Teaching History with Objects

Dr Georgina Brewis, UCL

Dr Charlotte Clements, London South Bank University


Object-based learning (OBL) is an active, experiential and student-centred style of learning which research indicates is a ‘more effective method of learning than listening to a lecture’. OBL is increasingly used in higher education across a range of disciplines, including history. It often takes place in collaboration with museums, archives and galleries, and involves students being taken out of the classroom for sessions facilitated by museum professionals. This can be a powerful form of learning but has significant resource implications.

What we want to discuss in this blog is the experience of creating a ‘curated teaching collection’ as part of a module on the history of voluntary organisations and NGOs which Georgina Brewis teaches in the UCL history department. This resource brings together everyday items from the twentieth-century history of charity in Britain. The original collection was purchased from eBay with a UCL Connected Curriculum Liberating the Curriculum grant in 2016, as part of wider project seeking to research, test and select new sources for teaching, on which Charlotte Clements worked as a research assistant. Georgina has added to the collection since, and indeed finds it hard to stop checking eBay for charity history items!

Items from Georgina’s curated teaching collection

The collection now comprises twenty items (or sets of items), including a wooden tray handmade by servicemen blinded during the First World War, a tea cup and saucer from the National Union of Townswoman’s Guilds, a 1970s Woodcraft Folk shirt, a 1920s BBC ‘Radio Circle’ badge, several war charities fundraising flags, a 1963 ‘Youth against the bomb’ badge, a paper-mâché Dr Barnardo’s collecting box and some original World Refugee Year stamps.

Each object is linked to themes and topics we cover on the course – allowing us to have an ‘object of the week’ to discuss as an ice breaker. In week one, students are encouraged to examine several objects in detail to come up with their own ideas about what the object is and what cause or organisation it might be linked to (no googling allowed until the end of the session!).  Handling physical objects can provide a tangible link to the past, allowing students to think about the experiences of those who might have used or worn the objects, but whose stories might not have survived in written form.

Focus group introducing idea of OBL to new courses at UCL

The sensory experience of handling objects in class allows us to engage students in different types of learning. In particular, somatic and embodied learning is promoted by having objects present in the classroom. Bringing touch, sound and smell into the classroom alongside more traditional techniques such as reading and small group discussion provides an alternative way of accessing the course content. Object handling is also linked to long-term retention of ideas and concepts. The everyday and familiar nature of the objects selected can be useful in making the topic accessible and in increasing engagement with course content.

Crucial to integrating OBL fully into any academic module is ensuring that it is reflected in assessment. For the course, students write a 2,500 word ‘object report’ that allows them to research a chosen object as a way into discussion and analysis of a wider theme or topic in the history of voluntary action. So far, students have really enjoyed the exercise, and love having the chance to do their own research and write a report. Another bonus is that Georgina actually looks forward to marking!

Object reports by students

Currently Georgina has to carry objects around campus week-by-week, but plans are in development for a purpose-built OBL teaching lab at UCL (similar to the fantastic one at the University of Melbourne). There is some risk of damage to the collection from repeat handling, transport and lack of proper storage, but these are everyday objects used expressly for teaching, and they can always be replaced.

Compiling a curated teaching collection of objects is a pedagogical development from the largely museum-based approaches to teaching and using objects in higher education that dominates both practice and academic literature. The idea has been tested and refined through conversations and feedback from colleagues and students over the past couple of years. It offers an accessible opportunity for students to engage with material culture that is woven into the curriculum and assessment design of an individual course, and which helps support a range of learning styles. It’s also a lot of fun to teach!


Read about Teaching with Photographs


Further reading

Helen Chatterjee and Leonie Hannan (eds.) (2016) Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Charlotte Clements and Georgina Brewis (2018) ‘Good practice case study: Diversifying the Curriculum and Engaging Students through Archives and Object Handling’ in The Inclusivity Gap, ed. Karisa Krćmař. Aberdeen: Inspired By Learning.


About the Authors: Georgina Brewis and Charlotte Clements are both social historians who work closely with voluntary sector archives. Dr Brewis is Associate Professor in the History of Education at UCL. She is a historian of voluntary action, youth and education and is currently Honorary Secretary of the Social History Society. Dr Clements is Lecturer in History and Course Director of the BA in History at London South Bank University. Her research interests include charity, youth and welfare in modern Britain.

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