‘Caravans of Gold’ app reaches global audience by going small

Multilingual, minimal computing project brings exhibition to African partners and users worldwide

What crosses continents, can travel 13 centuries into the past, and takes up just 10 MB on a smartphone?

The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University has released a free mobile web app designed to share the groundbreaking touring exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time with international audiences.


The Caravans of Gold App is accessible via web browser on computer desktop and iPhone. The App experience is optimized for Android – the primary operating system used on the African continent. Android visitors to the site will be prompted to add the app to their phone home screen.

Developed with a team of Northwestern students and the University Libraries, the app makes use of recent developments in mobile technology and the minimal computing movement to make an online version of the exhibition widely accessible.

Caravans of Gold is a first-of-its kind exhibition that addresses the scope of trans-Saharan trade and the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the eighth to sixteenth centuries. Seeking to upend historical misconceptions and emphasize Africa’s central place in the medieval world, the touring exhibition presents more than 250 artworks and fragments from 32 international collections.

Curated by The Block’s Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the major exhibition includes significant loans from partner museums and institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, including many items that have never been presented in the North America.

The app was created to ensure that global audiences with limited or intermittent access to network bandwidth and mobile data are able to engage with the exhibition.  Presented in English, French, and Arabic, a fully multilingual format offers accessibility to those in the exhibition’s African partner countries and beyond.

“Access to knowledge for all is an equity issue,” says Lisa Corrin, The Block’s Ellen Philips Katz Director.  “The development of this app exemplifies The Block’s commitment to a global perspective, and to equity, core values of our work. The project is designed to take joint scholarship, originally generated through international partnerships, and ensure access by international communities whose shared histories and culture stretch back to the medieval world.” African institutional lenders to the project include:

  • Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Bamako, Mali
  • Institut des hautes études et de recherches islamiques Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu, Mali
  • The Institut des sciences humaines, Bamako, Mali
  • Musée national du Mali, Bamako, Mali
  • Bank Al-Maghrib, Rabat, Morocco
  • The Ministére de la culture et de la communication, Rabat, Morocco
  • Fondation nationale des musées, Rabat, Morocco
  • Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time is a story that could not have been told without the partnership of institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, who lent major artworks and rare archaeological fragments for the exhibition,”notes Kathleen Bickford Berzock.

Block Museum registrar Kristina Bottomley joins colleagues in Mali for packing and shipping loans to Northwestern University for Caravans of Gold exhibition. (Image courtesy Kathleen Bickford Berzock)

“Our African colleagues showed extraordinary commitment and generosity in sharing their cultural heritage with North American audiences. We’ve long been focused on making sure that some version of the exhibition would be shared with the African lending institutions and the audiences they serve.”

“Our African colleagues showed extraordinary commitment and generosity in sharing their cultural heritage with North American audiences.

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, curator of Caravans of Gold

“Working with Northwestern University Libraries and a group of Northwestern undergraduate students we sought innovative ways to capture the spirit of the exhibition while reshaping it for presentation on a mobile device. Among our goals was to ensure the widest possible access and ease of use.  The result is a digital project that attempts to take into account differences in digital access across the world and acknowledges the specific challenges of telling a material history in a digital space.”

Malian archaeologist Mamadou Cissé, a consultant on the project and the chief of the Cultural Mission of Kangaba, praises the way the digital app has preserved the exhibition’s core focus. “The fragments themselves have a lot to tell. Onsite its hard to find whole objects.  We only have the fragments, which show us what the site represented in the past. Putting whole objects alongside fragments in this exhibition helps improve all of our knowledge about what we’ve found.”

At the Intersection of Technology and Equity

Curatorial Graduate Fellow Sara Estrela and 13 Northwestern undergraduates explored curatorial approaches and revised exhibition texts for remote audiences in Berzock’s 2019 spring seminar “Reshaping an Exhibition: Preparing ‘Caravans of Gold’ for Presentation in Africa.”

Emily Rose Andrey, Brianna Heath Meghan Clare Considine, and Nicholas Liou  present their ongoing research on the Progressive Web App in a poster session at 108th College Art Association Annual Conference.   Courtesy Block Museum of Art, Sean Su Photography

During the process, students studied contemporary debates around the collection and display of African art in museums.

“We grappled with pressing questions,” said Nicholas Liou, a student in the course. “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?” [Read: Scholarship in Action: Undergraduates highlight their Block research at College Art Association conference]

How can we prioritize ethical strategies of presentation and interpretation?”

Nicholas Liou, Northwestern WCAS’ 2020

Students worked with Chris Diaz, digital publishing librarian at Northwestern University Libraries, to research digital access capabilities in the exhibition’s partner countries. Intrigued by the challenges of the constraints, Diaz ended up serving as the app’s lead developer.  

Diaz and the students learned that upwards of 70% of audiences in Nigeria and Mali use mobile devices as their primary way to access to the internet as opposed to 50% of US audiences.  Unlike the US, Android operating systems are far more widespread than Apple, used by more than 85% of African populations with mobile devices.  Generally, wifi and mobile networks are more widely available and are 2x to 3x faster in the United States than Northern Africa.

Diaz drew inspiration from the growing minimal computing movement, which challenges developers to utilize the least amount of hardware, software or network capacity to maximize access, decrease obsolescence, and reduce e-waste, Using minimal computing, notes Diaz, “Forces you to ask ‘What do we really need?’ and allows us to create something that will work for specific needs.” To execute the project Diaz employed Google’s open source framework for Progressive Web Apps (PWAs). Created by Google, PWAs offer a standard to make apps available internationally, offering mobile-first interface design, and functional solutions for low-quality networks. 

The resulting digital platform which is only 10.5 MB and does not require an internet connection to use after the initial download.  

When users visit the app for the first time, the files are cached on the device so that they can view the exhibition works and guided tours without additional network requests, making the app usable when the user moves offline or onto an unstable network.

“Together we went way beyond what a library or a museum could typically do on their own,” Diaz said. “As far as I know, this will be the first multilingual, progressive web app built specifically as a minimal computing example.”

Transforming Global Curriculum

More than ten years in the making, The Block museum launched Caravans of Gold with the ambitious vision of transforming teaching around medieval history and inspiring deeper knowledge of Africa’s central place in world history. 

During its 2019, six-month run at The Block Museum, a record-breaking 35,000 guests took in the exhibition, while nearly 60,000 guests visited during its run at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum.  Even higher numbers are expected at the exhibition’s third and final location, The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington DC.

Intended to further expand this reach, the mobile app joins a suite of available Caravans of Gold teaching materials produced by The Block including an exhibition website, a free, downloadable Teacher’s Guide, and a major publication with Princeton University Press.

This project makes visible how Black history is world history. Our goal is to inspire audiences to ask why this important history, these stories, are relatively unknown and untaught.

Lisa Corrin, The Block Ellen Philips Katz Director

“I believe that most teachers want to teach hard, complicated, and overlooked history, but teachers often are not sure how to do so. This exhibit and its professional tools really gave me the confidence and the resources to explore more and push my students,” says Pankaj Sharma, a teacher of Niles North High School.

As these tools find national and international audiences The Block Museum can begin to see ripples of the exhibitions’ transformative impact.  The museum has been contacted by numerous teachers and school districts across the US to consult on resources that can be integrated into history curriculums.

“The legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange and Africa’s world-building role has been removed from our historical narratives and art histories.  It is crucial for these materials to reach audiences widely. At this moment here in the United States we also want to provide resources to support the work of dismantling systemic racism. This project makes visible how Black history is world history. Our goal is to inspire audiences to ask why this important history, these stories, are less known and understudied,” Corrin said.

150 students from Bamako, Mali on a tour Caravans of Gold through a live feed that connected them with the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (Image courtesy Aga Khan Museum)

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