Among the criticism levied against modern education is the alarming decrease in historical literacy. The need to understand history demands us to recall George Santayanas often quoted, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. President Harry Truman, considered the best read president, said similarly, The only thing new under the sun is the history that you have not read.
Finding creative and effective methods to restore historical literacy is paramount to regaining an understanding of the cause and effects of social movements and recognizing landmark dates and eras that have shaped human events and portend the future.
As a significant body of research finds that the juxtaposition of imagery and language significantly increases the command and recall of information, the vast treasury of fine art offers a dynamic tool to enhance historical knowledge. To illustrate the potential of art to both instill and enliven history, consider how the powerfully affecting painting by J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, formerly titled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and DyingTyphon Coming On, 1840, offers a visual narrative that symbolizes the historical opposition to slavery.
Turner portrays a ship in the background of his work, pitching through a ferocious sea of stormy water. Chained human forms toss and struggle in the wild currents, sinking below the violent waves in the paintings foreground. Turners quick, frenzied brush strokes capture the intensity of the event. In measuring the personal effect of this iconic work, Mark Twain observed, to see the natural effects in the lurid explosion of mixed smoke and flame and crimson sunset recoils me. The floating iron chains of manacled hands and arms nakedly exposed the horrors of the slave trade.
Turners painting was inspired by a horrific incident in 1781, when the captain of a slave ship ordered 133 slaves thrown into the churning ocean to gain the insurance funds awarded when slaves, considered property, where lost at sea. Although slavery in Britain had been abolished in 1833, it was still globally widespread, including in the United States. Turners powerful rhetorical image was aimed at stopping this persisting global travesty.
History possesses organic and consequential visual narratives that express the story of humankind. Fresh perspectives are urgently needed to enliven history. Great images vividly capture and boldly imprint impactful events that present telling views of the history that has shaped us.