Thinking Geographically with Museum Collections

By Vanessa Navarro Maza, HistoryMiami Museum


Stories offer opportunities to challenge stereotypes and prejudices, to find common ground, or to step into the life of someone with a completely different lived experience. This article discusses the power of first-person narratives for building empathy and bridges of understanding, particularly in approaching the topic of migration and immigration. Connecting in this way, on a person-to-person level, allows people to find their shared humanity and nurture a sense of community.

Learning Through Observation and Museum Collections, Unit 3

Access all Unit 1 lessons in the link above, “Classroom Connections.”

A Classroom Connection from “Thinking Geographically with Museum Collections”
What’s in a Question? Examining the Role of the Interviewer

Lesson 1: Thinking Geographically  211
by Michelle Kelly, Miami Dade County teacher for AP Human Geography

F.A.C.E.S. and Me Worksheet 217
Thinking Geographically: Celebrating the F.A.C.E.S. of Miami Worksheet 218

Lesson 2: Learning Through Observation: How do Museums Tell Stories?   219
by Suarmis Travieso, HistoryMiami Museum

Lesson 3: Learning Through Observation: Objects as Texts  224
by HistoryMiami Museum’s Education Department

Photo Analysis Worksheet 226

Thinking Geographically with Museum Collections is a lesson activity by Michelle Kelly that encourages students to think about migration and its effects on individuals, communities, and places while also reflecting on their family stories of migration. Using primary sources and activities centered around Miami, Florida, students explore who is living in their community, where their neighbors came from, why and how they came to Miami, and how they contribute to making Miami the city it is. However, the lesson’s framework and essential questions can be applied to other cities, communities, and spaces. The exercises also examine more broadly how traditions and cultural practices—such as music, clothing, food, and religion—are maintained or reinvented in migrant communities.

Student activities explore first-person narratives found in primary sources, such as audio interviews, video interviews, and written stories. In Thinking Geographically, these sources provide windows into the experiences of migrants before, during, and after their migration journeys. Many of the primary sources are from HistoryMiami Museum’s Miami Stories Collection, an oral history project that collects stories about life in Miami through written, audio, and video submissions. Additional primary sources are from the museum’s photography and object collections.

The following article provides guiding concepts for teachers and students to think critically as they interpret the primary sources in the Teaching with Folk Sources Curriculum Guide. It also discusses the power of first-person narratives for building empathy and bridges of understanding, particularly in approaching the topic of migration and immigration. As Folklife Curator at HistoryMiami Museum, I act as a facilitator for Miamians to share stories, whether through in-person experiences or digital content, and I have seen firsthand how powerful the story sharing experience can be. Miami is an unusually diverse city composed of fragmented communities that tend to isolate themselves from each other, and stories allow people to break through these barriers and connect to their neighbors in meaningful ways. Stories offer opportunities to challenge stereotypes and prejudices, to find common ground, or to step into the life of someone with a completely different lived experience. Connecting in this way, on a person-to-person level, allows people to find their shared humanity and nurture a sense of community.

The Power of a Story
First-person stories are recorded in many formats–including as an audio recording, a video interview, or a written narrative. These narratives are records of self-expression and contemplation, yet also offer deeper insights beyond the individual to provide perspectives on the joys and challenges of life. For the storyteller, the practice of documenting a story provides an opportunity for expressing a unique perspective and reflecting on their life experiences. Documenting a story captures a moment in time for the storyteller. The resulting primary source opens a window into the life of a person or group of people and provides an opportunity for others to engage with the source and experience curiosity, empathy, and human connection. A first-person narrative can humanize overarching and sometimes even contentious topics such as immigration. By engaging with a story, the listener connects to the storyteller’s emotions and experiences, and empathizes by imagining themselves in that situation. This exercise can provide a new perspective on how larger issues play out in a person’s life and even challenge assumptions.

The sources highlighted by HistoryMiami Museum explore questions that are central to the human experience, such as belonging, longing, community, and identity. Students will hear stories about why people choose to or are forced to leave their homes, and the challenges and successes they face on their journey. Some stories tell of experiences about assimilating to a new place, challenges with new languages, new school and work environments, and changes in family dynamics. Because the activities are centered around Miami’s unique makeup, students will examine “sense of place” from the perspectives of long-time residents and newcomers and the ways that people do or do not feel at home. The guide also emphasizes the contribution of migrants to the community and to making Miami, “Miami.”

Using a variety of related primary sources, students will consider culture and tradition within the topic of migration. Cultural practices often act as bridges between geographical places. Through stories, photographs, and objects, students can understand how traditions evolve or remain the same in new environments and how new environments often inform this evolution. The lesson includes an activity called F.A.C.E.S. (Food/Faith, Art, Clothing, Entertainment, Sports/Spirituality) through which students identify these cultural elements in the stories and primary sources they encounter. Students will also learn how meaningful and essential these cultural practices are to people’s sense of identity, belonging, and longing. The Haitian muralist and sign artist Serge Toussaint illustrates this theme in his Miami Story audio interview “I have to keep my culture…I concentrate on what matters to Haitians.”

Bahamian Junkanoo is a parade tradition that originated in the Bahamas that Bahamian-Americans in Miami continue to practice. Pictured here is a Junkanoo costume headpiece made by members of Bahamas Junkanoo Revue. Bahamas Junkanoo Revue, 2008. HistoryMiami Museum Object Collection, HistoryMiami Museum,

Thinking Critically about Primary Sources
Engaging with primary sources can be a powerful and meaningful experience for both students and teachers. However, it is important to think critically about how people are actively involved in the creation and interpretation of these sources. The processes through which sources are documented, categorized, made accessible, and interpreted are affected by personal bias, choice, and relationships.

When thinking about primary sources, and first-person narratives in particular, it is important to consider who was involved in creating the record. Primary sources can be created in collaboration with someone like a folklorist or documentarian (in the case of a recorded interview, for example), or they can be created alone through personal writings (including journals, letters, or other texts) and self-documentation through audio or video. This interaction, or lack thereof, can affect the ways that relationships and biases play into documenting stories. For example, recording an interview with a family member is likely a different experience than recording an interview with someone you don’t know very well. During these interviews, the interviewer–whether a folklorist, videographer, family member, close friend, etc.–makes choices about the questions and prompts they present, which help to guide the conversation, while the storyteller makes decisions about what to share and omit. The interviewer and the storyteller create this recorded narrative together.

Many primary sources are preserved, or archived, in museums, libraries, or other institutions so that they can be available for researchers or put on display for the public. Museum staff organize, make accessible, and interpret these sources for the public, and their choices and expertise inform these interactions. All these choices contribute to the information, or metadata, attached to a primary source.

A folklorist on staff at HistoryMiami Museum collected or documented most of the primary sources in this guide. The folklorist provides information about the materials to the museum’s archival team who work to ingest the materials into the museum’s collection by organizing, categorizing, and making them accessible to the public. Their work allows the museum staff, as well as the public, to search for and access the material. The staff archivist organizes and categorizes these materials using certain guidelines and parameters while also making choices about the relevant subjects associated with this primary source.

There are various influences of personal bias and choice that play a role in this preservation process. For example, the folklorist describes the materials using an ethnographic lens with a focus on culture, values, beliefs, and traditional practices. Someone from a different field, for example a historian, may focus on the context of the photograph as it relates to a specific individual, time period, region or significance to society. To explore this, students can examine photographs by creating two separate image descriptions as a historian and a folklorist and consider how the two perspectives impact the preservation and representation of the source (see example activity below developed by Teaching with Folk Sources team member Sarah Milligan, Oklahoma Oral History Research Program)1.

Visualize This…

  1. A group of Caucasian men in a car during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. One man stands on the car’s running board. One man at the rear carries a rifle or shotgun.
  2. A group of armed white rioters in a car with one occupant holding a gun and another man.

How we describe images and artifacts in collections can also affect an individual’s assumptions and experience when interacting with it in an archive or museum.

Read the first description and ask the group to visualize this image in their head.

Then, read the second description and ask them to visualize the image.

Next, reveal that both descriptions are descriptions of the same image (below).

Finally, discuss the differences in the two descriptions.

This image has multiple captions depending upon the archive where it is accessed. See Milligan, Unit 5: Lesson 1 “Engage” for additional information and links to the original primary source item.

“Thinking Geographically” also presents the unique opportunity to consider objects, or artifacts, as primary sources. Museum curators use the information available about an artifact to create the label that accompanies an object on display. The object descriptions in this learning activity are taken from the labels created by the HistoryMiami Museum Folklife Curator at the museum. The Folklife Curator is working from a cultural lens and makes choices about the kind of information to include in the label. This label plays an important role in a visitor’s engagement with and interpretation of the object. A piece of ceramic art or textile art will likely have a different label attached if displayed in an art museum. For example, the Folklife Curator will craft the label focusing on the person who made or used the object, their community, and the traditions that bring meaning and life to an artifact. An Art Curator may focus more on the materials used, the artist’s creative process, or the aesthetic details.

This lesson activity includes a variety of photographs and objects with accompanying information, or metadata. While engaging with these sources, students and teachers can explore how personal bias, choice, and expertise influence the ways in which sources are organized and categorized in different kinds of collections. Some questions to consider when engaging with a primary source are: What are some of the layers of interpretation that are contributing to your engagement with that source? What are the descriptions or keywords that are attached to this source that may influence your experience of what you’re seeing, hearing, or touching? Could this be described or categorized in a different way? How does bias play a role in assigning these descriptions or categories?

Primary and Secondary Sources
As students discover the ways primary sources are affected by categorization and description, they also learn that activities that seem neutral can impact meaning or understanding. This scaffolding proves particularly relevant when students then consider the products, or secondary sources, that can be produced from primary sources. Personal bias and choice play a role in how primary sources may be edited, categorized, and described. For example, an editor or videographer may take a recorded full-length interview and cut it down to a shorter length, link pieces of the story together, or alter the narrative in other ways. Their creative choices play an important role in the way the story is reimagined. This lesson activity provides examples of secondary sources such as the Meet-the-Artist videos included on the artist webpages, which were edited from full-length interviews. These kinds of materials are valuable in providing context for related primary sources as well as presenting material in a digestible and entertaining way. At the same time, students can gain awareness about how choice and bias may influence the final product and alter a narrative.



  1. See Milligan’s activity in Unit 5, Lesson 1 in the “Engage” section of the lesson to access additional captions and information about how to find the Primary Source image referenced.


Works Cited

Bahamas Junkanoo Revue. 2008. HistoryMiami Museum Object Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, Miami, Florida,

HistoryMiami Museum. n.d. Meet the Artist Videos: Heritage Spotlight Series. HistoryMiami Museum, Miami, Florida,

Mariel refugee tent life scene of wife shaving husband. 1980. Tim Chapman Collection. HistoryMiami Museum, Miami, Florida.

Miami Stories Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, Miami, Florida,

Touissant, Serge. December 30, 2015. “I have to keep my culture…I concentrate on what matters to Haitians.” SoundCloud audio,



HistoryMiami Museum’s Miami Stories Collection

“I have to keep my culture…I concentrate on what matters to Haitians.”

Meet-the-Artist videos