The art of teaching


The Education team use many strategies to engage students with the sites and collection we have at Sydney Living Museums. One of them is using artworks. Whether it is an installation like Edge of the Trees at the Museum of Sydney or an artwork on the wall, we find it achieves a number of results.
  • It increases student engagement: when combined with different types of sources, artworks are a powerful vehicle for engaging students in the process of historical inquiry, or finding their own answers to historical questions.
  • Helps students understand different perspectives: artworks can help students to empathise with the different perspectives associated with a historical event.
  • Increase background knowledge and understanding: research suggests that when art is used, students acquire a wider range of background knowledge and become more interested in learning about history.

One popular example, Gordon Syron’s Invasion I – An Aboriginal perspective (1999), displayed at the Museum of Sydney, is a thought-provoking artwork which we use during Contact and Colonisation, a year 7 and 8 program and in Whose Place, a program for Years 3 and 4, both at the Museum of Sydney.

Syron’s contemporary work gives students the opportunity to consider British colonisation from the Aboriginal perspective – ‘invasion’.

Students are first asked to identify features within the work – stars, the moon, Aboriginal people, ships, British flag, water and cliffs. They are then asked to make a judgment as to which scene they think the artist is depicting. Then, the perspective is questioned – who are we standing with? – the Aboriginal people on the shoreline, watching the arrival of the First Fleet.

With the Aboriginal people looking out from the shore, Syron has deliberately chosen a different perspective to the majority of sources that relate to the arrival of the First Fleet. Further questions push the students to consider the title and colour palette. While the title, Invasion I, leaves little room for interpretation, analysing the colour requires a higher degree of critical thinking. If we know from the historical record that this event took place during the day, why, students are asked, do you think Syron has painted this event as if it happened at night? To which students can usually extrapolate that for Aboriginal people this event must have been a bit like a bad dream or a nightmare – which happens at night.

In the course of this program, our time with this source is limited. However, by asking concrete questions and having a scaffolded line of inquiry prepared Invasion I becomes an effective source with which to address contact and colonisation from an Aboriginal perspective.

Painting showing a small boat rowing into the shore from the point of view of the shore. The painting is predominately blue and white with touches of red. It is signed "SYRON" in the lower right corner and dated "1999." in the lower left corner.
Invasion I: an oil painting on Belgian linen stretched on frame. It depicts the arrival of a boat of redcoat soldiers at Port Jackson from an Aboriginal perspective. Museum of Sydney Collection, Sydney Living Museums. © Gordon Syron

About the Author

Portrait of woman.
Naomi Manning
Naomi is passionate about teaching history and has worked in different contexts to do this over the years. Currently she working for Sydney Living...

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