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Visual Literacy: World History Matters

Wendy Eagan

Walt Whitman High School

    This column is dedicated to alerting educators to intriguing new academic sources and possibilities for helping students analyze history from the images men and women have produced over the last 5,000 years. The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has launched World History Matters, a portal on the web for high school and college teachers to "further their understanding of the complex nature of world history" ( Those especially interested in visual literacy will find several opportunities to view visual sources and actually listen to scholars on topics ranging from cartography, material objects, newspapers, and official documents. Easily accessible to students as well, this is a great resource for all world history instructors. 1
    In this column, I will concentrate on two sections of the World History Sources at the site. Eight guides are available in Unpacking Evidence which "emphasize non-textual sources and promote the use of evidence to deal with cultural contact and globalization" ( Eight multimedia models from historians in Analyzing Documents include flash movies and audio components (
    Joni Seager, Professor of Geography at the University of Vermont, reminds us that we can make one of the "oldest forms of non-verbal communication" ( even at our kitchen table while we try to describe our place in the neighborhood to a friend. She provides excellent definitions of maps, explanations for reading maps, formal elements of cartography, and a variety of map images from 6th century BCE Babylonia to 18th century CE China. She also provides a sample analysis of maps. You can then listen to Gerald Danzer, Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and watch as he demonstrates what happens when you move the center of a world map 90 degrees east, or turn the map upside down to show the water hemisphere at the "top" of the image ( He goes on to tell the story about John Smith and Powhatan and the maps they made for each other in 17th century Virginia, demonstrating for teachers and students alike the point of view inherent in each map. Indeed, if you're interested in incorporating more geography into your course, these two scholars give many more engaging ideas.
    Digging through your wallet for a quarter or gazing at the mosaics in Hagia Sophia are ways to link material culture in the form of objects to historical inquiry. Daniel Waugh, who teaches in three departments at the University of Washington, defines these as "items with physical substance" which "are primarily shaped or produced by human action" ( He describes questions to ponder when analyzing 5,000 year old combs, metal trays from Syria, knives from left-handed users, drinking cups fashioned from animal horns, and an heirloom hand-woven carpet. Art Historian Lawrence Butler was a college student "baffled by the aesthetics of Byzantine architecture," yet now as a scholar he points out the "heavenly metaphor inherent in the design" of Hagia Sophia ( Beautiful photographs and floor plans accompany this flash video so we can see what we hear as he describes the complexity and poetry of the building. Both scholars lead us to reconsider the objects we see around us in each day as future historical evidence. 4
    Photographs of a wooden printing press c.1690-1700 from Prague, a reproduction of the front page La Nacion which covered the death of Eva Peron on July 26, 1952, and the illustrated masthead of the Times of India in 2004 all highlight the significance of the newspaper we look for each morning. Anne Rubenstein, Associate Professor of History at York University, details the basic and contextual information, factual and non-factual material, and news and entertainment that historians must sift through in the daily news ( She traces the development of the modern newspaper, the impact of the publisher, the kinds of readers, the comparative coverage by competitors, and the languages used in various editions. A fascinating series of 18th century French engravings underscore the revolutionary points of view presented in newspapers during an interview with Jack Censer, Professor of History at George Mason University. He informs us that there were two ways newspapers were read at the time, in "reading rooms in the back of bookstores," and by subscription those who could afford it ( Since most students only see the newspaper from their own town or city, these two sections offer a wonderful opportunity to understand newspapers in their global and historical context.
    Who is the author of your driver's license, your IRS form, or the framed marriage license passed down through generations? David Trask, Professor of History at Guilford Technical Community College, discusses official documents such as "government reports and laws, press releases, diplomatic communication, and local policy statements" which may be "authorless" ( Students are often asked to review the provisions of treaties, or interpret juridical decisions, and this section offers guidance to the varieties of official documents, their creation, the historical context in which they were created, their intended audience, and the impact of the documents. Sample images include a map showing the missile range during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the declassified response made by JFK to a Radio Moscow announcement in 1962. Most Americans know about the U.S. Bill of Rights, but Dina Khoury, Professor of History at George Washington University, tells us about the "proclamations issued by the Ottoman government in the name of the Sultan" to give "equality to all Ottoman citizens" ( As we listen to her explanation we can see images of Sultan Abdul Mezid, several maps showing changes in the extent of the Empire, and photographs of soldiers, merchants and the Ministry of Justice. These scholars offer us the chance to make the necessary comparisons and connections between citizens and governments all over the world. 6
    Please consider the many uses you can make of this significant website once you have spent time navigating it in detail. Much more awaits the visitor than can be briefly described in this column. You will be glad you did. It is a helpful and exciting new addition to world history instruction. 7

Biographical Note: Wendy Eagan teaches world history at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.

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