how to use this site

“Historical understanding is like a vision, or rather like an evocation of images.” This insight by the great historian Johan Huizinga taps the essence of historical inquiry—and it succinctly explains why we have created this website. “Picturing U.S. History” is based on the belief that visual evidence is critical to studying the past. Throughout American history, a vast range of visual media—from paintings and sculpture to cheap prints and cartoons—expressed ideas and opinions, defined identities, documented events and conditions, and were critical components in campaigns, debates, struggles, and movements. Like textual evidence, these historical images provide documentation about the experiences, beliefs, lives, and circumstances that compose history. And, like text, they need to be interrogated and “tested” as evidence.

“Picturing U.S. History” is a resource to assist teachers and students in using visual evidence to learn about the past. This project is the result of a unique interdisciplinary collaboration. Its resources have been created and evaluated by outstanding scholars in the fields of history, art history, American studies, and other humanities disciplines. “Picturing U.S. History” is designed to help users sift through the flood of historical images that fill the Internet to determine their educational use. It’s there to demonstrate how images do more than illustrate or just corroborate what we already know—more than the simple purposes for which they serve in most textbooks or documentaries or websites. And “Picturing U.S. History” is there to assist in making visual evidence more accessible, to help students observe more closely and with a critical eye, and to learn how to locate information and master strategies to evaluate that evidence. In place of specialized jargon, this website offers explanations for technical terms; provides models for using visual evidence to teach and learn about particular historical subjects and eras; evaluates resources in books, exhibitions, and online; and provides answers to practical questions about working with archival images in a range of teaching situations and classroom settings.

To get started, we offer several guiding questions that should be asked by anyone encountering a piece of visual evidence. They may not always have a clear answer, but they are meant to orient the user to closely observe, evaluate, and search out information necessary to understand the significance and meaning of an image, or set of images, in historical context. (A brief animated “primer” highlighting these questions will be posted on “Picturing U.S. History” later this year.)

Look at the image: describe what you see.

What is most important in the image? How did the creator or creators construct the image to emphasize the aspect that you think is most important?

Who created the image? What medium was used (painting, sculpture, drawing, print, photograph, etc.)?

For whom and for what purpose was it created?

How did people originally see the image? For example, was it displayed in an exhibition, published in a periodical, etc.?

And also consider:
—If there are other contemporary images that seem similar or refer to the same subject.
—If the image changed over time and use. Was it later altered, edited, or cropped? Was it later used for purposes different from its original uses?

“Picturing U.S. History” is a prototype—a first phase in a developing online resource. In the best tradition of the new digital medium, it will be shaped in large part by its use and users. We rely on you to inform us about what you find helpful and clear and what you think needs improvement.