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Historical society launches March Madness-style bracket for artifacts

Massachusetts Historical Society

In the battle between the first printed draft of the US Constitution and a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, founding father John Adams, only one can emerge victorious.

And it’s up to the public to decide.

The Massachusetts Historical Society this month launched an online March Madness-style bracket that let’s users vote for their favorite historical documents and artifacts from the 17th to 20th centuries.

The bracket was created to celebrate the organization’s 225th anniversary, and was inspired by the basketball brackets popular among people during the end of the college basketball season.

The first round of voting began Feb. 1, and will run through mid March, until a winner is selected by public vote in the championship round.


The idea for the bracket, which is divided into four centuries of American history, hatched from staff members trying to come up with interesting, interactive ways to keep people engaged with the historical society for their anniversary celebration.

“We had decided that we somehow wanted to get the public involved,” said Brenda Lawson, director of collections at the historical society. “And it just took off. People really liked the idea.”

The bracket began with 64 items hand-picked by the organization’s staff and then digitized. The objects are part of the historical society’s collection.

“A lot of the items are our greatest hits,” said Lawson.

Items include actual tea from the Boston Tea Party; a letter written by Paul Revere that describes his famous ride on April 18, 1775; a championship medal made by a Boston jeweler for the Red Sox World Series win at Fenway Park in 1912; a description of a gruesome killing during the Salem witch trials of 1692; and the first published map of New England, to name a few.

“The choices are hard, and they should be hard, because they are wonderful things from our collection,” said Lawson.


The organization is now in the midst of the second round of the voting process. Users can scroll over the documents and objects when voting, and read about the history of each one.

Hundreds of people have returned to the historical society’s website to continue casting their ballots in the competition.

The historical society has been reminding people through social media about each new round of voting.

The winner will be announced March 14, and will be included in an exhibition at the organization’s Boylston Street headquarters in June.

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.