How to Read an Object

Museum Management Program

Your group has a “source of information.” What can you learn from it, and what does it tell you? Examine your ‘source’ closely, discuss each point with your group and answer the questions as best you can. Put a “y” next to the categories of information to which you have access. Where possible, provide some support or reasoning for your action, and indicate ‘not available’ or ‘not known’ if appropriate.

Properties of an Object
Questions to ask and answer

Observe, deduce and infer
What you can find out by looking closely at the object

What is it?

What is it called?
What is or was it used for?
Does it have more than one function?
How has its use changed over time?

Physical Features
What does it look and feel like?

How big is it?
What’s its shape, smell, and sound?
What color is it?
Is it complete?
Has it been altered, adapted, or mended?
Is it worn?
What’s the surface like?
Does it have identifying numbers?
Are there markings or writing on it?


What’s it made of?
How many kinds of materials is it made of?

Construction/Technique of
How was it made?

Who made it?
How was it made?
Is it hand or machine made?
Does it have parts?
What does it tell you about the maker’s technical skill?

Design and Decoration
Does the design suit its

Were the best materials used?
How is it decorated?
What influenced its design and appearance?

Context and History
What can the object tell us
about the society in which
it was made?

When was it made?
Where was it made?
Where was it used?
Where was it found?
Who made it?
Who used it Who owned it?
How has it changed over time?
How does it compare to similar items from other cultures and time periods?

How was it valued?

What kind of value did it or does it have:
monetary, spiritual, aesthetic, sentimental,
and practical:
To the person/people who made it?
To the person/people who used it?
To the people who keep it?

How has the object’s meaning changed over

How does the object reflect the person,
community, nation or culture at the time it was

How does the object expand your knowledge
of the period?

What else would have been helpful to complete your investigation?

Adapted by the US National Park Service, Museum Management Program from the Hands on History Program, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Museum Magnet Schools, Education Resources; English Heritage, A Teacher’s Guide to Learning from Objects; and the Victoria and Albert Museum education materials, London, England.

Last updated: August 8, 2023