All Hands on Deck: Learning Adventures Aboard Old Ironsides
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Getting Started    Key Words & Concepts    Glossary    Activities    Recommended Resources     Scuttlebutt

  Getting Started USS Constitution

You might ask students if they have ever gotten into trouble and had to explain to a teacher or another adult what happened. What if they were accused of doing something wrong? Was it important to them to determine who was at fault or whether they actually did what they were accused of doing? You might play devil’s advocate and say, “Who cares what happened. It’s over. It’s history.” Is it important to give credit or blame to the right people? History is, in part, trying to keep the record straight, to understand what happened. And history museums have the
evidence or pieces of the puzzle of what took place in years past.

Key Words and Concepts

The USS Constitution Museum opened in Boston in 1976, in a granite building that once housed the large pump that pumps the water out of the dry dock where Constitution has been
overhauled several times. Just across the pier from the Museum is Constitution herself.

What “proof” about the past is in the Museum? How do we know how sailors lived on board 200 years ago? How do we know that Commodore Hull was a superb sailor or that he was fair with his crew? How do we know anything about these people or their lives? From the log books, diaries, clothes, paintings and drawings exhibited, or displayed, in the Museum. In the Museum’s collection are 3,000 artifacts, including prints and paintings, weapons, tools, flags, uniforms and ship models. The research library and archives has over 1,600 volumes and historic documents, such as letters, ships’ logs and official papers, and over 5,000 photographs.

The Museum has exhibited the trousers of Isaac Hull (see Lesson 7), so we can know how big a man he was, and the drawings of Lieutenant John Dale, who sailed on Constitution during her Around the World Cruise (see Lesson 11), so we know what some of the ports of call looked like in the 1840s. An oil painting of Commodore William Bainbridge allows us to study the face of the man who was able to turn his luck around (see Lesson 8). Pieced together, these items shed some light on earlier times.

What does the Museum do to help visitors
interpret the artifacts on display? Exhibits are accom-panied by labels with useful information. Some exhibits are interactive so that visitors can learn about something by trying to do it themselves. The Museum also has an education department that offers special programs to provide in-depth information on relevant topics, such as the his-
torical context of the artifacts.

You might identify a nearby museum and ask students what “evidence” it contains and what particular past it reveals. Art and science museums tell us about different aspects of the past through their collections. You might also explain to students that museums exhibit not only what is in their own collections, but items
on loan from other institutions or private individuals. Sometimes a museum will display a reproduction, a copy of the original item, either because the original is not available or because it is too valuable or fragile to display safely.

Ask the class to examine an old item, or a reproduction, to see what it reveals about history. If you have an old utensil, tool or piece of clothing, show it to the class, or ask students to imagine that they found an object that looked very old in an attic or in a vacant lot. Before they draw any conclusions about the item, what do they need to determine? To give students an idea of what steps to take, you might tell them about some artifacts that came to the USS Constitution Museum a few years ago.

Bill Brommell curator of ship models
Bill Brommell curator of ship models
USS Constitution Museum, Boston
Photo: Jerry Margolycz

In 1994 the Museum was offered a seabag with “T.J. Chew U.S. Navy” painted on the linen fabric. Inside were some intriguing items: a pair of white silk trousers, shirts of white linen and cotton and a shirt of soft chamois leather, a sword sash, a silk cummerbund, a pair of moccasins and two brass keys tagged for the doors to a powder magazine. A collection of letters, orders and receipts, dated between 1812 and 1814, came with the bag. Was the bag authentic? How could the Museum find out? On the blackboard, make a list of class suggestions. The Museum Curator checked the Naval Register in Washington, D.C. and found that a T.J. Chew had served as purser on Constitution in 1812. Then they had the paint on the bag analyzed by a conservator, or conservation scientist, and found that the paint was in fact the type used in the early 19th century. Museum staff and a textile cataloger knowledgeable about fabrics and clothing styles worn in that period confirmed that these clothes were common in the early 1800s for a man of Chew’s position. From these pieces of evidence, the Museum concluded that the bag was authentic.

You might read Danger on the Home Front, a mini-biography in the Summary Activity at the end of the unit. Through the story of his wife Abigail, the class will learn more about Thomas Chew’s life. Using the story and the items found in the bag, what can the class figure out about Thomas Chew and his times? Do the artifacts help us to visualize his life or to understand some of his responsibilities? Where did the moccasins come from?

Now examine your class “artifact” and frame some questions to reveal its secrets. Is it painted? Does it show signs of wear? Where was it found? Is it similar to items commonly used in an earlier period of time? What does your artifact reveal about its era? Its users?

The class will discover that it is difficult to gain insight from an isolated object. Ask students for other ways to find out what happened in the past, and write their answers on the board. What is the most reliable source of information? Students might suggest eyewitness accounts, but ask them to consider the following example. When Constitution sailed around the world in the 1840s, no less than 12 journals were kept of the trip. Here are two eyewitness accounts written about the people of Mozambique on the southeast coast of Africa:

The main interest in St. Augustine is observing savage life; the natives are treacherous and it would be dangerous to stay overnight and camp in that vicinity. Captain’s Clerk,
Benjamin Stevens

[The crew] passed their time most pleasantly with the natives. ... To all appearances they are not a treacherous race of beings and from what I saw, think they are a truly friendly race to Americans.
Ship’s carpenter,
Henry George Thomas

Ask students what conclusions they can draw from these accounts. Whom should they believe if accounts of the past differ? Is it best to present several points of view and let the reader or viewer decide? How about checking to see if the source is
credible? Tell the class that everything they have learned in this unit is pieced together from evidence like this. Sometimes new pieces of information turn up that make the past clearer, or even hazier, causing us to revise what we have accepted. That is one reason we say history is alive, because the facts and their meanings are still being discovered.


  • collection: a group of items belonging to an individual or institution, sometimes having a common thread or theme
  • artifact: an object that is common during a given time period
  • authentic: to be exactly what is claimed
  • curator: the museum official responsible for collecting and preserving the artifacts





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