The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University is proud to announce the publication of a Teacher’s Guide and a list of Recommended Resources to support educators in teaching about the history of medieval West Africa and its resonances today. The packet, accessible to a non-specialist audience, can be used alongside the touring exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time or independently with online materials. This free collection of activities, lessons, and further readings is intended to support students by helping them:
- Make connections between the past and the present
- Critically examine history
- Shape perceptions of Africa and expand their worldview
The Teacher’s Guide begins and ends with a series of activities to contextualize the Caravans of Gold story and to help students understand what is at stake in learning this history. Individual lessons explore different facets of the story through key objects and case studies. We offer prompts for looking closely at objects, and we share background information that can help teachers and students learn more about medieval trans-Saharan trade. The Recommended Resources document contains resources for extending your exploration.
The legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange has largely been omitted from Western historical narratives and art histories, and certainly from the way that Africa is presented in art museums. Caravans of Gold has been conceived to shine a light on Africa’s pivotal role in world history through the tangible materials that remain.Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Block Museum of Art, Curator of Caravans of Gold
Why teach with Caravans of Gold?
From the beginning, the organizers of Caravans of Gold have been interested in supporting educators in using the exhibition as a resource in their teaching. We believe the following:
Caravans of Gold helps students make connections between the past and the present and expand their worldview.
Our contemporary moment is defined by a rise of global connectivity as well as by entrenched ideas of difference. Using historical objects connected to the trans-Saharan trade, some over 1,000 years old, Caravans of Gold helps us see ways in which West Africa has been connected to far-reaching networks of trade through time, even in the deep past. In reconsidering popular beliefs about the medieval period and about Africa, the exhibition’s content provides a means for understanding the present in new ways.
Caravans of Gold helps students critically examine history.
Caravans of Gold shifts popular narratives of the medieval period—inviting people to expand their perceptions beyond knights and castles—by situating Africa’s Sahara Desert at its center. When seen from the perspective of Europe, the medieval period is commonly framed by the decline of the western Roman Empire between the fifth and seventh century, the emergence of the Renaissance in the fourteenth century, and the Age of Discovery in the mid-fifteenth century. Caravans of Gold asks us to shift our focus. Seen from the perspective of Africa, the medieval period opens with the spread of Islam in the eighth century and recedes with the arrival of Europeans along the continent’s Atlantic Coast at the end of the fifteenth century. This reframing helps students move beyond a Eurocentric view of the Middle Ages and, by extension, to reconsider and push against singular views of any period in world history.
Caravans of Gold can shape perceptions of Africa
This project is designed to shatter preconceived notions about Africa. U.S. students (and, more generally, North Americans) may be aware of only a “single story” of Africa, one that paints a picture of what Africa lacks (key words in this story include impoverished, chaotic, isolated, static, tribal). Caravans of Gold connects students to new, complex stories of the African past that expand and enrich our notions of people living 1000 years ago in Saharan Africa and beyond. The exhibition acknowledges how African states and peoples shaped global networks of exchange and challenges common notions of Africa as a place isolated from world history.
By addressing the history of medieval West Africa and its resonances today, in this guide we aim to encourage students to consider far-reaching and enduring questions such as:
• How do we construct an understanding of the past?
• How does history get written?
• What and whose stories are told in history? What stories are left out?
• How do objects speak to us across time?
• How and why is the past relevant to us today?
• How are people and places around the world connected to one another?
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