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Educational Resources

Critical Challenge - 2

Exploring the Historical Significance

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Synopsis

Historians are continually faced with the challenge of deciding what evidence to use and what not to use. In this challenge, students are invited to think like an archivist and a historian by considering the significance of historical evidence found in a fictitious family member's attic. In this mini-challenge, students decide the importance of evidence.

Setting the Context

Present students with the following fictitious scenario:

Your great-aunt has recently passed away and you have just learned she has left her house and its contents to your family. The attic is filled with antiques, papers, letters, official documents, photographs and a few surprises -- your great-aunt was a talented artist who created copies of paintings by the members of the Group of Seven and by Emily Carr, and of stamps. Your task is to sort through the materials in the attic and to decide what to keep and what to throw out. You have sought help from some of the brightest and most insightful people you know. Your 'team' includes a close family member, a museum curator, an economic historian, and a social historian.

Your challenge is to identify the 10 most historically significant items in the attic. To reach a consensus will require both discussion and compromise.

Suggested Activities

Step 1: Provide each group with a list of the items found in the attic (Student Handout 2.1). Several items may require explanation.You may wish to provide background information on some items, or suggest students divide up the items and do some independent inquiry by talking to their parents or using the Internet or the library. They then share what they have found with the group.

Step 2: Invite students to work in groups of four to examine the items in Aunt Bessie's attic. Each student is to have a different perspective, based on the following personas:

  • a museum curator interested in understanding daily life in the mid-20th century
  • an economic historian researching changes in standard of living during the 20th century
  • a social historian researching race, gender and social attitudes of the mid-20th century

Step 3: Suggest the students use the following criteria to determine whether the items are historically significant or insignificant:

Historically significant*

  • rare document
  • provides important insights into values/ attitudes of the past
  • has legal value

Historically insignificant

  • plentiful document
  • provides little or no new information
  • has no legal value

*Historical significance is culturally defined. What may be of historical significance for Canadians might not be for Egyptians or the Chinese, for example.

Step 4: Invite each group to post their list of the 10 most significant items. Each group will then compare their conclusions with those of the other groups. If time permits, organize a class discussion that involves an analysis of the decisions made by other groups. Each group may then revise its list, if appropriate.

Step 5: Once students have considered the historical significance of the listed items, invite them to apply the same criteria to the historical documents they have previously selected from Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery.

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