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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER: For the Love of Historical Art!

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Nov 1, 2016
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Preserved in Paint, an exhibit at the Winona County History Center, gives the viewer the opportunity to visualize how parts of my Minnesota county and city looked years ago. We can imagine the bluffs with fewer trees, the city as it looked in the steamboat era, and the old but still used railroad depot—now an Amtrak station—where Harry Truman stopped on his 1948 Whistle Stop election tour.

Are paintings primary sources? Can one painting stimulate inquiry and exploration? Can it be the centerpiece of a lesson or interdisciplinary learning? How can maps be paired with paintings? In this month’s New Media Center, I’d like to share with you some ideas that illustrate the power of a painting, used alone or paired with another resource to provide a great learning activity. The ideas support art, history, science, and literature.

I love historical art! Paintings may not be what we think of when we list examples of primary sources, but paintings are primary sources. I am especially excited to share a winning idea for using a painting that I discovered through participation in a primary sources discussion group: A 5th grade teacher gave his students 10 minutes to create a historical tableau by re-enacting the scene depicted in a well-known painting, Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” It’s easy to imagine how much thinking, discussion, questioning, and perhaps even friendly arguing occurred as students decided who would play each role and how they would pose. Perhaps they even argued about the accuracy of what was painted. Educators at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, home to one of the two remaining original Leutze paintings, took a different approach to involving students. They asked summer art camp students to create their own artistic depiction of the painting. One young artist created his version in a Picasso Cubist style. See Figure 1, and take a look at this website:

The tableaux and artistic interpretations require students to closely examine the painting, ask questions, and make decisions. They are nice activities for pairing an iconic painting with history and art curricula. Both are easy to replicate since the painting is included in textbooks and is easily accessible online.

Add a Map

Thomas Cole’s “A View of Boston” (1837–1839) is another historical painting that can be a springboard for further investigation and discussion. The painting depicts the Old State House, the hill, the commons, the water, a few homes, and a pastoral scene of grazing sheep. It is only natural to think about how the city changed throughout the centuries. I thought of Cole’s painting when a teacher shared the map “The City of Boston” (1873). The map also depicts the statehouse, water, and surrounding area, but it is a city more developed than that in the painting. The teacher shared these ideas for teaching with the map: The zoom-in details allow the reader to view the map key with numbers that highlight the location of the historical sites on the map. Students can go to the bibliographical information to read articles and essays and view more maps, to listen to sound recordings, or to watch motion pictures. While the painting and map focus on just one city, both are appropriate for many history classes since Boston is a key city in America’s history.

Your city’s art gallery, public library, or museums may have historical paintings and maps of your locale. Your state’s digital Memory Collection and the Library of Congress (LC), with millions of maps, are other great places to search. One LC collection, The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company collection, boasts more than 600,000 maps detailing the commercial, industrial, and residential sections of approximately 12,000 cities and towns. A graduate student included Sanborn maps in an extensive online history of a local historic neighborhood.

Historical Art, Science, and Maps

James Audubon’s paintings of birds can augment the biology curriculum. A Teachers Page Blog post by an LC teaching fellow suggests a convenient approach for using paintings to learn about bird species, bird taxonomy, and art. Discussion topics related to ethics and the killing of animals to paint them (something Audubon did) are also suggested. Media specialists will want to share this post with their biology and art teachers.

“The Map Illustrating the Extermination of the American Bison” (1899) is another excellent example. This map depicts where bison first roamed and where they were exterminated through hunting or other conditions such as disease. It’s a powerful map that could be combined with “Hunting Buffalo,” a painting by Alfred Jacob Miller. Another choice could be George Caitlin’s “Buffalo Hunt, Chase” (1844). The contemporary photo “American Bison, or Buffalo, Bones at the Vore Buffalo Jump, a Sinkhole and Archeological Site in Crook County, Wyoming” (2015) will be a catalyst for even more discussion.

The combination of resources will promote active discussion and questioning. Is hunting done by settlers different from the methods used by Native Americans to kill bison? What uses, besides food, did people have for the bison? Did they know about possible extinction? What’s the difference between bison and buffalo raised as farm animals today? What can we learn about history, economics, and ecology from digging deeper into related resources and closely examining and questioning what we see?

All of this could start with one map! A Wisconsin teacher was excited about the many possibilities for using “Souvenir Map of the World’s Columbian Exposition at Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance” (Chicago, 1893). Erik Larson’s nonfiction work, The Devil in the White City, follows the development of the exposition and tracks serial killer H.H. Holmes, who used the fair to find his victims. The souvenir map could be used to promote a discussion about the rise of industrial America at the turn of the 19th century. It also fits very nicely with a study of the Gilded Age because of the whole “beauty on the outside, ugly in the middle” Gilded Age theme.

I love these resources and have a personal connection with each. Teachers and students of all ages get excited about primary resources they personally connect with. What paintings, maps, or other resources will help you, your teachers, and your students make exciting connections? Using primary sources does not have to be a hassle or a lot of work, so try these and other easy ways to enrich your classroom and student learning.

References, Resources, and Further Information for Media Specialists and Teachers

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Creating a Historical Tableau

* Cheney, Lynne, and Peter M. Fiore, illus. When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots, Simon and Schuster, 2004

* Minnesota Marine Art Museum

Facebook, Aug. 11, 2016;

Leutze, Emmanuel, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851);

* National Endowment for the Humanities: Picturing America;

* Teaching With Primary Sources Network, January 2016;

* Teaching With the Library of Congress: Crossing the Delaware: General George Washington and Primary Sources;

* TPS-Barat–Primary Source Nexus: Analyzing Primary Sources—Frozen Living Pictures, May 2014;

A View of Boston, Columbian Exhibition Map

* Historic Preservation Commission of Winona: Windom Park Historic Residential District;

* Library of Congress

“The City of Boston” (1873);

Massachusetts State Guide: Maps;

Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps;

State Digital Resources: Memory Projects, Online Encyclopedias, Historical & Cultural Materials Collections;

“Souvenir Map of the World’s Columbian Exposition at Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance, Chicago, Ill, U.S.A. 1893”;

* Larson, Erik, The Devil in the White City, Crown, 2003

* Minnesota Marine Art Museum: Thomas Cole, “A View of Boston” (1837–1839);

Extinction of the Bison and Audubon Paintings

* Library of Congress

“The Map Illustrating the Extermination of the American Bison”;

“American Bison, or Buffalo, Bones at the Vore Buffalo Jump, a Sinkhole and Archeological Site in Crook County, Wyoming, 2015”;

Teachers Blog: “Bringing Audubon to the Classroom,” August 2016;

Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room: Prints by John James Audubon;

* Linda Hall Library Digital Collections: George Caitlin, “Buffalo Hunt, Chase” (1844);

* Walters Art Museum: Alfred Jacob Miller, “Hunting Buffalo” (1858–1860);

What Are Primary Sources?

* California State University–Los Angeles: What Are Primary Sources?


In my May/June 2016 New Media Center column, I introduced readers to the Primary Source sets available through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). These sets are now accessible through PBS Learning Media. According to an announcement from DPLA, educators will be able to access, save, and combine DPLA’s education resources with more than 100,000 videos, images, interactive lesson plans, and articles drawn from critically acclaimed PBS programs such as Frontline and American Experience and from expert content contributors such as NASA.

Contact Mary Alice at

Thank you to online graduate students Kris Skarjos (Wisconsin), Marie Biggs (Florida), and Nancy Watkins (Florida) for permission to share their ideas that are included here.

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