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Learning History through the Arts

When it comes to arts integrated education, people usually have many questions about how specific topics are taught through the arts – and vice versa.

In previous blog posts, we’ve taken a look at learning math through art, as well as connecting art and science.

But what about learning history through the arts?

How can educators convey the importance of historical events in the context of art?

The answer is – pretty easily.

Learning History through the Arts Is a Natural Fit

Both history and art serve to document what’s happening in any given moment. In history, it’s a sensible, chronological and lateral movement along a timeline – while on the arts side, such movement and documentation can be far more abstract.

Nevertheless, the two are easily intertwined.

Here are some ways that arts integrated educators use the arts to awaken students from the sleep-inducing rigor of history textbooks:


The internet gives educators and students access to just about any painting you can imagine. So even though an actual trip to an art museum is hard to beat, students can take virtual field trips to any number of art museums around the world.

And this gives them unlimited access to paintings with deep historical context.

For instance, a viewing of The Exhumation of the Mastodon by Charles Willson Peale reveals a painting of the artist (who was also a scientist) at the exhumation of a prehistoric mastodon at the beginning of the 19th century.

In the painting, the artist is holding up a rendering of one of the mastodon bones. Yes, it documents an important moment in history. But it also demonstrates what technology (or lack thereof) looked like at this time in history – something that’s difficult for this tech-savvy generation to grasp.

Or consider the more famous Guernica by Pablo Picasso. This well-known piece was Picasso’s reaction to the Nazi’s horrific and all-too-casual bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

In its unique style, Picasso’s Guernica shows the chaos and tragedy of war and the suffering it inflicts. Studying this painting is an imaginative way to introduce students to topics of war.

It’s also a launching point for them to begin to analyze their feelings around war in order to create their own paintings.


Wanting to teach his students the power of community and solidarity, an art instructor shared the story of six black men in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1939. These six men sat inside a library – which at that time was against the law.

As a result, they were arrested.

But one of those kids’ fathers was a lawyer and he fought the case in court. One year later, in 1940, public libraries were integrated. And it all started with that collective effort.

In order for his students to grasp the strength of connection, the instructor wanted to create a sense of bonding and community among them as quickly as possible. To facilitate this, he had each student pair up with another student he or she didn’t know. Each student covered their faces with Vaseline.

Then the partner student placed plaster strips over their face – covering everything but the nostrils. In the end, each student had a mask that would become part of the group’s collective final project.

It was a powerful learning experience.

Advertisements/Political Propaganda 

Poring over advertisements from different eras in time gives some serious insight into the social constructs of that era.

For example, in 1950, there was the housewife who was just thrilled to get a new vacuum. (We’re pretty certain now that she wasn’t.)

A cigarette ad in the 1960s shows a surgeon happily endorsing the product as his “cigarette of choice” before hitting the operating table. (And it probably was.)

But some of the more haunting advertising came from Nazi Germany when they used propaganda in the 1930s and 1940s to shamelessly promote their Anti-Semitic agenda.

This hateful propaganda set out to dehumanize Jews. And it was horribly successful. When students see this “artwork,” it’s far more stirring than reading about this horrific era from a textbook.


A dance instructor and choreographer working with high school students wanted to pay homage to Rosa Parks while teaching them the importance of her biggest moment in history.

So she had nine students sit on a stage in rows – representing citizens of Montgomery, Alabama on a bus in December of 1955. She left an open seat at the front.

The tenth student, an African-American, entered and sat in the vacant space. The students were instructed to react. They scowled, turned their heads in disbelief, and waved at her to get to the back. She shook her head no – remaining absolutely resolute.

Utilizing contemporary dance technique and improvisation, these students created emotional choreography around this pivotal moment in history. They were able to put themselves in the moment and – at least partially – walk in Rosa Parks’s shoes.


Political cartoons and satire from the past are an awesome way to deliver history lessons.

Where textbooks hammer out dates, facts, and events in a rote manner, political cartoons and satire challenge the student to find the underlying message from that time.

They have to read the cartoons carefully to grasp what the artist was trying to say. Such analysis can lead to interesting and informative discussions.

From there, students can create their own political cartoons from that era – challenging other students to figure out what the intended message is.

Not Doomed to Repeat Itself

We all know the old saying about history. Obviously, it’s important.

But delivering history as a series of events without any emotional impact isn’t very inspirational.

That’s why learning history through the arts makes more sense. It enables students to give these moments meaning, feeling, and context. In other words, it makes them REAL.

If you’re seeking a more meaningful education for your creative child, then consider an arts integrated high school. Contact us today to see what could be waiting for them tomorrow.

And let them start making their own history.


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