Lenses – Multiple Perspectives on Historical Events

Lesson Name: Lenses – Multiple Perspectives on Historical Events

Primary Museum Pedagogy: Narrativity

Course Title and Description: A lower level history course that covers one event or theme, ie. the Civil War or Industrialization.

Lesson Overview: Students will write a story based on a painting or image and rooted in historical fact that details how one individual or group viewed an event in contrast to another. To do so, students will synthesis readings and primary source material from a single unit, identifying the multiple perspectives surrounding a historical event or theme. This activity serves to nuance their understanding the historical moment and bring un/derrepresented voices into the narrative.


  • Creative Writing
  • Empathy
  • Synthesizing primary and secondary source material
  • Making and supporting arguments

Pedagogical Considerations

  • This activity can serve as an end-of-unit synthesis in place of a more formal exam.
  • For this lesson to be effective, students must explore a variety of source material surrounding a particular historical theme or time period. This activity can be differentiated for different learning levels based on the number of sources analyzed, as higher level students can be tasked with locating their own source material to support their claims. Additionally, the instructor can either identify the art at the center of this activity or task students with doing so. Either way, the artwork should contain multiple people to ensure numerous perspectives can be identified and explored.
  • If the students are permitted to choose the image, a trip to a local art museum might be a productive pairing to this activity.
  • Students can work in groups or individually, depending on the preference of the instructor. If the students work in groups, the instructor should further consider how the students’ works should connect with one another. The final product can be either a joint deliverable based on a single perspective or a series of deliverables about the same image.
  • This activity involves a level of imaginative creation and creative writing. For this reason, students should submit rough drafts or outlines before completing their final projects.
  • This activity can be done without additional sources, as the core of the activity is the identification and development of an individual perspective and the analysis of conflicting perspectives.

Content Objectives:

  • Students will go in depth into a historical theme or event using a variety of primary and secondary source material.
  • Students will practice close reading artwork.
  • Students will gain an understanding of how history is a collection of stories, each one specific to the historical actors but connected to the greater whole. Additionally, students will better understand how gaps in our history can and should raise questions about the narratives being passed down.
  • When identifying a perspective, students must understand why. Why does this individual feel this way? What has shaped their worldview? Students will make an argument and support it through facts and historical trends.


This activity is rooted in the topic of the course. The below activity structure will imagine a course on African American history and a unit on post-Civil War Reconstruction (1865 – 1877) and use appropriate source material.

  • Selected Readings from:
  • Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Leon F. Litwack
  • A Short History of Reconstruction, Eric Foner
  • The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South, Bruce Levine
  • Documenting the American South: Jonkonnu, Jankunu, Junkanoo, Reorienting North Carolina’s Practice in the American Mediterranean, M.E. Lasseterhttp://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/features/essays/johnkonnu-1/
  • Documenting the American South: The Slave Experience of the Holidayshttp://docsouth.unc.edu/highlights/holidays.html

Note: These sources are merely suggestions associated with the paintings context. Ideally, the sources are read during the course of the class as a group. Thus, they provide the building blocks for a story, the narrative/perspective drawn from the individuals in the image.


As a Class:

  1. Identify a piece of artwork that connects to African American experience post-Civil War. In this case, Winslow Homer’s Dressing for the Carnival. This image painting depicts the Fourth of July in Virginia, 1877. Students will hone on on the day the painting was made and explore the perspectives of the individuals at that time.
  2. Analyze the painting. Some aspects to pull out:
    1. Think of who: who is in the image; what: what is happening; when: when was the painting created; where: where is the action taking place; why: why is the action happening?
    2. Elements of the African tradition of Jonkonnu can be seen, including the costume and dance.
    3. There are nine individuals pictured, some in costume, others in everyday clothing. Students should take into account the possible perspectives not pictured, including white onlookers.
    4. Some are adults, some are children.
    5. Some hold American flags.
    6. Etc.


  1. Choose one individual and further examine them in relation to everyone else. Ask questions and begin generating that individuals possible perspective on the event at hand.
    1. I.e. the young girl standing off to the left side
      1. Why is she standing away from the group?
      2. What does she think of the costumes?
      3. What does she think of the flags, including the one in her hand?
      4. She was born into freedom. Does that influence her ideas about Jonkonnu?
    2. I.e. the man in costume
      1. What does he feel about the costume he’s wearing?
      2. Is it old or was it made specifically for the holiday?
      3. Are the children his or neighbor children?
      4. Was he born into slavery? If so, how does that affect his interpretation of this holiday and the American flags?
      5. Are there white individuals in close proximity watching? If so, does it make the man feel proud of self conscious?
  2. Using your imagination, begin to answer the questions you ask.
  3. Using source material, begin to support your answers with source material.
    1. For instance, the young girl was born into freedom because the event is taking place in 1877 and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued 15 years previous (Litwack, xx).
    2. The young girl is confused by the costume because Jonkonnu is traditionally associated with Christmas, not the Fourth of July (Lasseter, xx).
    3. The man is incredibly proud of his costume. He was born into slavery, and in the past holidays were significant because they were reminders of the lack of freedom and inability to practice one’s religion faithfully (The Slave Experience).
  4. Combine the answers to the questions in a two-three page story that details the individual’s perspective of the specific event. Students should have at least 10 citations, minimum of one per source.