Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Talks Teaching History Through Artifacts at Boise State 

click to enlarge Laurel Thatcher Ulrich spoke at Boise State University April 14.

Harrison Berry

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich spoke at Boise State University April 14.

A century ago, museums were the sites of science's greatest advances—repositories of objects studied by amateurs and academics in order to glean fresh insights into the natural world. Now, however, people's most recent memories of museums are of childhood field trips, said Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, speaking April 14 at Boise State University.

"Natural history museums are places where parents take their children," she said.

Ulrich's talk, "Adventures in a Natural History Museum," was delivered as part of Boise State The Idea of Nature lecture series. In her talk, Ulrich discussed how disrupting museums' rigid categories can help teach history, and she shared photos of objects housed in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, including a turtle preserved in a jar of alcohol and a chemically improved graphite pencil, both donated by Henry David Thoreau. 

"I hate museums," the Walden author famously said. "They are the catacombs of objects."

His critique was literally true for another object in Ulrich's presentation: a bird made of tin that served as a reminder of an upcoming vote on women's suffrage in the early 1900s. At the time, it was fashionable for women to adorn their hats with feathers, wings and sometimes whole birds. Ulrich showed a photo of her own grandmother—at the time a school board clerk in Teton City, Idaho—whose hat was covered in feathers.

Ulrich noted western states like Wyoming, California, Utah and Idaho granted women suffrage long before eastern states like Massachusetts, where the suffrage vote immortalized by the tin-cut bird was set to take place. Ulrich said she and her students placed the campaign reminder among a display of stuffed birds at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

"The lessons we see in museums about the limitations of categories—we hope these lessons stay with [students]," Ulrich said.
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