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Exploring Complexity: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

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Social Studies +1 Age Level Middle School (13 to 15 years old)

In this activity, students will analyze an artwork that celebrates the idea of Manifest Destiny and western expansion - Emanuel Leutze's 1861 mural study for Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, the final version of which rests in the U.S. Capitol Building.  Through the use of two Project Zero Thinking routines - What makes you say that?, a Visible Thinking routine for interpretation and justification; and Parts, Purposes, Complexities, an Agency by Design routine for looking closely - students will consider what message this painting conveys, how choices made by the artist convey that message, as well as what perspectives are portrayed and what perspectives are missing.  After looking critically, students will watch a video and learn from senior curator Richard Murray how to read this painting and what messages/images they may have missed.

This activity can be used as an entry point or supplement in studying westward expansion, the idea of Manifest Destiny, how public perspectives are shaped, and more.  Resources to extend this activity include: a website about the final mural located in the U.S. Capitol Building and a Smithsonian American Art Museum lesson plan about both the mural study and the final mural.

Keywords: Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, manifest destiny, westward expansion