Heritage Minutes and Canadian History

Heritage Minutes and Canadian History

Canadians of my generation learned their key moments in Canadian history via short television commercial segments produced by what is now Historica Canada. Known as Heritage Minutes, these short films were sent to schools, made available on tape, DVD, and online, and played during commercial breaks. They taught students and television viewers of all ages what was important in the history of our nation. The segments produced memorable catch phrases (such as the classic, ‘Doctor, I smell burnt toast!’) and have sparked numerous parodies over the years (the Rick Mercer Report‘s are always a favourite). Continue reading

More Maps: On the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London

There I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side end of the bridge…. So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’d baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish-street already.  So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire…. Having staid, and in an horu’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire.

-Samuel Pepys


Hollar’s Great Fire of London Maps – source credit: British Library

Three hundred fifty years ago this month, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the medieval city.  Here we have the panoramic views of London created by Prague-born artist and cartographer Wenceslaus Hollar.  As the British Library describes, Hollar copied a view of London that he had completed in the 1640s to illustrate London before the fire, and used knowledge gained from his official work mapping the damage to create the scene of destruction.  Zooming in on the image, we can see the flattened and destroyed buildings, and St. Paul’s with its roof caved in just as described in Pepys’ famous account of the Great Fire.

Walked thence, and saw all the towne burned, and a miserable sight of Paul’s church, with all the roofs fallen, and the body of the quire fallen into St. Fayth’s; Paul’s school also, Ludgate, and Fleet-street, my father’s house, and the church, and a good part of the Temple the like.

-Samuel Pepys

Interesting, the British Library discusses how the panoramic view of London from the south across the Thames was a traditional depiction by artists and cartographers since the 1540s, lasting until the mid-19th century when aerial views became the more common depiction.


Hollar’s Map of London, 1667 – source credit: wikimedia commons

Hollar also created this overhead view of London.  We can see the footprint of St Paul’s, and the place the fire started on Pudding Lane near London Bridge (where the monument to the Great Fire is now).  Hollar moved to England in 1637 and stayed in London until 1642, when he left for Antwerp.  He returned to England in 1652 and lived there until his death in 1677.  He was extremely productive, creating about 2700 etchings during his life.

Here is a digital collections of Hollar’s works from the University of Toronto and prints by Hollar at the British Museum.  Here is his page on Google Arts and Culture.


Wren’s Plan for Rebuilding London – source credit: British Library

Christopher Wren’s plans for rebuilding the city after the fire, one of the first proposals to be submitted, utilized Hollar’s panoramic views to highlight suggested changes to the medieval city – with buildings plotted in orderly fashion, wide avenues, and open piazzas.  Wren’s plans were never used, but he was of course able to make his mark on the rebuilt cityscape.

Round up of sources on the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London:

We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it.

-Samuel Pepys

More Maps: Matthew Paris’ Great Britain

Earlier this summer I looked at using maps as primary sources for class as a way to generate discussion and highlight worldviews of the time periods and cultures in which the maps were created.  One of my favorite maps, and one that would be an excellent source in British History courses, is Matthew Paris’ Map of Great Britain, produced in 1250.  This map is now in the British Library.


Matthew Paris, Map of Britain (1250) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Not only is the map visually appealing, particularly in its use of color, drawings of miniature battlements and city walls, and ability to seize the imagination, it is also the oldest surviving map to show such a high level of detail and accuracy.  Over 250 places are identified on the map, with Scotland clearly set apart by Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall.  I particularly enjoy the depiction of the Firths of Forth and Clyde sharply cutting through Scotland to almost meet.  Scotia and Wallia (with an elaborate Mount “Snaudun”) are identified by name, along with areas such as Devonia and Sufolck. The side bars identify the nearest land in each direction.  London, in the bottom center of the map, appears to have all roads leading to it (notice how the towns line up above it) along with a snake-like Thames.

We can see that the land depicted on the map is distorted, but even with this it was still extremely accurate for its time.  As the British Library site describes, Paris’ depiction was likely based on both travelers’ accounts and Ptolemy’s geography.

Matthew Paris was a monk at St. Alban’s Abbey in England, where he lived all of his adult life.  He was an historian, writer of chronicles, and artist.  Paris drew four maps of Britain, of which this is the most detailed.

Just think about the Hereford Mappa Mundi from my previous maps post.  As Simon Garfield emphasizes in On the Map, Matthew Paris created his map of Great Britain about fifty years before the mappa mundi was produced, making Paris truly stand out as a unique mapmaker of his time.

Using Maps as Primary Sources for Class: Windows to Historical Worldviews


15th Century rendering of Ptolemy’s Map of the World – photo credit: wikimedia commons

One of my favorite sources to spark discussion in class, especially in courses like the Atlantic World, British Empire, and American history, are historic maps.  What can maps tell us about how people at the time perceived the world around them?  What did the maps prioritize in their depictions of the world?  Who created them and what knowledge did they draw upon?  How did these views change over time?  One of the big benefits to using maps is that they are easily comparable between time periods for students.  And they allow students to easily grasp just how huge of an impact the era of explorations had on European conceptions of the world around them.


Babylonian Clay Tablet with Map, ca. 600-550 BC, now in the British Museum – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Another benefit of using maps as a basis for class discussion is that it makes clear to students that people in Columbus’s time did not believe that the world was flat (this seems to be a recurring misconception).

Claudius Ptolemy produced his descriptive atlas in Alexandria in the 2nd century, which was still considered one of the best sources for knowledge of world geography by the 15th century.  His atlas consisted of a huge list of descriptive coordinates for cities and other known locations, which were then interpreted by mapmakers as seen in the map at the top of the page.  As can be seen, Africa and India are distorted, the Mediterranean is overly large and depicted at the center of the map, and the areas within Greece and the Roman Empire are the most accurate.  Ptolemy also tended to fill empty spaces on the map with “theoretical conceptions,” rather than leaving unknown areas blank.

After the Library at Alexandria was destroyed, there was little advancement in cartography from the time of Ptolemy.  Medieval maps tended to place Jerusalem at the center of the known world, and represented both geographical knowledge of the physical route to Jerusalem as well as a symbolic route for salvation.  The Hereford Mappa Mundi, created ca. 1300 and housed at the Hereford Cathedral, is a T-O map with Jerusalem at the center, the East at the top, and Britain and Ireland on the bottom left.  Along with cities and towns, the map depicts Biblical events, plants and animals, fantastical creatures, and classical mythology.


Hereford Mappa Mundi – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Another one of the most notable medieval maps was that created in 1450 by the Venetian monk and cartographer, Fra Mauro (who also has a region of the moon named after him, where Apollo 13 was supposed to land).  His map was considered the most detailed and accurate of its time, including Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic.  And you can see that he oriented the map with the South at the top.


Fra Mauro Map, now at the Museo Correr in Venice – photo credit: wikimedia commons

And finally, we have the 1507 map created by Martin Waldseemüller, the first map to label the newly-discovered continent in the western hemisphere “America.”  This map includes knowledge about the coasts of Africa and India from recent explorations and discoveries, and includes a large ocean to the east of Asia: a very early depiction of the Pacific.  But the aspect which students are most responsive to is the narrow strip of land encompassing all that was known at the time about North and South America.  You can see the detailed east coast and Caribbean, and the hazier depiction of land to the west.


Waldseemüller Map, Universalis Cosmographia, now housed in the Library of Congress – photo credit: Library of Congress

Obviously there are many more historical maps that could be used as examples.  But overall, I can’t say enough about how well students respond to maps such as these as the basis for jump-starting class discussion, having students make discoveries that you might not have noticed yourself, and, even if this might all seem rather perfunctory, I find them very fun discussions both as an instructor and for students to help understand how Europeans of different eras envisaged the world around them.

  • See also: Simon Garfield, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (New York: Gotham, 2013).

Illustrating History with Piktochart and Pinterest

Pinterest is a great resource for capturing, organising, and sharing visual information and related links to websites, blogs, and online databases. It contains countless arts and crafts ideas, recipes for making gorgeous food, kids party ideas, beautiful wedding dresses, and images of home decor to aspire to. Online retailers and bloggers embrace Pinterest and incorporate the “Pin” button into their posts, encouraging their visitors to share what they’ve found to Pinterest’s ever-growing collection in the hopes of reaching new audiences and selling more products. And it’s easy to use.

Pinterest has another important (but seriously underused) function: it allows historians and teachers to share visually appealing images — specifically infographics, but also digitised photographs and historical sources — and provide brief text captions to share with countless others via Pinterest’s platform.

My Quick Intro to Pinterest: In Pinterest, everyone has their own page (like a home page) with their own boards (picture virtual bulletin boards, each with a theme you’ve chosen). You can search for specific items using the search bar or scroll through Pinterest’s suggestions that are tailored to every user’s stated interests and recent pins. Pins are images that have a web link attached and usually some accompanying text, either an explanation of the pin, or a comment on the pin. Pinning is the act of adding a pin to one of your boards. Once someone has added a pin to Pinterest, others are then able to click on it to enlarge it, “Like it” by clicking the heart symbol, “Pin it” to one of their own boards, or share it with others in or outside of Pinterest. You are also able to see other people’s boards, including friends from other social media sites, but everyone also has the ability to make some or all of their boards “private.”

Lots of us take photographs in the process of our work, such as of a new source or information, a library, our surroundings, a statue or monument, a plaque, or a historical site or building. We can also scan and share print sources (provided that you have the right to copy or digitise the item), images of books we’re reading, and even document an entire research trip in photographs. Add the ease of taking digital photographs now that so many of us have cameras on our phones and there’s no reason to snap a picture here and there in our work.

Like Instagram, Pinterest makes it easy to upload and share images, but Pinterest connects these images to explanatory text and commentary, allows for and encourages the pinning of infographics, and includes a vital link to a website for more information.

An infographic is a visual representation of information. We see them all the time, such as in charts, graphs, and some posters. They work particularly well for data that includes numbers, such as statistics, dates, and quantities. And that’s where Piktochart comes in. Piktochart is a website that allows users to use and modify various templates (or design their own from scratch) to present information in an interesting and visually-pleasing manner. It’s free to use if you don’t mind there being a watermark at the bottom of the finished product. It’s also fairly user-friendly if you take some time to walk through the tutorials and work from one of their templates.

The big question is, how can we as historians harness Pinterest, Piktochart, and the infographic?

We can use it to share our research, inform others, and grow interest and awareness.

To start, try searching Pinterest using broad search terms such as “history”, “British history”, “slavery”, etc. to see what’s already out there. Not on Pinterest? Google “history infographics” and you’ll be amazed and inspired.

By searching for “slavery” on Pinterest, for example, I found some excellent infographics drawing attention to the shockingly high rates of modern slavery around the world and some interesting timelines of the abolition of new world slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, which I pinned onto one of my boards. Each pin has an accompanying website for more information, some of which I wouldn’t have come across otherwise, and therefore the pin acted as a promotion of someone’s research or site. Then I started thinking about what information I would want to share, and of those ideas which I might be able to represent graphically. I knew that I wanted to share some of the stats from Isles Abroad’s first month, so I chose a template from Piktochart and in the space of about an hour (from signing up to downloading the finishing product), came up with the following infographic:

isles-abroad-feb-2016 (1)

Now that it’s online, anyone can share it to Pinterest and, if any Pinterest users are interested enough to click on the link, it will direct them back here. In the near future I want to develop an infographic showing a timeline of the slavery debates, so over the next while I’ll be jotting down dates and notes with an infographic and corresponding blog post in mind. But the data on an infographic can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Just remember to think about 1) what you want to share, 2) who you want to see it, 3) why you want to use an infographic, and 4) what do you want people to get out of it.