Object Lesson: Tractors as Life

How is museum learning different from learning in other settings? There are many answers to that question, but one important answer is that museum learning focuses on objects, not just ideas. It’s a unique approach, and it happens more often in daily life than you might think.

Here’s a case in point. A couple of months ago, I saw an antique tractor pull at the Montgomery County (MD) Fair. As I watched the tractors chug across the arena, I wondered whether any of them resembled the tractor my Great-aunt Leslie accidentally backed into the side of a barn when she was learning how to drive more than 60 years ago. She and my Grandpa (her brother, who repaired the damage) still laugh over the incident.

Back home, I called Grandpa to ask what kind of tractor his family owned on the Ewing farm. He told me it was a 1943 Farmall Model H, and then launched into a conversation about tractor manufacturers. My Grandma, who doesn’t like to talk about her childhood on the farm, volunteered that the early John Deere tractors were called “put-puts,” because of the sound the two-cylinder engines made.

Later, my parents and I talked about tractors. Dad remembered working with Grandma’s father, driving the tractor when he was 12 or 13 years old. I learned more about the serious accident that injured Great-grandpa just a few years later and about how a farm family without insurance or workers’ compensation survived.

A few weeks later, Grandpa attended an antique tractor show and snapped a photo of a tractor just like the one he’d used growing up. 1943 Farmall H tractor just like the one Grandpa drove thousands of hours “I drove it thousands of hours!” he related in the caption.

And I learned all of this because of a tractor.

You may have had a similar conversation over a box of items saved from high school or with a child about the toys they loved as a baby. One object can spark conversations about many topics, and you talk about them because the object has meaning for you. As a museum educator, I’m committed to creating ways to allow visitors to talk about the Museum’s objects, not because they’re in the collection, but because they mean something to our visitors.