Green Museum: Students Investigate Everyday Stuff & Its Environmental Impact

This page authored by Matthew Rohn, St. Olaf College, inspired by colleague Jim Farrell's American Studies Museum and the book by John C. Ryan et. al., "Stuff: the secret lives of everyday things".
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This activity has 2 major components that can be done separately. 1)Students were asked to keep their eyes open throughout the semester for common items (a light bulb, an advertisement, a styrafoam cup, etc.) and contribute one such item every 4 weeks to our show-and-tell box of things that provoked people to think about everyday life and environmental issues. We spent a class session discussing some of that 4-weeks findings. 2) At a given point, students had to chose one of the items submitted or propose an item of their own to exhibit publicly at the end of the semester along with a "label" (which was a 1-page abstract) related to a 10-page research paper into important environmental lessons the person's object taught. One, for example, displayed a can containing some USDA organic food item, which the individual had used to research how "organic" has been defined and relates to public policy, special interests, politics, etc. Another showed a roll of toilette paper and had researched the environmental impact of how it is made and comparative usage of toilette paper by Americans versus people in other countries with information about why differences in usage exist from a cultural perspective.

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Learning Goals

This is meant to help students become environmentally and culturally aware. It introduces them to what is called "dense fact" analysis -- an American Studies concept that proposes any item in the world can be seen as imbedded in cultural practices (e.g., sociology, history, visual thinking, etc.). By awakening students to this in the assignment, I hope that they will carry that practice into everyday life and read (or start exploring) the meanings of things that they encounter and buy and inform others about the dense meaning of things and choices. The museum display is one way that the students make this knowledge public and develop the courage with the support and involvement of their peers, as well as skills to communicate this knowledge. The assignment allows them to build upon fundamental skills they learn early on (basic consumer skills of making choices but also "buying into" things) and seeks to refine and "complexify" those skills adding to them academic, analytical skills and showing how the 2 realms can inform each other.

Context for Use

I used this in a basic, broad, Environmental Studies humanities course, ES 101 The Nature of Culture, that St. Olaf offers. It could also be modified so that students choose objects, advertisements, etc. with more specific goals related to academic concerns (e.g., political campaign information; food labelling; etc.) The show-and-tell component was relatively time-consuming but the museum project can be done without the show-and-tell component if a research paper is being assigned anyway . This assignment adjusts nicely to different levels of expertise and at any level helps students perceive connections between their lives and the environment and academics and the "real world". It is also good to introduce the ecological footprint in conjunction with this assignemnt.

Description and Teaching Materials

Having students read any segment of "Stuff: the secret lives of everyday things" (or literature like that) is useful. Exposing the students to the ecological footprint can help (

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructors may want to learn about the American Studies concept of the "dense fact" and what instructions cultural anthropologists, cultural studies faculty, etc. provide students for being attentive to cultural phenomena and deconstructing the meaning of it. I also limited the size of items students could contribute for practical purposes. I strove to make the "show-and-tell" segment unhibited (i.e., ungraded except as part of a general discussion grade) so that they would not worry too much about what to submit or what to say. I wanted to let them see just how varied the possibilities might be and collectively explore things. I had deadlines for choosing an object, submitting some bibliographical resources and directions for their analysis to get them going and keep them on track. I also had some leads in the written assignment of things to consider when contemplating an object. We were able to do the exhibition in a room with flat tables and space for people to walk around either side of the tables.


The museum component can be assessed as you would a standard research paper.

References and Resources