Understanding Culture through Arts Integration

4 Min Read  • Arts Integration

When you think about teaching fine arts, does your mind go to an archaeological museum? How about a nature park? However, we depend on art to connect modern culture to ancient and historical cultures… Especially when teaching about archaeology and the stories artifacts tell about people in the past. Archaeology is a very abstract subject to share with learners of all ages. But using primary documents such as paintings, drawings, and hands-on recreation of cultural materials, students can begin to understand the context that archaeologists are trying to explain through their careful research.

Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum

Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is the Maryland State Museum of Archaeology. Unlike art museums, the “museum” spans most of the park’s 560 acres. A wealth of archaeological information spreads across the landscape and is interpreted to the public through signs and exhibits (both inside and out). Given the setting of the outdoor classroom environment and the abstract subject of archaeology, we can use art to help build connections… Not only to other cultures, but to develop learners’ appreciation of archaeology.

Our 6th grade student visitors uncover archaeology through experimental methods of replicating tasks using tools and resources accessible to people over 500 years ago, before European Colonists. To prepare students to “time travel,” the program relies on primary resource paintings from John White (1577-1590). The work of John White, an English artist and cartographer, depicts a culture other than his own.

Visual Aids

White’s etic perspective is not an exact depiction of the accounts with the Native people in the Chesapeake Bay region. However, it does provide a visual aid to help 6th graders have a context for the artifacts observed. By using these pictures, students lead the lesson by asking compelling questions that develop from the careful observation of these images. Questions pertaining to clothing customs, food resources, house design, social organizations, and more come out of this exercise. The images are used to help establish background knowledge about the culture we study throughout the day. Learners are able to use these images, along with the recreation Indian Village to help that traveling back in time concept.

Examples of John White watercolor paintings courtesy of  http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/jamestown.html

Another way to help understand cultural differences is to submerge students in the environment of the culture of interest. One way we do this is through the use of the replica Indian Village and “experimental archaeology” approach. In particular, students tend to question the housing design in the village… “Why didn’t they just make brick homes?” “Couldn’t they have used mud?” “Why did they make mats instead of building houses out of bark?”

Primitive Tools

We give them the opportunity to try out using the natural resources available 500 years ago. We also allow them to use the technology (like stone tools) that we know were being used at this time from archaeological evidence. The 6th graders learn how to weave mats to cover the housing frame using locally collected reeds. Through this process, the discussion of value evolves and helps reinforce that the definition of value may vary by culture.

Student learning to weave cattail mats

We review art and discuss the context of it. We also experiment with physically recreating crafts (such as mats and pottery). Why? Because it allows students to grasp onto a tangible piece of history that archaeological remains does not otherwise represent because of the loss of organic materials. The understanding for the craftsmanship connected to the culture helps students appreciate the context of archaeological remains and for prehistoric groups. These remains are the very few tangible materials we have of large groups of people. When left in context, archaeologists can use the pieces remaining from these cultures. They help us better understand the history represented by paintings and outsiders’ records of interactions.

With this background information, students are able to develop stories from shreds of the past in the final activity. Students identify the artifacts and working as a team, develop a story using the artifacts as evidence. While there are some artistic liberties exercised in this story-telling, the basis of the story is rooted in the evidence provided by the artifacts. Through the integration of arts into this social studies curriculum, these students are able to take an abstract field of study and make it into a very concrete and tangible learning experience.