I’m a huge believer in the power of visuals to encourage critical thinking and to support long-term retention. As social studies teachers we need to do a better job of finding ways to integrate visuals such as art and propaganda posters into our instructor.

Stuck for ideas and resources?

Try the Smithsonian.

Recent online articles from the Smithsonian focus on posters from World War One and artwork created by illustrators sent France by the US military. Great contextual background stuff and the images themselves:

The government didn’t have time to waste while its citizens made up their minds about joining the fight. How could ordinary Americans be convinced to participate in the war “Over There,” as one of the most popular songs of the era described it?

Illustrators produced some indelible images, including one of the most iconic American images ever made: James Montgomery Flagg’s stern image of Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer above the words, “I Want You for U.S. Army.” The illustrators used advertising strategies and graphic design to engage the casual passerby and elicit emotional responses. How could you avoid the pointing finger of Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty? How could you stand by and do nothing when you saw starving children and a (fictional) attack on New York City?“

Posters sold the war,” said David H. Mihaly, the curator of graphic arts and social history at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, where 55 of these posters will go on view August 2. “These posters inspired you to enlist, to pick up the flag and support your country. They made you in some cases fear an enemy or created a fear you didn’t know you had. Nations needed to convince their citizens that this war was just, and we needed to participate and not sit and watch.”

wwwi prop poster

“Art and war are old companions.” The United States government proved that nearly a century ago when it commissioned eight artists to go to war. Armed with sketchpads, charcoals, pastels and little to no military training, the artists embedded with the American Expeditionary Forces and sketched everything from rolling tanks to portraits of German prisoners. The War Department coordinated the program in the hopes that the artists could provide a historical record and galvanize support for the war.

wwwI artwork

The posters and artwork that occupy the articles provide you with some incredible resources for sourcing, contextualizing, and identifying bias. Use Smithsonian lesson plans and primary source strategies to take full advantage.

I’ve written about a few other Smithsonian strategies that focus specifically on art and images here and here.

And if you’re looking for more on World War One, make plans to attend the KCHE / MOCHE WWI conference next month, September 25 – 26 at the World War One Museum in Kansas City.