Hands-On History: Enduring Symbols of the Revolution

By Tommy Sullivan

My name is Tommy Sullivan, and I am an undergraduate History student at WKU. I recently tagged along with some fellow History and Social Studies majors on a class trip to the Kentucky Museum and the Department of Library Special Collections. The visiting class, which is required for students in my department, was HIST240: American History to 1865.

While so many survey courses just offer broad overviews of a topic, the visit to the Museum gave us an in-depth look at history we could see right in front of us. We were able to see artifacts from Kentucky that related to coursework. The experience is called a Close Study of Collections, and it gave us tangible examples of the past—mostly from the state of Kentucky!

This particular study was “Echoes of the American Revolution.” After a brief introduction, we walked back to a classroom that was filled with both documents in print, like postcards, and material objects, like dresses. As a student of history, I’m always blown away by the different types of evidence we can use to interpret the past. We explored the enduring symbols of the Revolution, from just a few years after to the Revolutionary War all the way up to World War I.

So many of the symbols seemed obvious—George Washington, the bald eagle, Lady Liberty—but it’s fascinating how widespread their reach has been throughout time. They’ve been on stationery, fabrics, statues, posters, medals, and so much more. Many generations of Americans have used these symbols and found meaning in them.

Jonathan Jeffrey (of the Department of Library Special Collections) and Sandy Staebell (of the Kentucky Museum) walked us through all the artifacts they had set out. They were incredibly knowledgeable and had stories for every piece they explained. At the end of their presentation, they were generous with their time and stayed for the questions we had.

One of the most interesting aspects was how locally significant all these examples were. Some of the land grants they showed us were for tracts within our state. Men and women from the area wore the fabrics that are now stored in the Museum. Kentucky history doesn’t always feel very prominent when studying the history of the entire country, so seeing pieces of our state history and relating it to our entire American story is valuable. Plus, it makes taking the course more interesting.

Our hour at the Kentucky Museum really complemented what we do in the classroom. We had the opportunity see the history right in front of us and experience it in a new way.

This blog post was made possible by a collaboration between the Kentucky Museum and the WKU History Ambassadors.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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