NM Times
Military Experience
Pacific Theater

First impressions: How are artifacts classified?

Artifacts from an earlier time make history more real to students. History can seem distant and unconnected to real people and times, but artifacts - like the clothes a soldier wore, a letter home, a poem scrawled on brown paper, a carved canteen - give history a concrete foundation in real people, places, and events. Close examination of these artifacts can teach students how to look beyond the obvious meaning or use of an item into details that give additional dimensions to the interpretation of historical objects.

To be useful for repeated study by historians, artifacts must be organized under some system. In this lesson, students classify images of artifacts according to the type of artifact: text, photograph, or personal items.


Students will:

  • Demonstrate the ability to examine history from the perspectives of the participants (SS Benchmark I-D Performance Standard 7:2).
  • Describe primary and secondary sources and their uses in research (SS Benchmark I-D; 9-12:3).

Students will:
  • Examine a variety of artifacts from World War II
  • Develop and apply a system to categorize artifacts

Artifact packets, one per group
How are artifacts classified worksheet
Additional Resources

National Archives (http://www.archives.gov/)
Library of Congress American Memory Project (http://memory.loc.gov/)

Online resources

National Archives (www.archives.gov/)
Library of Congress American Memory Project (http://memory.loc.gov/)
Other Web pages from Resources section of Curriculum Resources


  1. Introduce the lesson with a class discussion about primary source material. Ask students:
    • What types of materials do you think are of value to historians in learning about the past?
    • Why are classification systems important for storing and using artifacts?
  2. Present students with the following scenario:
    While cleaning your garage, you find a dusty box labeled "WWII Years." Inside are some objects that look old, although you are not sure of their age. You carefully remove the contents to examine them. You find a picture -it's someone who looks like your father, but you're not sure. What does this letter mean? Is it really from the White House? Who is Harry Truman? What you have found is a small, personal museum of artifacts from your family's life during World War II. It's up to you to organize it and make sense of it in order to derive some meaning.
  3. Distribute worksheets and artifact packets. Students use their first impressions to describe and categorize the artifacts into groups according to type.
  4. Students will develop a classification system to locate an artifact stored in a large warehouse filled with other artifacts. Set up the situation by explaining that most museums have more items in storage than they do on display. To manage their collection of artifacts, museum workers need a reliable classification system that allows them to look up any artifact and find where it is stored. Ask students:
    • How can you classify many items to be stored so that they can be located when needed? Establish the broad categories you will use in your classification system (see worksheet column
    • Artifacts also need to be classified by key words that describe it in more detail. Often, key words are entered into computer databases so researchers can search on a particular aspect of an artifact, like its date (1942) or subject matter (prisoners of war) or item type (clothing). Develop a list of categories for key words that you can use to further classify your items (subject matter, year, location, material, etc).
    • Classify each item in the collection first to the broad categories, and then add key words to their classification. Either the broad categories or the key words might need to change as you work through the artifacts.
    • What type of written items (including technology-based items) would people need to use this system?
    • How would people search for an item using this system?

Working as a group, develop a comprehensive list with categories and key words to classify the artifacts. Each group presents their results to help generate a master list of categories and key words. There is no one correct answer to this exercise, and many items could be classified under more than one category.

Presentations will be assessed with the group assessment rubric.

How did these get here? Write a story about how these objects came together in your garage. Include why they were saved for all these years and why they were important to somebody. Use details about the objects in the story, like how a letter was torn or where material to patch a pair of shorts came from.

Your family in WWII. List the people in your family you know who were alive during World War II. Describe where they lived and how they earned a living. List who they lived with and how many people were in their family. Interview people about their memories about the time.

How was it made? Pick an artifact from your collection and describe the scene when that artifact was created. Think about why it was created and what the person creating it might have been thinking at the time.

Levels of meaning. Objects mean different things to different people. Describe an artifact from the collection. Analyze its meaning for the individual who saved it, to the community that person belongs to, and to society in general.