Engaging students in historical inquiry

Utilising objects and living history experiences.

Gaye Braiding, teacher at the NSW Schoolhouse Museum of Public Education, explores the role of objects and living history experiences in historical inquiry in the K-6 setting through a case study of the NSW Schoolhouse Museum of Public Education.

'It's cold!' is the typical response by students when they are passed a slate board, followed by a gasp when a rock is used to mark it, then 'wow' when they use their own slate pencil and board. This is evidence of the wonder and awe that is generated when students interact with historic objects, particularly in the context of living history experiences.


In this article, 'object' will be used interchangeably with 'artefact'. While NESA (2012) defines 'artefact' as 'something made or given shape by humans', the context is usually historical and the term is often applied to smaller, moveable items. 'Object' is generally a broader term that includes artefacts and any items that make an experience authentic, including reproductions and costumes (Mayne, 2017). Large, immovable remains are referred to as 'immovable heritage' and include monuments and buildings.

The role of objects and immersive experiences in historical inquiry

Objects can provide a conduit into stories of the past. Artefacts are tangible relics of the past which arouse curiosity and can be scrutinised and discussed with peers. However, it is difficult for young history students to create meaning from objects examined out of context. Mayne (2017) suggests that objects need to be part of an 'assemblage' or recreated historical experience to provide context, making the objects more meaningful and aiding interpretation of the past. Anderson, Piscitelli, Weier, Everett and Tayler (2002) highlight the importance of selecting objects that relate to students' own experiences and recommend they be embedded into story and play to provide a medium to building understandings.

The NSW Schoolhouse Museum of Public Education, located at North Ryde in Sydney, has both immovable heritage in its set of early public school buildings and moveable heritage in its collection of historical objects relating to primary level public school education in NSW. The collection dates back to the 1870s and includes student exercise books, handiwork, readers, text books, school furniture and teaching resources. The buildings are North Ryde Public School's first buildings - the earliest built as a single sandstock schoolroom in 1877.

The museum runs a popular excursion program available to all schools that immerses students in recreated 1880s-1960s school experiences and provides opportunities for first-hand investigations of objects and artefacts. The museum's website contains links to information about the history of schooling in NSW and a project is underway that will make some of the museum's collection accessible to rural and remote schools.

Objects can ignite wonder and curiosity

A favourite experience of staff at the NSW Schoolhouse Museum involves receiving personal deliveries of donated objects. The anticipation of opening a package to unveil its treasured contents is palpable, as is the excitement of gently removing the first layers of objects for close scrutiny. There is always something inside that triggers a memory, something that surprises and something highly valued, passed through generations of teachers. But it is the stories surrounding the objects that are the most precious. Passionately told by the donor, they breathe life into the treasured collection.

This element of anticipation and surprise is recreated at the NSW Schoolhouse Museum in the unveiling of a mysterious object wrapped in a lace handkerchief. It can also be created in classrooms with artefacts packed into a mystery box and slowly unwrapped within a story. Or parts could be revealed as an introduction to a mystery of the past.

Living history at the NSW Schoolhouse Museum

The focus of student visits to the NSW Schoolhouse Museum is interaction with objects in contextual settings. These authentic contexts have been created by scouring historical photographs, student exercise books, readers and textbooks, early syllabus documents, education gazettes and oral histories.

The museum has a restored 1877 schoolroom, twin 1910 classrooms, a 1960s demountable and outdoor playground spaces. Each is used for creating living history experiences.

Whilst seated in the restored 1877 schoolroom, students sit tightly perched on backless benches at long timber desks - 'long toms' - and participate in aspects of recreated 1880s lessons. They quickly understand the necessity of sitting still and steady in order not to slip off the bench or bump their neighbour. Once slate pencils and ink pens are used at the cramped desks, the practicality of right-handed writing is realised. In using slate boards, ink pens, blotting paper and pen wipers, students experience technologies of the past and begin to understand the continuities and changes in writing technologies. Interestingly, a common comment when handed a slate board is 'It looks like an iPad!'

Outdoors, students stand spaced in rows and undertake military-style drills using wooden dumbbells or 1.3 metre dowel rods - 'wands'. They undertake simple exercises as prescribed in the Department of Public Instruction's booklet, 'Wand or Bar-bell Exercises', issued in 1900, and in so doing understand the order and discipline of the time. Simple maypole dancing, circle games such as 'drop the hanky', and playground games such as 'fly' and skipping all immerse students in activities that students of similar ages undertook at school in the past. Stories are woven into each activity to provide context via narrative that connects to students' own lives and experiences.

Primary students perform a 1900s wand drill

Students learn a 1900s wand drill. © NSW Schoolhouse Museum of Public Education

The NSW Schoolhouse Museum's twin 1910 classrooms hold an array of themed artefact displays. In this setting, students peel off a map from a gelatin hectograph (jelly pad) and stamp rubber stamps of clockfaces and numbers for tracing - as infants teachers once did into their students' number books. Students use magnifiers to notice details in early school photographs and play with lamb knucklebones, spinning tops and hand-made toys. Students are encouraged to work collaboratively so they can converse and apply their individual experiences and understandings to their shared interpretations. Class teachers and parent helpers also relate their personal experiences and memories triggered by the objects in the museum, generating rich object-based dialogue.

Whilst a visit to the NSW Schoolhouse Museum is brief, the communication received from students after their visit provides evidence of its impact. Students note intricate details in the objects they have used, highlighting the importance of touching and doing. If writing in the voice of a student from the past, they demonstrate empathetic understanding in expressing their feelings about the rigour, skills and expectations of the time. Even the most basic recounts demonstrate understanding of aspects of school days from the past and identify similarities and difference to the present.

A student prints a map from a gelatin hectograph

A student prints a map from a gelatin hectograph (jelly pad). © NSW Schoolhouse Museum of Public Education

Living history experiences at school

Immersive living history experiences that embed historical objects can be facilitated within schools or locally. These experiences could be initiated by the teacher with assistance from community members or by students as the final step in communicating the results of their historical inquiry. For instance, a series of 'daily life of the past' activity stations could be set up for Stage 1 students investigating the topic 'Present and past family life' or for Stage 2 students investigating change and continuity in daily life within 'Community and remembrance'. Each activity station, or living history experience, should be based on evidence from photographs and other sources and include authentic objects where possible, either for use or to help 'set the scene'. Donning costumes will add a greater depth of authenticity.

Past daily life activity stations could include:

  • a housework station - sweeping with a straw broom, fluffing up feather pillows, and hanging up small loose rugs and beating out the dust with a stick
  • a kitchen station - hand-beating cream into butter, kneading dough for bread and washing, wiping and stacking dishes
  • a laundry station - handwashing tea towels, handwringing them and hanging them on a rope line using 'dolly pegs', with the line supported by a clothes prop (pole)
  • a yard-work station - collecting and breaking sticks into smaller pieces for kindling, weeding and digging a vegetable garden or creating plant protectors or short garden fences from found sticks
  • a school station that provides glass or ceramic inkwells, ink pens and reproduced copperplate or cursive alphabets to copy or trace.

Objects relating to daily life could include original or reproduction galvanised iron buckets, watering cans, tubs, timber or metal wash boards, Sunlight soap bars, wooden 'dolly pegs', old wooden-handled trowels and spades, and old kitchen tools such as metal whisks, hand beaters, enamel bowls, wooden breadboards, spoons and rolling pins. Such items could be borrowed from personal collections or acquired cheaply from op shops or re-use shops at local waste depots.

Tent and signs in bushland, recreating a camp site in the goldfields

Recreated goldfields camp site in local bushland for a living history experience. © Gaye Braiding


Multisensory interactions with objects and immersive living history experiences can develop understandings about the past and historical inquiry skills. Historical learning contexts that connect to students' own lives and provide for shared investigations, conversations and interpretations are the most memorable and enable empathetic understanding to be built.

Teachers are encouraged to provide living history experiences for their students and to embed historical objects into these experiences. They are invited to create their own contexts at school or tap into local living history and community museums, historical sites and the experiences and memories of older community members. These immersive experiences provide rich and engaging learning opportunities for students, enabling them to create historical narratives that demonstrate different perspectives and interpretations and a deep level of empathetic understanding.

References and further reading

Anderson, D., Piscitelli, B., Weier, K., Everett, M. & Tayler, C. (2002). Children’s museum experiences: Identifying powerful mediators of learning. Curator: The Museum Journal, 45(3), 213-231.

History K–10 Syllabus © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2012.

Mayne, M. H. (2017). Rebuilding the past: Understanding the role of objects in creating authentic experiences for visitors to living history museums. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from ResearchWorks, University of Washington.

NSW Department of Education. (2018). Environmental and zoo education centres. (Some of these provide living history experiences.)

NSW Schoolhouse Museum of Public Education Inc. (2018). NSW Schoolhouse Museum of Public Education.

Wood, E. & Latham, K. F. (2014). The objects of experience: Transforming visitor-object encounters in museums. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

How to cite this article – Braiding, G. (2018). Engaging students in historical inquiry through objects and living history experiences. Scan 37(9).

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