Bringing History Alive: Exploring Primary Sources

Tour Overview

Art objects are primary sources that offer us an eyewitness account of the beliefs, cultural practices, and daily life of the time and place in which they were made.


  • Students will discover that primary sources are an eyewitness account of the time and place in which they were made. Students will understand the difference between a primary and secondary source.
  • Students will explore primary resources in one of following collection pairings: Ancient Egypt & Native American, or Chinese & the Weaving Splendor featured exhibition.
  • Students will be inspired to visit the museum in person.


Students will explore two of the collection areas described below. Please review objects before signing up for a tour.

Ancient Egyptian – Examine primary sources found in ancient tombs that illuminate the concept of the afterlife in ancient Egypt.

Native American – Investigate a Native American primary source that is 100-150 years old and discuss a contemporary bowl made by a living artist. Please note: this artwork depicts a violent episode from 1599 where Spanish soldiers killed hundreds of Native Americans.

China – Explore primary sources found in ancient tombs that illustrate the exchange of cultural practices along the Silk Road.

Weaving Splendor Featured Exhibition – Discover luxury objects from China, Persia, Japan, and India and learn what these primary sources can reveal about the people who used them.


Visual Art

  • Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding.

History, Government, and Social Studies (KS)

  • The student will analyze context and draw conclusions of how societies are shaped by the identities, beliefs, and practices of individuals and groups.
  • The student will investigate and connect how societies are shaped by the identities, beliefs, and practices of individuals and groups with contemporary issues.

Social Studies (MO)

  • Describe how peoples’ perspectives shaped the sources/artifacts they created.
  • Describe how a people’s culture is expressed through their art, architecture, and literature.
  • Analyze the preservation of cultural life, celebrations, traditions, and commemorations over time.

Before Your Tour Pre-Visit Activity: Exploring Primary Sources from Today’s World

Activity Objective

Students will explore a primary source from today’s world. Students will learn that we can discover a lot about a primary source through simple observation and discussion. This activity can be done in the classroom or online. Adapt the activity, considering the safety guidelines of your classroom.


  1. Choose an object we can find in our world today. Ideas for objects: A penny, a coffee cup sleeve, a portable pencil sharper. If working in the classroom, have several examples of the same identical object. If working online, select an object everyone will have at home (Example: A penny).
  2.  Define “primary source” for the class. Definition: “Primary” means first or first-hand, so think of primary sources as objects that existed during the time period we are exploring. Primary sources give us an eyewitness account of the time in which they were made. If we are exploring ancient Egypt, for example, primary sources could be art objects, a pyramid, or writings created by Egyptians thousands of years ago.
  3.  Pass out objects to students. Have students work in small groups or as individuals. If working online, students will be working with objects on their own. Tell the students the objective of the activity (see above).
  4. Give students a couple minutes simply to look at the object. Tell the student to turn the object over and to explore it from all angles.
  5. Ask the students to pretend that they are archeologists from another culture who has just dug up an unknown object in the year 2520. Tell them that it is their job to understand this primary source simply by looking at it and exploring it through a series of questions that they will be asked.
  6. After students have had time to look at the object, ask the following questions, one by one. You will begin with simple observation questions and then advance to more interpretive ones. As the students explore the object, do not answer any questions that are asked — throw each question back out to the class for them to answer.

Observation Questions

  • How would you describe this object?
  • How would you describe its shape?
  • What color is it?
  • Is it plain or is it decorated?
  • Do you think it has any writing and/or symbols on it?

Questions about Material

  • What materials is the object made of?
  • Is it smooth or does it have texture?
  • Was it made by hand or mass-produced?
  • Was it meant to last a short or long time?
  • Is it in good shape or has it been used?

Questions About Use

  • What purpose do you think it served?
  • Was it ever used or is it unused?
  • Do you think it was used once or several times?
  • Does the shape tell us anything about its use?
  • Do you think the designs on the object are just for decoration or did they serve a larger purpose?
  • How was it used?
  • Where do you think it was used?
  • What is it used alone or with other objects?
  • Who do you think used it?

Larger Interpretation Questions

  • What does this primary source tell us about the people who used it?
  • What does this primary source tell us about the culture in which it was made?

Closing Questions

  • Now that you have looked at this primary source closely, what questions do you have about it?
  • Where might you go to learn more about this primary source?
  • What did you learn by doing this activity?

Learn More

Close the conversation by telling the students that on their virtual field trip to the Nelson-Atkins they will be doing a similar activity. They will be looking at primary sources closely and investigating them through a series of questions to understand the culture in which they were made.

For more about the power of object-based learning and the use of critical thinking skills, read Shari Tishman’s The Object of their Attention.

After Your Tour Post-Visit Activity: Create a Time Capsule Using Primary Sources from Today’s World

Activity Objective

Students will think about primary sources in today’s world and create a time capsule that will inform future generations about our culture and society. This time capsule can be imaginary or real, depending on the safety guidelines of your classroom.

  1. Tell the students that now that they have learned about primary sources, they will create a time capsule that will inform future generations about today’s culture and society.
  2. Explain a time capsule: A container storing a selection of objects chosen as being typical of the present time, buried for discovery in the future.
  3. Ask kids to brainstorm objects which they would include in the time capsule. Ask them to explain why they chose the particular object and what they think it tells us about our culture and society today.
    a. If making a real time capsule, ask students to bring in objects from home.
  4. If creating a real time capsule, choose a vessel to contain the materials, such as a lock box or some type of waterproof container. Bury it on school grounds, if possible. Choose a date in the future when you would want the capsule to be dug back up and explored.
  5. Close the discussion by asking students what their biggest takeaways were when studying this unit on primary sources.