‘Caravans of Gold’ app allows global audience to learn about medieval Africa

‘Caravans of Gold’ app allows global audience to learn about medieval Africa

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The groundbreaking touring exhibition “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” can now be accessed through a new free app.

The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University has released a mobile web app which to make an online version of the exhibition widely accessible. “Caravans of Gold” is a first-of-its-kind exhibition that highlights West Africa’s global reach in the 8th to 16th centuries. By exploring the impact of Saharan trade routes on a medieval economy fueled by gold, the exhibition upends historical misconceptions and demonstrates Africa’s central place in the medieval world.

Curated by The Block’s Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the major exhibition includes extraordinary loans from partner museums and institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, including many items that have never been presented in the North America. The African loans are displayed among artworks and material remains from 32 international collections, providing visual evidence of a vast global trade system.

The exhibition began at The Block Museum, then moved to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, and is now at its final location, The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. The app is a Progressive Web Application (essentially a website with app features) so that it can be installed on a phone and used offline. It was created to ensure that global audiences with limited or intermittent access to network bandwidth and mobile data can engage with the exhibition. Presented in English, French and Arabic, the multilingual format offers accessibility to those in the exhibition’s African partner countries and beyond.

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

Malian archaeologist Mamadou Cisse, one of the scholar advisors for the project and the chief of the Cultural Mission of Kangaba, said the digital app succeeds in preserving the exhibition’s core focus.

“The fragments themselves have a lot to tell. On an archaeological site it’s hard to find whole objects. We only have the fragments, which show us what the site represented in the past. By putting whole objects alongside fragments in this exhibition helps to improve our knowledge about what we’ve found,” Cisse said. “This app arrived at just the right time. It is a period marked by low public attendance at museums across Africa due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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.

“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,” says Lisa Corrin, The Block’s Ellen Philips Katz Director. “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 relatively unknown and untaught.”

See also our podcast episode on Medieval Africa at the Aga Khan Museum

Top Image: ‘Caravans of Gold’ app viewed on a smartphone. Image courtesy of Chris Diaz, digital publishing librarian at Northwestern University Libraries

Watch the video: Topic - Trans-Saharan Trade Routes (July 2022).


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