This blog is intended to sell you, the social studies educator, on why incorporating art history into the social studies classroom can enhance student understanding and help students draw visual connections to the curriculum. Here I will be reviewing parts of history or classic Social Studies textbooks that can be bolstered with the study of fine art.

If you have anything to contribute to this blog concerning Art and Social Studies, please forward anything to .


Art vs. Photographs


As art is often made to transmit culture, feelings, or observations in a given time period, it is the perfect addition to any social studies curriculum. Because of the creative interpretation and skillful hand of the artist, art can be made with more intentional visual symbolism than photographs. It can also accompany bias intentionally added or subtracted by the artist, which is worthy of student inquiry.

However, this does not mean that photography is safe from creative manipulation. In A Handbook for History Teachers (written by a former socials teacher in Nanaimo, published in 2010), James Duthie states that one must also be wary of photographs, because they can also be staged or cropped to the desired effect. For example, “Mussolini was always careful to have photographers take his picture from below, in order to conceal his short stature” (p.95). However, some photographs such as the iconic photo of the Tiananmen Square protest, and the naked children running from their village in the Vietnam War, are genuine (p. 95). What students must take from this is that images are not a piece of evidence that should go unexamined and unquestioned. Furthermore, photographs do not always prove evidence of the whole. For example, as horrific as it may be, “a photograph of corpses at Dachau does not prove that six million Jews died in the Holocaust” (p. 96).


The “Migrant Mother” photograph, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, does indeed show the life of a poor mother in the depression. However, the composition of this picture was staged. According to this website, the subject (Florence Owens) was never compensated for even after the picture became an icon.

It is not to say that photographs are completely useless to the social studies curriculum. After all, photographs are often our lens into the past and can be a helpful visual to accompany text, as long as they, too, are taken under the historical microscope. Here are some examples of photography resources you can use to enhance powerpoints or otherwise incorporate into your lessons.


first of all, check out and for historical photographs relating to B.C. (mostly American but has many old photos and political cartoons) (everything but the title is safe for work) or Popular and interesting historical photographs are posted here by internet users. Take these with a grain of salt as the descriptions that go along with the photo may not always be accurate.


Aboriginal Art in Crossroads

Aboriginal Art in Crossroads (Social Studies 9)

Although I feel Crossroads did a fair job incorporating art history into the textbook to provide a visual for reader understanding, which could be bolstered with teacher influence, the chapter devoted to “The Native Peoples of Canada” and their culture was a little disappointing.

First of all, the majority of art and other pictures used in this chapter seem to come from a European lens. Many of the pictures are the artist’s renditions of Aboriginal life, with scattered artifacts of actual aboriginal artworks that have little context other than the mention of their beauty.

Crossroads, pg 193. There are many examples like this in the textbook.

While the text does a good job explaining the daily life and culture of different Aboriginal nations, I have a bit of a problem with the decorated paddles on the left of this page (206). There is no information about them except that they are beautifully decorated and from Bella Coola. I find myself asking which nation do these come from? What do the symbols mean? What was the importance of these decorative paddles?

My other problem with parts of the text are that some of Aboriginal culture is explained in terms of the past while these cultural elements continue to exist today. For example, on page 206, “Totem poles were used by each clan to tell the story of its origins and deeds, each clan reckoned descent from a mythical common ancestor…and each clan had the right to use specific images on their totem poles”. I wonder why the text used the past tense here for facts that remain relevant to this day. Of course, this can be made into a very “teachable moment” for the class. While not trying to discredit the textbook, students may be asked how something so simple as a tense change affects the way we learn about history and culture.

Another thing I see lacking here, which I understand for the text trying to come from a historical viewpoint, are contemporary art pieces from Aboriginal artists. If a teacher would introduce a few traditional and contemporary aboriginal artists to the curriculum, students would understand that Aboriginal cultures are still being lived, practiced, and transformed despite European influence and assimilation tactics.

Canada Council for the Arts Research and Evaluation Section prepared a knowledge and literature review for Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today. It is a very insightful document that I accessed it here It mentions that “for most Aboriginal people, ʻartʼ does not stand alone without a cultural context. The distinctions among cultural practice, art and craft as separate categories are not articulated in the same way as mainstream arts.” This, to me, makes the case that the arts are so tied to Aboriginal culture it is hard to explain one without the other. The document also warns that “Western art history both glorifies European artists and their art forms and, at the same time, denigrates or ignores those art practices from other peoples in the world. For example, “Edward Curtis imagined [Aboriginal peoples] as a “vanishing race” that needed to be documented before they and their ʻprimitiveʼ artistic objects were extinct.” (pg. 47).

Students also need to understand that there are many practicing artists incorporating modern techniques, materials, and imagery into their work that may have just as much cultural relevance as something more traditional.

Perhaps the most disturbing, yet challenging, barrier facing Indian artists today is posed by the western art terms ʻprimitiveʼ and ʻethnicʼ. Ironically, these terms have been used historically by the dominant western cultures to distinguish ʻhighʼ art from the art it has often appropriated from other cultures…These terms have conveniently situated Indian artists into a stereotype that treats their art as something static and/or peripheral, or even worse, dismisses their art as ʻunauthenticʼ for any noticeable signs of modernity.


Scorched Earth, Clear-cut Logging on Native Sovereign Land. Shaman Coming to Fix, 1991

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun
Canadian, 1957, acrylic on canvas

In James Duthie’s A Handbook for History Teachers (2012) , he mentions a wonderful idea for a lesson for Renaissance art that could easily be applied to a unit on Aboriginal art (pg. 100).

have students act as a curator on an exhibition of paintings on a particular subject or period. They have to choose a specific number of paintings typical of the subject or period and write the catalogue of the exhibition, explaining reasons for their choices and the significance of the chosen works

To adapt this assignment, students could choose a different Aboriginal nation and write about the cultural influences on the art styles and symbols.


Here is a Non-Exhaustive List of Contemporary Aboriginal Artists Worth Checking Out:

Bill Reid

Roy Henry Vickers (Visit his beautiful Aerie Eagle Gallery in downtown Tofino!)


George Littlechild (Also see his book “This Land is My Land” in the Curriculum Library)

This Website is also a handy tool for finding local artists

I also encourage anyone to check out the Urban Thunderbirds exhibit at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria while it’s still going on for a limited time.

Pictorial evidence in Crossroads: a meeting of nations

Pictorial evidence in Crossroads: a meeting of nations (Social Studies 9)

Much of the Crossroads textbook is filled with supporting paintings, drawings, and etchings. Although photography was not around to supplement history books until the mid-nineteenth century, which is around the end of the Crossroads chronological time frame, the textbook makes a fair attempt to use artworks and their study to help supplement student understanding of European daily life. For example, on page 31 of the text, there is a painting of King Charles I of England and his wife. The textbook asks what readers think the symbolism of the laurel wreath exchanged between them means. They are also asked to consider the perspective out of the window in the painting, and how it looks over a scene from a vantage point. Furthermore, there are symbols of wealth and power scattered behind the couple that the textbook highlights.

What I feel is lacking from this example and most of the book, however, is credit to the artist (Anthony Van Dyck). Interestingly, Van Dyck was commissioned to make this portrait after the last artist was fired. Perhaps students could be called to ask why? Clearly the royal family had a high standard for the way they were portrayed, which was very beneficial for them in hindsight as this painting has lasted so long throughout history. A teacher could ask how would students like to be portrayed in history? what kinds of symbolism or objects would they use in their portrait? This exercise, as simple as it may be, can help students to think about historiography and how history may be bent to serve the interests of those who make the decisions.

No artist is mentioned for this painting and many others throughout the book, except in a wall of text in the last few pages at the very end of the book (which I expect is an homage to copyright law). Although the textbook is right to help readers interpret the symbolism of the painting and even the symbolic perspective, there is no additional information about the painting beyond the subjects it depicts. There is also no information about why it was made or where it was displayed. Furthermore, one could ask why the crown and other symbols of status are only behind the King. Getting a little in-depth into a painting such as this can help students connect to the time period just that little bit more and feel like they have uncovered something interesting.

Children’s Books in History 12?

Pictures from Twentieth Century History: The World Since 1900

(Tony Howarth. 1979: Longman Group Ltd. Essex U.K.)

Pg. 217: Conclusions in the far east

“The city of Hiroshima after “little boy” had called.”

This was the same History 12 textbook I used in 2008. Two pages of this textbook were dedicated to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only time in history atomic bombs have ever been used on a population. The accompanying image of the disaster of the atomic bomb features a desolate, destroyed town. This picture, without context, could be the result of any of the firebombings of major cities in World War II. There are no distinguishable traits that link it to Hiroshima.  Furthermore, it tells little about the massive suffering of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the dropping of the bomb.

In order for students to better understand the excruciating and fatal effects of the bomb, including third degree burns and radiation sickness that hundreds of thousands suffered, there are many artists’ works available that have touched upon the human side of the subject of the bombings. For example, there is an illustration book by Toshi Makuri available at the Uvic Curriculum Library called “Hiroshima No Pika”. It narrates the tribulations young Mii and her family suffered through after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, with vivid watercolor paintings depicting bodies of the dead, fires, and the suffering people they encounter along their days-long journey to safety. Toshi Makuri’s loose, expressive watercolour paintings with both vibrant and murky hues vividly depict the agony of the suffering people of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the bomb.

Toshi Makuri, along with her husband Iri, spent thirty years creating artful panels depicting different scenes of the Hiroshima bombing for public display. Both partners witnessed the aftermath of “Little Boy” first-hand and vowed to create these panels for remembrance of the event and display a message of world peace to all nations.

Under the shattered structures amidst the excruciating flames.

Parent left child, child left parent,

husband left wife, wife left husband.

Nowhere to escape to.

Figures fleeing in all directions.

This was the Atomic Bomb.

In the midst of this, how eerie–

Mothers’ loving arms shielding their babies from death, dying themselves.

There were oh! so many.

(The Hiroshima Panels XI “MOTHER AND CHILD” 1959)

These artists’ life work displays the human side of the events that occurred that day and will help students see the event from both a historical military perspective and a human perspective. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are just one example of many that articulate how history is not always about black-and-white conflicts.