Working with historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a team of digital artists try to answer that question in a series of updated portraits imagining what historical characters might look like today. Dr. Lipscomb is Senior Lecturer for History at New College for the Humanities and a presenter for the television series “Secret Life of…..” on the British Yesterday channel. I can’t access the series (at least for now), but I’m fascinated by the portraits. Take a look. How might the stylish Queen Elizabeth I present a powerful image in the 21st century? How would Shakespeare present himself today?
I love these portraits as an exercise in imagination, but think about how a similar process could be used to enliven history class. Being able to envision a historical figure transformed can be a fine exercise in analytical thinking and creativity—and an assessment of content knowledge as well. Of course not all your students will be able to create elaborate portraits. But what about asking students to predict how a historical figure in your studies would dress, act, and respond to current trends? If you choose your questions carefully, you can assess students’ understanding of characters’ cultural context and beliefs—all while engaging in metaphorical thinking.
For example, how might Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton present themselves today? How would they look? How would they respond to current political debates? For some students, having the option to create original “portraits” with explanation will make this an assignment to remember, while others can gain the same benefit from an essay—perhaps illustrated with photographs of the types of fashion projected. And students’ projections of the figures’ positions on any question involving balance between state and federal powers will help you gauge their understanding historical debates.
In the end, contemporary/historical portraits bring one more gift—the sense of historical figures as human beings, with dreams, fears, choices, and needs that have parallels in our world today. And what could we want more for budding historians? Of course, if your students give this a try and would like a gallery, I’d love to post their efforts.