Think Like a Historian: Introduction to the Halifax Explosion

Visual Primary Sources Visual primary sources, like photographs and sketches, can be valuable and rich pieces of evidence about the past. Visual evidence can reveal clues that historians are unable to find elsewhere. For example, visual evidence can give us details about clothing styles, daily life and architecture, or it can capture moments from significant events. Visual evidence can also be analyzed as a representation of a particular moment in the past. For instance, a recruitment poster from the First World War might tell us not only how soldiers were persuaded to enlist, but also reveal attitudes about gender roles at the time. For more information, see The Memory Project: A Guide to Primary Sources on the Education Portal. Our understanding of the past is shaped in large part by the primary-source evidence that has been saved and shared through time. This means that when evidence from the past goes missing, is thrown away, or is not publicly accessible (in museums or archives), the voices contained in that evidence are silenced. 1. Working in pairs, take stock of the individual perspectives that you have explored so far. Have a brainstorm discussion about the following questions: • Whose voices are represented? Consider age, gender, class, ethnicity, nationality and religion. • Whose voices are missing? Why are these voices often absent from historical records? • Whose voices would be helpful to create a more complete picture? 2. As a class, have a discussion about whose perspectives are missing. Why do you think this is? How can we try to get at absent perspectives? Teacher Tip: You may want to prompt students to consider the different ways in which voices are left out, including how different cultural groups preserve their histories, how literacy can affect written records, and how a museum or other heritage organizations decide what enters their collections. Imagine the history curriculum is being rewritten, and you have been asked to weigh in on whether an event should be included. 1. In a small group, discuss the historical significance of the Explosion based on your research thus far. 2. Use the Historical Significance Criteria [see below] to record your findings. 3. Decide as a group whether, or to what extent, the Explosion should be included in the curriculum. Is it a significant event just for Haligonians? For people from Nova Scotia? For the Maritimes? All of Canada? The rest of the world? Make recommendations, and provide evidence to support your reasoning. 4. As a class, vote on whether the Explosion is significant enough to be studied in your province or territory. Historical Significance Criteria Prominence: Was it recognized as significant when it happened? Consequences: How significant was the impact? Revealing: What does it reveal about the larger historical context or current issues? 3 WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION IN CANADA’S HISTORY? SHOULD IT BE INCLUDED IN THE K-12 SOCIAL STUDIES CURRICULUM IN EVERY PROVINCE AND TERRITORY ACROSS CANADA? 7. THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION Should We Study the Halifax Explosion? 6. SUMMATIVE: A Debating Visual Evidence As photographic technology evolved in the early 20th century, cameras became a more accessible way to capture a moment in time — with the perception of recording reality. Photographic postcards of the Explosion were widely circulated after the disaster, but some newspapers — like the Canadian Courier — believed sketches evoked more feeling: “...because the Artist felt what he saw he flung down his impressions in quick, nervous lines and splashes more eloquent than the accurate lines of any camera, at a time when the eyes and ears and the very brains of people were in a State of Chaos in a City of Wrecks.” Newspapers were the primary source of information for Canadians at this time. Lismer’s drawings, in the context of this article, played a role in shaping the public perceptions of what those who lived through the disaster experienced. 1. As a class, debate whether sketches or photographs are more useful to understand the Explosion? Which is more reliable? Why? 2. Alternatively, discuss the strengths and limitations of using visual evidence — like sketches or photographs — as opposed to textual primary accounts (like letters). 3 Adapted from ‘“Considering Significance”, The Critical Thinking Consortium, pdf/T3_pdfs/EHT_TheGreatestHits.pdf Teacher Tip: Refer to The Memory Project: A Guide to Primary Sources for more info about the strengths and limitations of visual primary source evidence. 6. SUMMATIVE: B Missing Perspectives “Relief Station at Old Green Lantern”, sketch by Arthur Lismer in Stanley K. Smith, The Drama of a City: The Story of Stricken Halifax , 1918 (courtesy Baldwin Collection/Toronto Reference Library). Damage caused by the Halifax Explosion at the north end of Campbell Road (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-003625B).