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This lesson uses images and texts selected from the digital collections of the Library of Congress to engage students in studying the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Its central topic is the question of what items and images of the Exposition said about America. Students examine other images from the era to see the Exposition in the context of its time, and work as historians using primary source images and documents to construct museum exhibits on the issues of the Centennial Era.
America at the Centennial is about reading documents and images as primary sources in history. This lesson is an opportunity for students to strengthen their skills of close reading, collaborative hypothesizing, and conducting online searching within a library collection. It also engages students in learning history by working as historians as they select and assemble evidence to assert and support hypotheses about American life in the 1870s.
In addition to search, interpretation, and analysis, America at the Centennial poses an authentic task for students to construct historical presentations for an audience of classmates who are similarly engaged as a way of creating a classroom community of active learners.
In 1876, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence was celebrated by millions of Americans who visited a vast Exhibition held in Philadelphia. Many others knew of this event through widely distributed illustrations. Statues, exhibit halls, and the overall layout of the exhibition grounds were designed with care to facilitate the enjoyment of visitors and to speak to them about the nation and its achievements.
In this part of the lesson, examine images from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition as primary sources of the history of the event and its time.
The Centennial of 1876 represents America's telling the story of the nation's accomplishments to its citizens and to the rest of the world. Examine the images -- whether of buildings, monuments, works of art, machinery, or artifacts -- in light of this motive. What does each image say about our then 100-year-old nation? What did Americans want to say to the rest of the world in each of these products?
Students analyze the image, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teachers' guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt discussion and analysis.
The Corliss Engine was useful as a source of power and important as a reflection of national pride. It was a large steam engine that stood in the center of the hall, dominating the space and siezing the attention of visitors, and supplying the power that drove the hundreds of machines on display in Machinery Hall of the Exhibition. Its importance was emphasized by its central position and imposing size, but also by the decision of the Exhibition organizers to officially open the celebration by having President Ulysses S. Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil start the engine.
1. As a whole class, examine the image of the Corliss Engine, perhaps the most impressive item displayed at the Centennial. Analyze this image.
2. Choose one image from the collections listed below. You will be part of a collaborative team made up of 4-6 students who choose images from the same category.
3. As a class, consider:
Historians interpret any moment in the past by examining as much evidence from as many different perspectives as they can gather. Using evidence in this way enables them to appreciate the diversity and complexity of life at any time.
Activity 1 of this project asked you to study the maps, buildings, and items used to celebrate the Centennial. These items were evidence of how America chose to celebrate. Activity 2 asks you to assess how evidence of the political and social issues of 1876 compares or contrasts with that of the Exhibition. As you turn your attention from the ideals of the celebration to the issues of real life, consider these questions:
Issues of the Centennial Era:
This part of the project invites you to construct a museum exhibit that tells the history of the topic you studied in Activity 2. Here's your opportunity to undertake the work of historians as you interpret the story of your topic for your classmates. Consider whether 1876 should be remembered as a year to celebrate the accomplishments of a century of independence, or a time when the American dream was facing profound threats. The question to address in planning your response is:
1. Your product is to be a well researched essay in which you select one of the images presented in Activity 2 of the lesson and use historical and visual sources to:
2. Your model is to be a plan for a museum exhibit in the form of a room that consists of four walls illustrated with images and words.
The room you are designing can be imagined to be any size, but for the purpose of this model, it must be represented in the form of an intact cardboard box no smaller than 8.5 X 11 inches on any side. Think of this box as a room turned inside out. The sides of the box represent the walls of the room, although shown on the outside of the box for ease of display. The sides are to be covered with plain paper prior to the attachment of any design items. The top of the box is the ceiling of the room. The bottom of the box is the floor of the exhibit.
A successful exhibit will have the following characteristics:
Each exhibit will be graded using the project rubric (PDF, 67 KB).
Nancy Fitch and Charles Flanagan