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

Students and Library collaborate on The Block Museum’s multilingual, minimal computing app

View of the Caravans of Gold smartphone app

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

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

Developed with the University Libraries and a team of Northwestern students, 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 to anyone with a cellphone, with or without reliable Wi-Fi.

“This app arrived at just the right time.” said Mamadou Cisse, Malian archaeologist, chief of the Cultural Mission of Kangaba and a consultant on the project. “It is a period marked by low public attendance at museums across Africa due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The mobile app was first envisioned during the Spring 2019 undergraduate seminar “Reshaping an Exhibition: Preparing ‘Caravans of Gold’ for Presentation in Africa.” The course was taught by exhibition curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock and The Block’s 2019 curatorial graduate fellow Sarah Estrela.

Students WEBStudents from Berzock’s 2019 spring seminar L to R: Emily Rose Andrey, Brianna Heath, Meghan Clare Considine and Nicholas Liou. Image: Block Museum of Art, Sean Su Photography

The 13 students taking the class negotiated the practical and conceptual challenges that arise in reinterpreting an exhibition for different cultural contexts as well as a different format.

Working in teams, the students formulated a revised curatorial approach, selected key objects, and revised informative texts for remote audiences, most of whom would not have the chance to visit the physical exhibition.

The class recognized the complexities of their project, studying contemporary debates around the collection and display of African art in museums.

 “During the process 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?”

The 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. 

Read more about research and development of the app in the Stories from the Block blog.

Caravans app gify

Inspired by 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, Diaz used Google’s open source framework for Progressive Web Apps (PWAs).

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

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.”

Presented in English, French, and Arabic, a fully multilingual format offers accessibility to those in the exhibition’s African partner countries.

“Access to knowledge for all is an equity issue,” said 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. “

“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 extraordinary artworks and archaeological fragments for the exhibition,” Berzock said.

“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.”

Related Stories:

Northwestern Shines a light on Medieval Africa as a cultural force
Opening Day Celebration for 'Caravans of Gold' sets a new attendance record

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