Carefully curating a limited set of objects has lately become a popular way for museums and historians to tell vast histories (e.g., the history of the world, or of New York City). After all, artifacts can help us visualize the past and see complex events as something tangible or relatable.
We can use the same approach to tell our personal histories as well. A sentimental T-shirt, a kindergarten drawing or a dog-eared book? What objects tell the story of your life?
In the Sunday Review essay “Object Lessons in History,” Sam Roberts discusses how telling history through objects is “emerging as history’s lingua franca”:
Five years ago, the BBC and the British Museum collaborated on a hugely successful radio series and book called “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” Last week, the Smithsonian followed up with its “History of the World in 1,000 Objects.”
It’s not that 900 more transformational artifacts suddenly materialized since 2009. Instead, think of the two histories as 3.2-pound bookends flanking a welter of similar collections that showcase the mesmerizing and metamorphic power of artifacts, from a 230,000-year-old female figurine to a jar of dust collected in Lower Manhattan after 9/11.
Thanks in part to a recent proliferation of best-selling biographies of major political and military figures, history is hot. And objects seem to be emerging as history’s lingua franca. The “100 Objects” book has been reprinted in 10 languages. Downloads of its companion 15-minute podcasts have topped 35 million. This summer, when the Smithsonian polled the public on the “most iconic” object in its collection, more than 90,000 people weighed in.
That success has not gone unnoticed. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is currently displaying 99 “disobedient objects” representing movements for social change, including a “Silence = Death” poster created in response to the AIDS epidemic. The Israel Museum is curating 12 objects that define humankind for display next spring.
“It is only in the world of objects that we have time and space,” T. S. Eliot wrote. Think of the marks that things — the wheel, the crucifix, the credit card or the computer chip — have made on civilization.
Students: Read the entire essay, then tell us …
— What objects tell the story of your life? Can you identify five or 10 objects that you would include in an exhibit or book about your life?
— Why did you select each of those objects?
— Do you think telling history through objects is a “a clever way to hook people on history”? Do objects tell a story that words or images aren’t able to convey quite as effectively?
Questions about issues in the news for students 13 and older.
Why a green pen? I always carry a green pen because I grade all my students' essays in green. Why green? Because when a student gets an essay back and it's covered in red marks it can tend to look bloody, like a battlefield. But if a student gets an essay back that's covered in green it looks verdant. Also, red means "stop" (like a stoplight), but green says "keep going." And that's the essence I want to communicate to my students: keep going. The green pen in my essence object box is more than a green pen.
I would also place in my essence box a well-worn North Carolina Tarheel blue and white basketball. Why? I came home from the hospital wearing Carolina Blue, so I've been a Carolina fan, almost literally, since birth. I've spent more time on a basketball court than virtually anywhere else (which is why the ball is well-worn), and basketball also represents my connection with my dad: when I was a kid we’d watch Carolina games together and play basketball in the backyard for hours. This basketball is more than a basketball.
I would also have the blue Bible with my name etched on it in gold lettering that my grandma gave me when I was seven. (See how specific I’m getting?) For me, this particular Bible represents my having been raised in the Presbyterian Church. And my parents were missionaries, so you could imagine a lot of who I am today has been shaped by the Sunday morning services we attended at Weaverville Presbyterian Church, to which I would always carry my blue Bible. This Bible is more than a Bible.
You get the idea.
I want you to make a list of 20 objects. (Don’t complain—you are infinitely complex and creative and could come up with a thousand—I’m asking for just 20.)
Important: Don't write what the objects mean to you as I have just done. I just want you to write the objects. So my list would begin like this:
- green Precise v5 extra fine rolling ball pen
- worn-down, rubber North Carolina basketball
- blue Bible with my name stitched on it in gold lettering
- bbq sauce
- annotated copy of The Brothers Karamazov
- friendship bracelet
- black and white composition notebook
- Amelie DVD
- Evanston Hockey t-shirt
…You get the idea.
Just write the objects with a couple details that describe each, no commentary needed yet.
If it helps, put on some music. Let your mind wander.
QUESTIONS TO HELP WITH THE OBJECTS EXERCISE
What’s something you never leave home without?
What’s a snack you crave?
A food that reminds you of your family?
A food that reminds you of home?
A tradition that reminds you of home?
What else reminds you of home?
An object that represents your best friend?
An object that represents your father? Your mother?
Your grandparents, or lack thereof?
Something you loved and lost?
A toy you used to play with as a kid?
Something that makes you laugh?
A book you love? Best movie ever?
Favorite guilty pleasure movie?
An object that represents something abstract that you broke (a heart, a promise)?
An object that represents a regret?
A favorite gift you received? A favorite gift you gave?
An object that represents a secret? (Don’t worry, this stays between us.)
Something about you no one else knows?
Something you stole?
Something you found?
Something that makes you feel safe?
The worst thing that ever happened to you?
The best thing?
The logo on your imaginary business card?
The image you’d like carved into your tombstone?
An object that represents: a smell you love, a smell you hate, a taste you love, a taste you hate, the sweetest sound in the world?
The coolest thing about science?
Something you forgot?
Something old? Something new? Something borrowed? Something blue?
Best thing you ever found in the street?
Best money you ever spent?
Your life lie? Your favorite object?
Something from another country?
Your favorite sentence?
You’d cry if you lost this?
An object that represents someone you’d like to know more about?
Something you’ll never get rid of?
A bad habit?
A perfect moment?
A time you laughed so hard you cried?
A time you cried so hard you laughed?
An image you’ll never forget?
What they’d put in the museum of your life?
The cover image on your first self-titled album?
Three objects from your room?
A near-death experience?
A moment when you were so embarrassed you wanted to disappear?
Worst (actual) nightmare?
When were you most afraid?
If you had a clone, what would you have the clone do?
A time you were speechless?
The moment you left childhood behind?
A quotation you love?
Your favorite photo?
ONCE YOU’VE WRITTEN YOUR LIST OF ESSENCE OBJECTS
Survey your list. Which essences are missing? Is every aspect of you there? Think more abstractly. Think of qualities not yet represented on the list. How could you phrase those qualities in terms of objects? For example, if you keep lists, perhaps a post-it note? Are you easily angered (lighter fluid)? Good at lots of things (a Swiss Army Knife)? Or sharp (an Exacto knife)?
Write down three more objects.
THE PURPOSE OF THE OBJECTS EXERCISE
T.S. Eliot once said: “The only way to express emotion in art is through an objective correlative.”
What’s an objective correlative? It’s an object to which you correlate emotions, memories, and complex meanings. It’s an object that’s more than an object.
Every object in your essence object box is an objective correlative for some important, complex part of you.
Now survey your list. Does it feel pretty familiar? It should.
Your college essay should feel that familiar.
Just to clarify, I’m not saying all of the objects on your list will end up in your final draft, but some of them might. And chances are good that you will write about the essences those objects represent.
The point is this: if you’ve taken the objects exercise seriously and have described a unique set of objects, you should have the material for a compelling personal statement. In fact, you should have the material for dozens of personal essays, but right now we’re just writing one.
The question of course is which one? Which essences or objects should you choose?
That’s the next step.
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