Smithsonian museums collect America’s heritage—from national treasures to the objects of everyday life.
Many Lenses is a way of seeing Smithsonian collections through the eyes of museum staff who collect, preserve, interpret, and display these objects for the public. Because each Smithsonian museum has a different mission and our curatorial staff have different areas of interest and expertise, there are myriad ways a single object can be seen and understood.
For the launch of Many Lenses, staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of the American Indian, and National Museum of American History selected one artifact from their collections to highlight and interpret. Curators from the other museums were invited to tell us what they see when they look at these objects. What stories are revealed because of who is speaking? What meanings are ascribed because of who is writing?
Explore Our Inaugural Stories
From this initial installment featuring three museums, Many Lenses will expand across the Smithsonian and invite you to share your perspectives in the coming months. By layering one lens upon another, we deepen our collective understanding.
Using Many Lenses in Your Classroom
A key part of history is recognizing that different people can experience events in different ways.
Many Lenses provides an entry point for educators and students to consider how various perspectives on history can co-exist. Starting with a single museum object, students are offered a range of perspectives informed by how different individuals, communities, and organizations may interpret the object’s significance and its historical impact. Discussion questions at the end of each story offer ways for students to practice thinking from different perspectives.
Becoming a skilled perspective-taker means students hone the ability to see things from another’s standpoint, a skill that is not only helpful for interpreting history but also in contemporary, daily interactions.
Through intentional engagement with the materials on the site educators and students can utilize historical questioning to investigate multiple sources of primary and secondary information to gain a deeper understanding of history, their community, and themselves.Candra Flanagan NMAAHC, Education Department
Perspective-taking is considered one of the hallmarks of an emotionally well-developed person. It is one of the skills that we seek to cultivate in young people when we encourage them to reflect on how others are thinking and feeling. This skill is crucial in developing empathy which is the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Research shows that increased ability to be empathic reduces prejudice and bullying, fights inequality, and increases connectedness between individuals and groups.
For school-age students, the study of history can be a way to practice perspective-taking and cultivate empathy. The Many Lenses project demonstrates how one artifact can open the conversation for multiple stories and connect many people.