but within that short time frame, students were engaged, curious, confused, excited. They touched, described, asked questions, worked collaboratively, created and evaluated various hypotheses, and made connections. Artifacts have a magical quality about them that makes them fantastic teaching tools.

Furthermore, artifacts can be used for lessons on just about any topic. Learning about simple machines? A heritage loom has pulleys, levers, wedges, axels and a wheel. Learning about recycling? An old quilt is a perfect example of using otherwise discarded leftover materials to make something new and useful.

Find Out More

Should you have any questions, want to learn more about using artifacts in the classroom, or about school programs at the Surrey Museum, do not hesitate to contact Sandra Borger at 604-592-6952 or