What is history? Student-made exhibition

In the fall of 2018, the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich invited an entire school class to curate an exhibition. We wanted to know more about how students learn. This project, which lasted for about a year, culminated in an intriguing exhibition entitled “What is History?”. In addition, we gained important information that is helping us to develop a digital learning tool for use in the classroom (focusing on “Global History”).

Approximately 25 upper-level students from Unterstrass Comprehensive School gathered around the museum’s massive table. They were looking at a number of unusual objects that the museum staff had placed on the table:

  • an ivory carving of a Protestant missionary, from the Congo;
  • brightly colored Murano glass beads, once used for trading on the west coast of Africa;
  • shirts made of St. Gallen lace, which were taken to northeastern Brazil by Swiss emigrants and used in Afro-Brazilian religions;
  • Cambodian fabrics with yellow silk threads;
  • opium pipes;
  • paper clocks;
  • and many more…

The students were no less fascinated by these objects simply because they were unfamiliar; on the contrary. They found the items even more fascinating because they were right there in front of them, within reach. The students were able to touch them, hold them, turn them this way and that … and ask questions. The class began with a deceptively simple question: “What is history?” But instead of looking for the answer in second-hand sources such as textbooks or films, as they might at school, the idea was for the students to examine first-hand the objects before them.

Hesitantly, individual students and groups of students selected various objects. Although these young people had relatively little objective knowledge of history, they still had a sense of the weight of history – the entanglements and stories that might be hidden in an opium pipe, a trading bead or the ivory figurine of a missionary. But how could they unlock the history behind these objects? Does doing so require a magic formula? Are the answers to be found in Wikipedia?

Neither magic nor a digital encyclopedia provides the key to the secrets of history. Hands-on observation, however, offers some clues. Shapes and materials do not simply fall from the sky. The students began by following the paths of “their” objects through research at the museum, under the guidance of the museum staff, then continued their investigation in weekly meetings at school. The long, in-depth conversations they held individually or in groups were not designed to arrive at the conventional “truth”; the question of “true” or “false” was initially set aside. Instead, it was all about inspiration and motivation, qualities that are essential in acquiring expertise – not about awakening these qualities, but about strengthening and cultivating them.

One girl, for example, (mistakenly) identified a paper clock from Hong Kong as a Japanese product, and then proceeded to analyze the design of Japanese goods, from a samurai sword to sushi. Her work culminated in a comparison of the esthetics of the Far East and the West. Another student, inspired by the opium pipe, chose not to take the historical pathway that would lead through the Opium Wars, but instead to investigate the opium derivative heroin and the biological processes in the human brain that are triggered by drug use.

In the summer, the students’ research results were presented in an exhibition at the museum. Instead of resembling a typical school project, the exhibition had the fresh flair of contemporary art. Here, as we all know, it is observers themselves who are at fault if they fail to understand…


As part of the Jacobs Foundation, the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich is dedicated to educating young people. Through exhibitions and programs (focusing on commodities such as coffee, cocoa, tea, crude oil, rubber and silk), it introduces children and adolescents to the colorful history of globalization. In doing so, it explicitly takes into account the perspectives and experiences of its young clientele.

Going forward, the museum plans to introduce an attractive program for school classes as a way of providing more in-depth educational content. A project team, composed of internal staff as well as external experts, is developing a digital tool for use in secondary schools in Switzerland’s German-speaking region.