Teaching History in 100 Objects - Cassandra

Recently the British Museum put out a call for objects for a project called 'Teaching History in 100 Objects'. This project aims to support teaching of the new history curriculum by creating a set of free, high quality online resources based on museum objects. The British Museum will be showcasing many objects from museums across the UK in order to showcase the potential of local and regional collections in supporting students’ learning.

We jumped at the chance to submit an object for consideration, and had a lot of trouble choosing just one - William's ceramics can teach us a lot about Iznik and Middle Eastern design, as well as the Victorian obsession with exotic creatures. Evelyn's paintings span the centuries, from ancient Greek myths to symbolic depictions of World War I. In the end, we settled on one painting, Cassandra, and our Education volunteer Sarah compiled a compelling application explaining how this single painting can span so many parts of the History curriculum. Read on for her explanation of the painting and its wealth of learning potential...


"The story of the Trojan War is one that has captivated generations. From its origins as Greek myth that taught of the destruction caused by the Gods’ meddling in the lives of mankind, to today’s ongoing questioning of the possibility Troy was real. The telling and retelling of The Trojan War, both as story and scientific investigation is a brilliant one to support the new History National Curriculum, which demands that children as young as KS1 can grasp the idea of the passing of time and the influence of one historical era on the next.

The myth itself is a thrilling tale of deceit, love, revenge and war. Eris, the Goddess of Strife and discord threw a golden apple addressed to the ‘fairest’ into a party of the Gods. Zeus sent Athena, Goddess of War, Hera the Queen of the Gods and Aphrodite, Goddess of Beauty and Love, to Paris, the son of Priam, the King of Troy, for him to judge. The Goddesses each offered him glory, but it was the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world that persuaded Paris to choose Aphrodite as the fairest and he handed her the golden apple.

True to her word, Aphrodite made Helen, the most beautiful of all the women, fall in love with Paris. Unfortunately, she was the wife of Menelaus, whose brother Agamemnon was the king of the Greek city of Mycenae. When Paris and Helen ran away to Troy together, Agamemnon led his troops to Troy and besieged the city for ten years as punishment for what Paris had done.

After a long, fruitless war the Greeks finally overthrew the Trojans with the Trojan Horse. This large wooden horse was built by the Greeks who hid their best army inside it and then pretended to sail away from Troy. Thinking they had won the long war, the Trojans celebrated by bringing the horse into their city. As they wheeled it through the city gates, the Greeks burst from it and destroyed the city, thus ending the war and the city.

This terrible and brutal end to a long-fought war can be seen in the background of this 1898 oil painting by Evelyn De Morgan. The true horror of the fight that De Morgan has chosen to depict, however, is the peril of Cassandra. A daughter of Priam, the King of Troy, Cassandra was served the great misfortune of enormous beauty and being loved by Apollo. She would not give in to his advances, even when he promised her the gift of prophecy. She took the gift, but would not succumb to Apollo, and so he twisted the gift so that her accurate prophecies would always be ignored.

Cassandra warned of the fall of Troy. She told the Trojans of their downfall and warned them not to lead the great horse in to the city. Her utter frustration and suffering is evident in De Morgan’s painting of her, as Troy burns, behind her just as she had foretold.

Pupils studying History at KS1 must learn the basics of what they will go on to study later in their academic careers. Learning the epic story of Troy is a fabulous way to engage the children with Greek Mythology, and using an object so easily readable, yet visually stimulating is an excellent way to introduce the myth. In addition, pupils can be taught that this painting was made in 1898, at the end of the Victorian period, much later than the myths. They can begin to see similarities and differences across time.

By KS2, pupils must study Ancient Greece and also an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066. Teaching pupils the legacy of Greek culture, art, architecture and literature on later periods in British history is easily achieved through this painting. As De Morgan was embarking on her painting career around 1870, archaeological exploration and discovery by the archaeologists Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann, in Hissarlik in modern-day Turkey, led to a widespread interest in the possibility of Troy being real. This renewed excitement led to a great interest in the late-19th century of Greek arts and architecture, which may be a reason for De Morgan’s subject choice.

Another reason for De Morgan choosing this subject could have been the torment of Cassandra. Cassandra is made to pay for being beautiful with the curse of nobody listening to her. It is eerily reflective of the struggles faced by women at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as they campaigned against objectification by men and for their own voice to be heard through the international campaign for Women’s 

Suffrage. Evelyn De Morgan was lucky, in her lifetime, to be educated and be free to follow an artistic career. She knew this and was an active campaigner for Women’s Suffrage. She has placed Cassandra, troubled and tormented, at the centre of the composition of her painting. She is telling of the fall of a nation because of the ignorance of women; it is really quite profound.

KS3 pupils must learn about the challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world, 1901 to the present day.Women’s suffrage is a hugely important aspect of this, which is easily taught through De Morgan’s practice.

Ultimately, the passing of time and the placing of British history within world history can be overwhelming ideas to grasp. Using a vivid aesthetic starting point to tell a story that has lasted Millennia, is a particularly strong one. The fact this piece is both a primary source in itself, showing off the late-Victorian interest in Greek mythology in painting, and a secondary source, which depicts the ancient story of Cassandra, can help pupils to understand the depth of world history and the links between British and world history."


Emma Coleman, Museum Officer