Abigail Lewis: Teaching European History through Pictures

2018 - Abby Lewis Mosse CourseWith support from the George L. Mosse Program in History, I had the privilege of lecturing a history course entitled “Picturing History.” The lectureship allows for graduate students to craft a lecture course completely of their own design and encourages lecturers to develop a more creative approach to their pedagogy. Picturing History focused on discussing overarching themes and historical developments in Europe from the invention of photography in 1839 to the media representations of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. The course examined the ways that visual culture and images have influenced European culture, collective memory, and helped create new interpretations of history. We looked at how revolutions, from the Paris Commune to the fall of the Berlin Wall, were staged, documented, and observed. We discussed the ways that Europeans saw and came to understand themes including science, urbanization, race, and gender through representation. We examined the link between representation and changing conceptions of identity and cultural revolutions. This course’s focus on visual culture was two-fold; we explored how images shaped historical events and cultural identity, as well as images’ continued influence on our own interpretations of the past.

My motivation for teaching “Picturing History” stemmed not just from my own academic fascination with the power of images and photographic documentation, but also from the contemporary persistence of such questions in our own society. The importance of the production of images and their cultural afterlives has become especially clear in recent debates regarding the removal of Confederate monuments across the United States. But, as the course examined, such interaction with images, including monuments, reflects not just a sometimes problematic past, but also the present moment. Broadly conceived, a focus on images allowed students to think about intersections and collisions between European pasts and presents.

One pedagogical goal in teaching the course was to make this history visible and tangible for students. In each lecture and discussion, I sought to challenge students to analyze different forms of visual culture and media as primary sources to interpret the past, including news media, photographs, propaganda, postcards, revolutionary posters, the construction and destruction of monuments, museums, and film. As a class, we also questioned how such images shaped the events that we discussed. For example, what impact did photography have on perceptions of World War II across Europe and in the US? How did colonial fairs, anthropological photography, and advertising shape ideas of the colonies and race? The Mosse Lectureship allowed me to develop a course that put emphasis on a different set of historical sources, events, and historical actors than in a standard European history survey course.

Throughout the course of the semester, students conducted small research projects and curated mini-online exhibits using Omeka, a digital platform for building exhibits. One of the big goals in the course was not just to teach students about visual literacy and how to use images to interpret history; I also wanted to help students learn how to conduct small research projects and how to use their display to raise historical questions. As a student, I became obsessed with history when it became tangible, sitting in old libraries and archives holding remnants of the past. I wanted students to see history in this way at an earlier point in their undergraduate careers.

While the historical discipline has begun increasingly to embrace digital humanities as a central piece of both pedagogy and research, the ability to raise questions about the past, to conduct research, and curate digital projects are skills important for any field that students go into after graduating. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we have access to extensive archival visual sources, between the Special Collections of Memorial Library, UW Archives, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Chazen Art Museum, just to name a few. In addition, students can now make use of many digital archives housed by libraries including the United States Holocaust Museum and the Library of Congress. For our course, students built skills in navigating local archives and digital databases.

Throughout the semester, students’ range of interests paralleled our own discussions regarding the link between the past and the present. One project on the now destroyed Chateau Miranda in Belgium researched the history of the Chateau from a royal residence in the 19th century, to its rebranding as the “Chateau Noisy,” a children’s hospital following World War II, and its destruction in 2017. The project also examined the role that Urban Explorers, people who document historic and decaying buildings, and digital photography have played in preserving the building’s history.

Many compared propaganda to try to understand political conflicts from a more nuanced perspective. For example, one project explored the “forgotten” role that US charity organizations played in the USSR after World War I through the Cold War. This student analyzed American and Soviet propaganda both from the typical Cold War lens and from charity organizations to understand how the US and USSR looked at each other in ways that went beyond mere enmity. Another student examined both communist and fascist propaganda from the interwar period to get at the shared social conditions in the Europe to which each political movement responded.

Lastly, several projects involved exploring more personal histories. One student, whose family had lived in St. Petersburg under the Soviet Union, examined the visual record of the Siege of Leningrad, the longest siege of World War II. She found not only that these images were critical to the Soviet memory of the Great Patriotic War, but that these photographs also memorialized the experiences of those in Leningrad. Interestingly, she found in many photos that the people of Leningrad often rallied to save imperial monuments and buildings. Another student analyzed different Holocaust memorial spaces throughout Eastern Europe, using archival photos and her own experiences visiting these spaces. She argued that each memorial used different visual languages in reflection of the particular victims and memories to which they spoke.

What students enjoyed about the course was that it made history visible. Each lecture and research project showed what historical events looked like, while also interrogating the images as historical sources. On a trip to Special Collections students got to touch, examine up close, and photograph visual artifacts of the very moments we had discussed in class. Yet, at the end of the course, students were also excited with the final digital outcomes of their projects. More so than just writing a research paper, using Omeka forced the students to think about presentation: in what order did they want to show their sources? What sources, among many, did they want to highlight? What visual story did they want to tell? As a digital platform, Omeka allowed students to think like historians and curators, from crafting research questions, to conducting research, and finally creating their exhibits for the class, while also honing digital presentation, critical thinking, and writing skills essential to any profession today.

Student History 223 Projects:

Chateau Miranda

The Siege of Leningrad

Forgotten Friendship

Europe Between the World Wars

An Analysis of German Guilt following the World Wars

Following their Footsteps

Thanks to the George L. Mosse Program, I was able to experiment with different ways of teaching European history and with new digital tools for engaging students. The Mosse Teaching Fellowship is a valuable experience for all graduate students to develop their own teaching styles and to gain experience teaching their own courses before entering the job market. I’d also like to thank Stan Sher, whose generous donation makes the Mosse Lectureship possible, Robin Rider at Special Collections, who gave my students an orientation of their visual archives, and Steel Wagstaff at L&S Learning and Support Services for helping me navigate Omeka.

Abigail Lewis, 2018Abigail Lewis is a historian of Modern Europe and Modern France. Her research focuses on collective memory and visual culture of World War II, the Vichy Regime, and the postwar in France. Her dissertation, “The Collaborationist Eye,” examines the role of photography and photographers in occupied France and for the Vichy Regime during World War II. Her research explores the ambivalent contribution of photographers and their photographs in supporting and subverting propaganda and state power during the German occupation of France. Furthermore, her dissertation traces the ways that these occupation photographs in the postwar years shaped French collective memory, helped to bring collaborators to justice, and provoked debates regarding collaboration and resistance. Her work has been generously funded by the George L. Mosse Program, a Chateaubriand Fellowship, the Société des Professeurs Français et Francophones d’Amérique, the Mellon Foundation, UW-Madison Center for Jewish Studies, the UW-Madison Institute for Regional and International Studies, and the Graduate School.

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