Visual Thinking for Museum Objects – Navigation Equipment


TECHNOLOGY – Teach students to use visual thinking strategies for examining museum objects like navigational tools.

Learning Objective:

Students will learn visual thinking strategies to examine museum objects. You can download a pdf of the questions for students to fill out and submit. Have students examine the images below. Once students complete the exercise, you can extend this activity to learn about navigation by watching the video or clicking on Additional Resources below.

Visual Thinking Strategies for Objects:

  1. What is going on in this picture (in this case, object)?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

Have students examine the objects below without giving them any information. Object information will be listed below. Students can use the list of questions below to conduct a close reading of the objects:

  • What does the object look like? 
  • What is the shape of the object? 
  • What is the size of the object?
  • What colors are visible?
  • Does it have a visible texture (shiny? rough? etc)
  • Do you know what the object is made of?
  • Is there more than one material used? 
  • Describe the form of the materials (thickness, structure, etc)
  • Does this object have a smell?
  • Does this object have a sound?
  • Does this object have a taste?
  • What is the texture of the object?
  • Does it have moving parts?
  • Is this object created by natural process or human process or both?
  • What observable evidence is there of its creation?
  • Are there marks, tags, or signatures that identify a maker?
  • Is an individual or company responsible for making this object?
  • Are there marks, motions, or other evidence of use or wear?
  • Is there evidence of breakage or repair?
  • Does the breakage, repair, or wear reveal anything about the object?
  • Do you know if this is a unique item?
  • Was this item mass-produced or do similar versions exist?
  • Are there any symbols or writing on this object?

Use visual thinking strategies to have a closer look at these objects:

Object 1:

Navigation Equipment

Scroll through the images below for more detail.

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Object 2:

Navigation Equipment

Scroll through the images below for more detail.

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Object 3:

Navigation Equipment

Scroll through the images below for more detail.

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Object 4:

Navigation Equipment

Scroll through the images below for more detail.

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Navigation (noun)
1: the act or practice of navigating
2: the science of getting ships, aircraft, or spacecraft from place to place especiallythe method of determining position, course, and distance traveled
3: ship traffic or commerce

Mirriam Webster Dictionary

Object 1. Ship’s Compass
E.S. Ritchie & Sons, Boston, MA
Brass, Glass, Wood

Brass ship’s compass, Victorian, cylindrical form, mounted on triple stepped mahogany wooden platform above a high ebonized wooden base.

compass is an instrument used for navigation and orientation that shows direction relative to the geographic cardinal directions (or points) of north, south, east, and west .

Object 2: Polaris
By Lionel, NY, USA
Bell Metal, Brass

Bell metal and brass polaris, ship’s navigational instrument.

Object 3: Compass
Maker unknown
Brass, glass

Small hand-held compass, brass fitting.

Object 4: Portable Ship’s Compass
Thaxter & Son

Portable ship’s compass, Victorian, mahogany case with hinged canted lid and glass brass bezel. This lifts to reveal compass within. Brass fittings, hinges, and bale handle.

All images from the Posner Collection.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. What are some ways people navigated their ships before GPS?
  2. How did the Vikings know if land was near?

Additional Resources

New York Times: What’s going on in this picture. Without the captions, practice Visual Thinking strategies to discuss what’s happening in these New York Times’ images.

NPS: Questioning Artifacts – An Alcatraz Island Inquiry – Observation of Inference Worksheet. A simple template example for introducing folks to the difference between knowing vs. guessing or observation vs. inference.

Read the chapters below on navigation equipment like the Sextant and Compass from John Favill’s Primer of Celestial Navigation (New York: Cornell Maritime Press, 1943) straight from our maritime reference library at the Ship History Center.

Time and Navigation, STEM in 30, Watch this video on PBS Learning Media from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum about clocks, time, and navigation.

Get lessons on navigation geared toward middle school students from the Institute of Navigation.

Education Standards

National Science Education Standards

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