About this guide

This educators' guide for the American collections at the Peabody Essex Museum was designed by Salem in History to meet the needs of educators who wish to embrace the use of visual material in their curriculum.  Including primary sources in the curriculum can bring lessons to life and capture students’ imagination.  However, primary sources also present significant challenges for educators, who must first analyze the sources and craft appropriate guiding questions in order to usher students toward their own critical analysis and understanding of the lesson’s essential question(s).  This guide offers a concise format packed with tools to assist educators who wish to take on the challenge and benefits of using primary sources in the classroom.

Although a much wider audience will find this resource useful, the educators’ guide was primarily designed for educators in U.S. History who are committed to incorporating a variety of primary sources into their curriculum.  The following Peabody Essex Museum collections are represented: architecture, furniture and other three-dimensional objects, paintings, lithographs, and textiles.  Additionally, the guide suggests (and provide links to) documents from the Phillips Library and other institutions where appropriate.


The primary sources in this guide have been divided into categories that correlate with topics covered at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.  The loose groupings are intended to spark ideas for pairing sources, but educators should also look beyond these suggestions to select objects according to their own classroom curricula.

Additionally, educators may wish to draw from other resources available at the Salem in History website: http://www.saleminhistory.org and the Peabody Essex Museum website: http://www.pem.org/visit/education.php.  

Structure of the Guide

Each object features its own mini “guide” that may be individually downloaded in pdf format.  The downloads are formatted for 8 ½ x 11” paper.

Historical Context

Because primary sources, in this case a range of art historical sources, are all created and experienced within a complicated context, it is important not only to recognize the historical moment and issues that impact the source, but also the object’s own unique context of intention and creation.  Therefore, there are two “background sections provided.  The Historical Context section details issues and events related to the object’s subject matter or period of creation

Art Historical Context

This section attempts to add to readers’ knowledge and understanding of art historical issues and techniques as well as specific information about objects and artists.

Suggested Questions

Suggested questions in this guide are designed to accomplish several goals:

  • Offer a starting point for educators to develop their own questions
  • Demonstrate inquiry-based learning that begins with observation, then moves toward contextualization, and potentially, interpretation
  • Meet the needs of classroom teachers who must adhere to curriculum frameworks

Designing specific questions are essential to help students understand the significance of each object within the context of broader historical issues that classroom lessons address.  For a further discussion on the model used by Salem in History to develop guiding questions, please see the following link: http://www.saleminhistory.org/tutorial/tutorials_devguidquest.htm

Suggested Activities

Activity suggestions are designed to generate thoughtful consideration of the object and its art and historical context.  Most require no or minimal materials or preparation time.  

2003 Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework Connections

These are the most recent frameworks available at the time this guide was written.

Funding and Support

SALEM in History (2004-2006) was funded by a three-year Teaching American History grant from the U.S. Department of Education.  This guide was created in cooperation with the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.  Please see the credits page for more information.

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