Decades Mural Project

Students will create murals about the events and trends of a decade of the twentieth century


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Creative Thinking: Creativity and Innovation


Students will learn how to use primary sources, and work in groups to create murals about the events and trends of a decade of the twentieth century. Students will focus their research on a specific category relating to the culture of that decade, and then depict their findings in their murals.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Learn about different types of primary sources, and how to use them for research and project development
  • Refine writing, research, and cooperative skills
  • Work in groups to create murals depicting major events and trends of each decade of the twentieth century
  • Develop an awareness of how visual arts can record history and represent cultural changes

Teaching Approach

Arts Inclusion

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Information Organization
  • Discovery Learning
  • Research

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Internet Access
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers may want to review the following websites before beginning the lesson:

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should have a basic understanding of what a mural is.

Students should have a basic familiarity with the events of the twentieth century.

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab


  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


  • Test internet connection
  • Rip poster paper into sections (unless you’re using individual pieces of posterboard)
  • Divide up art supplies

Accessibility Notes

ELL students should be encouraged to include references to the events of the twentieth century in their native countries.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Introduce students to the concept of primary sources - original documentation that serves as a record of historical events and trends. Examples range from printed materials (letters, diaries, interviews, newspapers, speeches, and oral histories) to objects (artifacts, tools, inventions, uniforms, fashion and clothing) to images (photographs, fine art, film, and video) to audio recordings (oral histories, interviews, speeches)Primary Sources on the Web contains good explanations, examples of sources, and many tips on searching for digitally - available primary sources. Primary sources expose students to multiple perspectives on many issues of the past and present, and greatly assist in students developing critical and analytic skills as they learn to dialogue and interpret.

2. Lead a class discussion beginning with the following prompts:

  • Each decade of the 20th century had its own distinctive culture, with specific political events (both world and national), famous people, trends, and discoveries. Ask students how they might research and use primary sources to create a visual art mural.
  • Discuss with students how a mural, indeed all of the visual arts, can be a significant way to record history and represent cultural changes.

3. Explain to students that they will break into small groups; each group will decide on a decade, from the 1920s - 1990s, to research, and then create a mural representing a specific category. Students may choose from the categories listed on the Decades Mural Student Reference Sheet located within the Resource Carousel.

Categories include:

  • Culture (trends/developments in dance, literature, music, theater, visual arts)
  • People (U.S. presidents, world leaders, sports figures, artists, musicians)
  • Political Events (elections, government, recessions/depressions, revolutions, wars, assassinations)
  • Science (concepts, discoveries, experiments, scientists)
  • Style (clothing, fads, food, modes of transportation)
  • Technology (inventions which made life easier)

4. Have students explore American Cultural History: The Twentieth Century, an excellent online resource about each decade of the 20th century. The fads and fashions, art and architecture, music, political events, and many key facts for each decade are contained in the Web site. As they explore the site, groups should choose one category for their research and mural.

Build Knowledge

1. Distribute Using Primary Sources handout located within the Resource Carousel to students. Have each group of students "free associate" specific objects and images with people, events, concepts, etc. from each decade. Some examples could be: a flapper dress from the 1920s, a photograph of a famous Abstract Expressionist painting, or a picture of an airplane from the 1950s, when domestic airplane passenger service began, or a video recording of a famous political speech from the 1980s. What is the meaning of each object? How might an object communicate meaning and symbolism?

You may wish to have students discuss this project with their family; family collections and archives may provide a rich source of objects and photographs from the past. Encourage students to bring in objects or images that represent the decade they are researching. Discuss with students how these items are in fact primary sources. Have students use the handout as a guide as they continue to research both in class and for homework. Students may also bring in books from the public library or from their homes to use for research.

2. Have students, working in their groups, discuss how to visually communicate the symbolism of these historical objects and images. At this point, have the groups begin sketching the ideas for their murals in pencil only. Encourage students to discuss and potentially integrate into their design a variety of materials and objects, including fabric, copies of sheet music, etc. Each group may incorporate some photographs or computer-printed images if they choose, but the mural must also include drawing and painting. If you have access to computers with good quality printers, you may wish to show students how to find images on the web. One good source is the image search on Google.


1. Allow students to work on mural sketches. You may wish to play music representative of each decade while students work. Circulate the room, offering feedback and guidance, encouraging students to develop concepts that look promising. Each group should turn in a final draft of their sketch. Be sure to provide comments and feedback.

2. Each group should transfer their final sketch to large white poster paper, and begin to sketch in the design (particularly where objects or photographic images will be placed) and details like lettering. Once the outline has been transferred to the poster, students should begin to incorporate color, using tempera paint, colored pencils and chalk, or markers. Remind students that they must use elements such as shape, form rhythm, and contrast to communicate the symbolism that each part of their mural embodies. Encourage students to use peer review in their groups as they refine and complete their mural.


1. Each group will present their mural, accompanied by a Mural Summary that includes the following: the cultural category depicted; the objects used and/or represented, and their symbolism; and what their historical significance is. Have the class give constructive, positive feedback about the historical content of each group’s mural.

2. Once the murals are complete and have been presented, students will write a Student Reflection in which they respond to the following question: In what ways do you think visual history (e.g.: murals, paintings, sculptures, etc.) is an effective way to not only record but also interpret and analyze historic events? Do you think a visual record of history is more or less effective than a written record of history? Why or why not?


Assess the student's work using the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.


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The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

Karon Pease
Original Writer


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