Museum Pieces Help Us Understand History

For those of us who are visual learners, one of the easiest ways to retain information about history is through images. Whether those images are sepia-toned photos or medieval paintings, they are vital to many of us, enabling us to better viscerally understand history.

The Royal Acquaintances Memi and Sabu, ca. 2575-2465 BCE, made of limestone and paint. Dated using her hairstyle and their embrace. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

The objects found in museums vary depending upon the type of museum and the funding available. What you find at a local historical museum will differ from what is available at the Louvre. If the purpose of your visit is to learn something, then each experience will be valuable in its own way.

Lyre Guitar ca. 1805 France, possibly made by Joseph Pons. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.Some of the things you can find at museums are paintings, sketches, clothing, sculpture, shoes, furniture and jewelry. These items can all tell you something about the era in which it featured. The composition of a piece can tell us what tools and natural resources were available at that time. What the artist chooses to depict can teach us about their culture.

British Suit ca. 1760, made of wool and gilt metal. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

Certain norms haven’t changed much over time. The rich had more stuff, and stuff that lasted longer, than did poor people. Therefore, many of the pieces that have survived are not indicative of all parts of society. We can’t change that, but we do need to be aware of existing biases.

The Faience Restorer by Paul-Narcisse Salieres (1818-1908) in 1848. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

One of the things I’ve always found interesting is the number of painted portraits available throughout history. This certainly makes sense in the time before cameras. These portraits were the selfies of their time, although they took a lot longer to complete and you had to sit or stand really still for a long time. Also, unlike selfies, the portrait artist may be required to use a little flattery in their portrayal of their subject.

French shoes ca. 1690-1700, made of silk and leather. These shoes are for men, which kind of makes me giggle. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

Along with cameras for selfies, we can use new technologies to access museum inventories. Most museums have at least a portion of their inventory digitized and available online. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced in February that they would not only digitize many of their works of art, but that they would also make about 375,000 of those images freely available to the public.

Cabinet created by Jean Brandely of France in 1867. Notice the war scene in the center. To each his own. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

For these images in the public domain, anyone can use them for any purpose (like I am using them in this blog post). This is a huge deal for teachers, writers and bloggers. You may spend hours to find just the right image you need, but those hours are time so well-spent.

Pectoral and necklace of Sithathoryunet with the name Senwosret II, from Egypt ca. 1887-1878 BCE. Made with gold, carnelia, lapis lazuli, turquoise, garnet and green feldspar. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

For someone like me, who uses art to understand history, I simply appreciate that these images are digitized and available to me. After all, not all of us have daily physical access to the Louvre. If you want to know about clothing, food, housing or transportation during a particular period in history, check out a museum online.

Burgonet with Falling Buffe, French helmet made of steel and gold ca. 1550, probably made for Henry II of France (reigned 1547-1559). Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

In the meantime, please enjoy the photos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art included in this post.

A Goldsmith in His Shop by Petrus Christus of Bruges in 1449, oil on oak panel. I think cool hats like these should become the new fashion. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

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About Cathy Hanson

I’m a military brat and grew up on Air Force bases around the world. I discovered my love for history when I was 14 years old and the U.S. Air Force transferred my family to a base in England. Traveling from castles to cathedrals to ruins to cities, I felt the stories of these places and understood that history is not solely about events whose dates we are required to memorize. History is stories. My passion for those stories led me to a master’s degree in history.

Please feel free to comment, ask questions, supply answers, or tell me your favorite history resource or artifact.

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