Scholarship in Action: Undergraduates highlight their Block research at College Art Association conference

Northwestern students share their “Progressive” vision for museum exhibition

On February 14th, 2020, Northwestern University students Meghan Clare Considine, Emily Rose Andrey, Nicholas Liou, and Brianna Heath presented their ongoing research in a poster session at 108th College Art Association Annual Conference. Their poster “Caravans of Gold: Making a Progressive Web App Exhibition on Medieval Tran-Saharan Trade”⁠ gave the world the first glimpse of a digital project they have been working on with peers, the Block Museum of Art, and the Northwestern University Libraries.

Museum seminar offers inspiration

Meghan, Emily, Nicholas and Brianna were among thirteen students to study with Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Block Museum Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs in Spring 2019 in her seminar: Reshaping an Exhibition: Preparing “Caravans of Gold” for Presentation in Africa.

In this class students negotiated the practical and conceptual challenges that arise in reinterpreting an exhibition for different national contexts. The course was centered around The Block Museum’s exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time which included loans from museums and research institutes in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria. While the exhibition would not travel to Africa, the Block Museum was committed to sharing versions of the exhibition’s content with the lending institutions and the individuals in those nations.

Working in teams, the students formulated a curatorial approach, selected key objects, and revised label texts for audiences that may not have the chance to visit the physical exhibition. During the course they advanced the idea of creating a version of the exhibition as a Progressive Web App, a compressed mobile computing format which is able to be accessed remotely and without consistent cell service. The PWA, appearing in Arabic, English, and French aims to provide broad access to the exhibition’s content. The students and the Block Museum have partnered with the Block and the Northwestern Library to write content and code the app which will be released in Spring 2020.

Thinking through Pressing Questions

In their College Art Association presentation the students shared their careful consideration around questions of accessibility, digital translation, and cultural context.

During the process we grappled with pressing questions including: Will digital mediation diminish the affective properties of archaeological fragments and objects? Will user interfaces detract from meaningful comparisons? How might we use this tool to highlight obfuscated narratives, such as those of the many thousands of enslaved individuals who crossed the Sahara during the medieval period? What impact does our position as North American students have on our interpretation of African material culture for African audiences? How can we prioritize ethical strategies of presentation and interpretation?

The implications of undertaking a project of this scope are manifold. We highlight the strategies by which undergraduates found interpretative agency working with an exhibition that had already opened, emerging from a decade’s worth of curatorial research. We detail the challenges that arose while reinterpreting the exhibition into the Progressive Web App’s compressed form. Further, the project coincides with relevant debates around the collection and display of African art in Western museums.

Undergraduate Poster Session

The College Art Association supports those who study, teach, write about, advocate for and/or create art and design. As the preeminent international leadership organization in the visual arts, CAA promotes the understanding of visual art through advocacy, intellectual engagement, and a commitment to the diversity of practices and practitioners.

The Poster Session was one of several events planned for the College Art Association conference to provide new opportunities for undergraduate participation.

The CAA notes, “Undergraduate research—whether part of a faculty-directed project, class-based, or an individual pursuit on the part of a student—is an ideal example of active and engaged learning. Students in art history identify questions, evaluate source material, test ideas and theories, and produce original writing. This poster session was dedicated to presenting outstanding examples of undergraduate research. Submissions were invited from students conducting research such as object and/or medium studies, text-based analysis, experimental archaeology, thesis research, and/or creative inquiry. Students may choose to present findings from ongoing research or from recently completed projects.”


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