Student Reflections: #1: Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War

Beaverbrook Art GalleryNovember 8, 20160 Comments

Randi's Reflections: #1: Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War

These student reflections have been written by Randi, a high school student undertaking a co-op program at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Her writing offers an insider’s view of the Gallery from a high school student’s perspective, and examines the exhibitions and programs being presented at the Gallery during her term.


Any student who is invested in learning about the First World War could benefit from visiting Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Wars are extremely impactful events in our history as human beings and it's important for us to be aware of its consequences. On top of that, having an understanding of how we personally feel about the concept of war is valuable so we can proceed as a generation to a better future. A tour of the Witness exhibition can provide a real sense of the human emotion that was present during that time.

The paintings in Witness are more personal, and make it easier to see the human experience. There are two sides to learning, from what I've experienced as a full time student (now a senior in high school). First of all, there are the cold hard facts; the textbooks and the numbers. Dates and events that are to be memorized for tests. Second, there's the more inter-connective side of things. Specifically; how you relate to human experiences, how you see the world personally, and how subject matter affects you.  In class, we often don't spend much time exploring the emotional experiences of the people affected by events in history. Therefore, there really isn't much space to contemplate your own connection with such events.  Knowing the facts about technology, geography, and policy during a time period can be valuable, but we should also be spending time getting acquainted with how any big historical event impacted the people of its time and what we think of it.

In class we are taught to dissect photos and text to figure out the most information about a historical event. Those very same skills could be applied in an art gallery setting, where the subject matter is accessible and varied and great consideration has been given to the aesthetic qualities of the works. You can interpret and gain so much information from a painting; you just need to know how to look at it.

  • In art, there is room to make a personal connection to the events of history. What does it mean to you? How might you have reacted to the same events in the paintings?
  • How do the depictions of war make you feel? Where do you stand on war itself? What do you think the artists were feeling? Why?
  • What does the art express about the time period? What differences do we notice in technology? Are there differences in protocol in relation to how we handle situations in our lives?

Personal connections are valuable and necessary for students to truly care about something, in school more than anything. Art makes it possible for human and personal connection to be made. Think about how amazing it is to be able to connect with someone from another era entirely. Though we advance in technology and ideals as a collective, some things get carried on through the ages; a sense of humor, a way of goofing off with each other, and a determination to survive. We are changing, yet as people, our nature stays the same.

When a student experiences a genuine connection with something, you'll no doubt be able to see the difference in their work and their performance in class. While some might find it easiest to work with the textbook examples given in class, we should also be giving equal access to history represented in the gallery for the students with a stronger visual learning style.


Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War is a travelling exhibition developed by the Canadian War Museum. It is supported by National Presenting Sponsor TD Bank Group. The exhibition is on view at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery through January 15, 2017. You can read more about it here.

This blog post has been created independently of the organizers/sponsors of this exhibition, and reflects the views of our co-op student.

Leave a Comment