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HUM 200 - Applied Humanities

Research and information guide to support the learning objectives of this course.

Researching Historical Context

One of the critical elements for your project is the connection between your chosen artifacts and their historical context. Investigating historical context is one of the main methodologies that art historians use to gain a deeper understanding of the art they are studying. It will also help you gain a deeper understanding of your selected artifacts, as well as help you draw stronger conclusions about how your artifacts express their chosen theme. But, what is historical context, and how do you identify it?

When we talk about an artifact’s historical context, we look at the time and place when the artifact was created, and the political, social, environmental, and cultural aspects of that time and place (Given, 2008). Political aspects might include important changes or events in governments or policies, like war or political unrest, for example. Social aspects might include social conditions like poverty or discrimination, social unrest like protests or movements, and social developments like urbanization or community building. Environmental aspects might mean natural disasters like earthquakes or volcanoes, or more humanity-driven causes like pollution or perhaps habitat restorations. For cultural aspects, look for the movements or influences of groups of people with distinct national or cultural origins, and how those unique cultural expressions may impact the creation of artifacts in that time period.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you start to research the historical context of an artifact:

  • Who created the artifact? What are their background and experiences?
  • When was the artifact produced? How does the time frame connect to other events happening at the time?
  • What political, social, environmental, or cultural aspects may have influenced the artifact’s creator?
  • What common beliefs at the time may have influenced its creation?

As an example, let’s continue looking at the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais This link opens in a new window. Because of the background research you’ve done, you’ve identified that the painting was created in Victorian England in 1852 by Millais, an English painter, and you know some useful information about the creation and inspiration for the painting as well.

A detailed biography of Millais can help fill in the gaps about the political, social, or cultural aspects that influenced Millais, including how his personal or social relationships may have influenced his work and how his work may have influenced people. A biography can also help you understand his methods, techniques, and connections to artistic movements, in this case, the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The Oxford Art Online This link opens in a new window database has these kinds of biographies about many artists, including John Everett Millais This link opens in a new window.

Since you have identified the movement that Millais was a part of (the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood), you can also research more about the aesthetic tradition of Pre-Raphaelite painters, which can also help you gain a clearer sense of Millais’ style, interests, and motivations. You can use the library’s Multi-Search to find more information about the Pre-Raphaelites with a search like these: Pre-Raphaelite This link opens in a new window, or, Pre-Raphaelite AND Millais This link opens in a new window.

You can also use the library’s Multi-Search to find more information about the history of Victorian England, with a search like this one: Victorian England AND history This link opens in a new window. The AND is a Boolean operator that ensures that both keyword terms are found in every result the search engine brings back to you. You can add additional keywords like political, cultural, social, etc. if you want to look at those specific aspects of the time period as well.

It’s important to note that in some cases, you may not be able to find scholarly or credible sources that directly address the key questions you are trying to address in your project. This is especially true if you have chosen a relatively unknown artifact or one that has not attracted much scholarly attention. If this happens, you can take what research you are able to find and apply your critical thinking skills to make inferences and draw your conclusions as you move your project forward.


Given, L. M. (2008). The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412963909