Choosing the right object to write about can turn out to be a tricky decision. It is also the most important step in putting a proposal together. One place to begin is by visiting your local historical society or museum. The Wisconsin Historical Society offers many resources that can help you connect with local historical societies and research centers. Don’t know where to begin? We also maintain a list of “objects seeking stories” from which you can choose.
Many objects that might appeal to a museum curator, because of their rarity or their connection to a famous person, for example, are not necessarily as desirable for Wisconsin 101. Consider the Lincoln bed featured at the Tallman House in Janesville. A visitor to the Rock County Historical Society might appreciate having a chance to visit a relic so closely connected with Abraham Lincoln during his one and only visit to Wisconsin. On the other hand, to see an image of that same bed on our website diminishes the sense of direct “contact” with Lincoln that one might get in the museum. Out of context at the Tallman House, the Lincoln bed is just… a bed. And unless that bed is unusual or interesting for reasons other than the fact that Lincoln once stretched out on it, it probably will not work for Wisconsin 101. Similarly, a rare object that was brought into Wisconsin from another place is often not a good object because it has no connection to a local place.
What objects work best
The best objects are those that possess two outstanding qualities. First, a good object for Wisconsin 101 is one that is interesting in its own right, and not just as a symbol or stand-in for a historical event or issue. Ideally, the presentation of such an object to a viewer raises a handful of questions related to how the object was made, what it was used for, what it can tell us about daily life at a moment in history, and so on.
For this reason, books, letters, newspapers, signs and most other things with writing on them are usually not good objects. Such items tend to submerge their their “object-like” qualities in whatever is contained in the writing. Thus we are led to ignore the object itself in favor of what it is talking about. Of course, even this is not an absolute rule, as is shown in the case of the Settlement Cookbook from Milwaukee. In that case, learning about the cookbook as a book – and not merely a collection of recipes – remains at the forefront of attention.
Second, and just as importantly, a good object should have a strong connection to one particular place in Wisconsin. The object need not be unique to that place, nor does it even have to be unique to Wisconsin. Yet the stories grouped with the object must be able to explain how knowing about the object also presents us with something interesting about the history of one place in Wisconsin. The Wilson Place door, for example, points us toward James Stout, an industrialist and the founder of the Stout Institute, a mechanical-arts school in Menomonie. Eventually the Stout Institute joined the UW System as UW-Stout.
If you have any trouble finding an object or have questions about the suitability of an object you’ve found, email Wisconsin 101’s Managing Editor. They will be happy to assist you in finding an good object to write about.