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Read Between the Brushstrokes: Using Visual Art as a Historical Source ("Off to War")

This Learning Lab from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will explore the connection between visual art and history. 

When studying history, it is important to remember that all historical sources do not look the same. Visual art, being an active response to a stimulus, serves as a mirror to the contemporary landscape. Art engages in a conversation with history while acting as a visual expression of contemporary thoughts and ideas.

Through the visual art piece Off to War by William H. Johnson (1942-1944), students will learn more about the events and cultural context of the 1940s in America. Johnson’s piece responds to the tumultuous political and social climate of the period with a consciously naïve depiction of an African American family sending their son off to war. His painting sheds light on the deeply personal impact of World War II on domestic America, especially the African American community. Students can use this Learning Lab collection to help sharpen their historical thinking skills, hone their visual literacy competency, and expand their conceptions of historical sources. The questions, prompts, and information provided in this Learning Lab will help students hone their skills in visual literacy competency.

The guiding questions of this Learning Lab are

  • What is visual art’s connection to historical events? Why is it important that we recognize these connections?
  • How do contemporary events shape artists’ responses in their art making?
  • What does studying art add to our understanding of historical events and time periods?

The goals of this Learning Lab are

  • Bridge the gap in understanding between art analysis and historical analysis
  • Explore the inherent ties between art pieces and their surrounding historical context
  • Introduce the foundations of formal art analysis and develop close looking skills for visual art pieces

If you are new to Learning Lab, visit to learn how to get started!

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Reading American Art as a Historical Source

How can American art be read as a historical text? How can it be used to explore the 2018 National History Day theme of "Conflict and Compromise in History"? This collection examines two works of American art closely, modeling the process of historical inquiry and analysis. It also shares several online resources on reading artwork in a historical context, and suggests additional artworks from SAAM's collection that might support the theme of Conflict and Compromise.

#NHD2018 #NHD

Keywords: Reconstruction, Civil War, John Rogers, Winslow Homer


Phoebe Hillemann

Reading Companion: Hot-Air Balloons and the Civil War

In this collection, students will explore the Union Army's use of hot-air balloons during the Civil War. Two articles - "Professor Lowe's Adventure" [Cobblestone; Nov/Dec 2015] and "Civil War Air Force" [Cricket; Oct 2015] - serve as an introduction to Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, an aeronaut, and his influence in the creation of the US's first air force. Additional resources, such as photographs of the balloons, letters written from the Secretary of the Smithsonian to Lowe prior to his involvement in the Union Army, the remnants of a Confederate balloon, and more, help situate these articles into a larger, historical context. Suggestions for use located in "Notes to Other Users."

Uses the Project Zero Visible Thinking routine "Think Puzzle Explore." This routine sets the stage for deeper inquiry.
Tess Porter

Rebels and Beats

This topical collection is based on a past exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery entitled Rebels and Beats: Painters and Poets of the 1950s. This collection might be used by teachers or students who want to explore the counterculture of the 1950s, a time period typically associated with conformity. The collection includes paintings, photographs, and videos related to the writers and artists involved in the Beat Generation, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain College, and New York School scenes.

In what ways did these artists challenge the social norms of the time? Why is art often a means of challenging the status quo?

tags: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, de Kooning, Baraka, poem, counterculture, Beat Movement

Susan Ogilvie

Recognizing the American Dream Lesson


Maria Ryan


Students analyze works of art from the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction to better understand this tumultous time in our nation's history.
Nick Odem

Reconstruction Images

Sarah Schultz

Reconstruction in the American South #TeachingInquiry

This collection contains images, lithographs, and written documents pertaining to the period of Reconstruction. Reconstruction marks the period in American history beginning in 1863 and lasting through 1877. This collection will help to better understand the role Reconstruction played in re-establishing race relations and enfranchising African Americans, but also the struggles African Americans faced in upholding their rights. People who view this collection will be able to analyze and respond to the question "Was Reconstruction successful?" #TeachingInquiry

Rania Assily

Rediscovering Korea's Past - Goryeo Period

The Goryeo period (918-1392) is referred to as Korea’s age of enlightenment, when arts and cultures flourished under the patronage of the Goryeo aristocracy. Buddhism was the official state religion, which Buddhist temples and members of the royal court committed a huge portion of their resources to the practice of faith and to the creation of ritual implements and artworks as expressions of devotion. 

Tremendous ceramics, lacquer wares, Buddhist paintings and sculptures, illustrated manuscripts, and metal crafts in Buddhist symbols and motifs were made during this period. The Goryeo period is widely known as the jade-green glazed, graceful shape, elegant floral motifs and decorative inlaid design celadons to the Western culture.  

This Learning Lab Collection is created for Summer Institute for Educators, Discovering Korea's Past: Interdisciplinary Connections. 

Keywords: Korea, Goryeo, Celadon, Buddhism, Inlay, Jade-green, Glazed, Ceramics


Minchi Hyun

Reform Movements of the 1800s

As we begin to learn about antislavery (abolition), the women's rights movement, education reform, labor reform, and other movements of the 1800s, consider how these items and images speak for history.

Elaine Levia

Religion in Diaspora: How did a Shofar Come to the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

This teaching collection asks students to consider a Jewish ritual object, the shofar, as an entry point to discuss the transmission of traditions and beliefs across the globe. Using Project Zero looking and global thinking  routines, students can examine images of shofars, listen to shofar music,  explore photos from African American Jewish communities,  and consider how traditions and religious beliefs are carried around the globe with their practitioners. The activity concludes with a discussion to foster in students a broader understanding and appreciation of today’s complex world.

Philippa Rappoport

Religious Persecution

This is a collection of the historical events relating to the persecution of various religions

Nathan Assefa

Remember Pearl Harbor

"Remember Pearl Harbor" was a call to action, that rallied all Americans to step up and support the war in any way they could. This collection explores the symbolism and impact of lapel pins produced during World War II.


Remembering Dr. King: Six American Artists Respond

April 4, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. These six artworks from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection were created between 1968 and 1996, and respond to Dr. King's legacy in different ways. What does the date of each artwork tell us about the context during which it was made? What can we learn from looking at them as a collection?

Created for a March 1, 2018 webinar for alumni of SAAM's Summer Institutes: Teaching the Humanities through Art. 

#saamteach #martinlutherkingjr #mlk

Phoebe Hillemann

Remembering the Civil Rights Movement

This is a collection of monuments, memorials, paintings, and other ways to remember the Civil Rights Movement. Go through the collection and selection your 3 favorite (and delete the rest). Now that you have your 3, create 6 hotspots between them explaining how they work to help tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement.

Susan Ogilvie

Remembering the Holocaust

This collection looks at the way artists have used art, literature, and architecture to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust and explores the questions around how an artistic work, memorial, or museum can try to convey an understanding of genocide.

Questions to keep in mind as you observe each work:
1) What is the purpose of this memorial? Is it to honor, remember, educate others, or something else?
2) On what aspect of the Holocaust does this memorial focus?
3) What Jewish symbols are present? What national symbols are present? Are there human figures? Is it abstract? What other features do you notice about this memorial?
4) What is the setting of this memorial? How does that affect its purpose and design?
Kate Harris


This playlist on symbolism and representation of the United States is designed for self-guided learning with intermittent check-ins for elementary age students. The learning tasks are divided over five days, designed for 30-35 minutes per day, and build on each other. However, students are able to work on this playlist at their own pace. They will engage with primary and secondary sources as well as visual, video, and written texts. Students have the option to complete the tasks online by connecting through Google classroom or access Google doc versions of each formative and summative assessments for work online and/or offline. By the end of the week, students will create original work in the format of their choosing that demonstrates understanding of United States symbolism.

  • Formative assessments are represented by a chevron (Learning Check In and Tasks).
  • Summative assessments are represented by a circle (Final Task).
  • Google doc versions of all formative and summative assessments are in the tiles immediately after the digital versions. 

*Social Studies and Visual Arts standards vary by state for elementary grades. We recommend educators and caregivers consult their student and child's state standards for these two subjects.

National Museum of American History

Representation of Australian Culture

How has Australia, the Australian people and the Australian culture been represented to people overseas? How do people from other nations view Australia, the Australian people and the Australian culture?
Colin Radici

Resistance to School Desegregation

This playlist on Resistance to School Desegregation is designed for self-guided learning with intermittent check-ins for high school age students. The learning tasks are divided over five days, designed for 30-35 minutes per day, and build on each other. However, students are able to work on this playlist at their own pace. They will engage with primary and secondary sources as well as visual, video, and written texts. Students have the option to complete the tasks online by connecting through Google classroom or access Google doc versions of each formative and summative assessments for work online and/or offline. By the end of the week, students will write an analytical essay.

National Museum of American History

Resources for Teaching African-American History

A collection of teaching resources about African-American history, from slavery to modern-day. This is a work-in-progress based on the digitized materials within the Smithsonian Learning Lab's collection--it is not meant to be wholly definitive or authoritative. This collection will be updated frequently and includes both individual artifacts and lesson plans.

Kate Harris

Resources List: Asian Americans in Cleveland

This collection includes resources presented at the November 16, 2018 Educator Workshop at the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society.


Mary Manning

Resources List: Japanese American Experience

This collection includes resources presented at the October 20, 2018 Educator Workshop at the Japanese American National Museum. Included are resources from the Japanese American National Museum, other resources surrounding the Japanese American experience, and other useful APA resources.


Sohayla Pagano

Rethinking Americans

This collection serves as a preview for the second of six seminar sessions in the 2019 Smithsonian-Montgomery College Faculty Fellowship Program. This year's theme is “The Search for an American Identity: Building a Nation Together.”

National Museum of American Indian colleagues Paul Chaat Smith, Cecile R. Ganteaume, Colleen Call Smith, and Mandy Van Heuvelen will provide a behind the scenes look at the most daring exhibition the National Museum of the American Indian has ever staged. The exhibition argues that Native American imagery is everywhere in American life, and rather than being merely kitsch, stereotype, and cultural appropriation, it is evidence of the centrality of Indians in both history and 21st century life in the United States.

Resources included in this collection have been chosen by the presenters for participants to explore before the seminar itself.

Philippa Rappoport
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