Creating a Virtual Museum of African Art

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A team-based course project challenges students at the University of Kansas to create a web page that contributes to a virtual tour of the Spencer Museum’s African art collection..


- Gitti Salami (2006)

Portfolio Overview

Art of Central Africa investigates the indigenous artistic practices of the peoples of Central Africa. In class I focus on a large corpus of art objects, from ancient remains to material collected during the colonial period to indigenous practices that continue today. The course also deals with performance art, e.g., ritual procedures, festival arts, and masquerades. Aside from the goal that students acquire basic knowledge of the artistic repertoire of the major ethnic groups of Central Africa, the basic enduring learning goal revolves around cultural sensitivity towards an "Other." Students should have no doubt about the necessity to approach artworks of an "Other" through a thorough understanding of the cultural context of artistic production.

The subject matter of the course is quite removed from students' everyday concerns. As a means to spark student's interest and to draw them in, I designed a web project to provide hands-on experiences with artworks and to cater to students' savvy and apparent preference for working with technology.

Students created a web-based virtual museum of African art for the KU Anthropological Research and Cultural Collections. To complete the website project, students worked in groups to conduct in-depth research, read sophisticated scholarship, evaluate scholarly literature, and write scholarly texts. Each student group chose an object from the museum collection. They contacted an expert in the field to acquire verification of the provenance of their object and to solicit gifts of field research photographs and video clips. Students dealt with the museum object hands-on and created a condition report. In addition, they learned technical skills such as photographing the art object in a professional setting and constructing a website from scratch. Finally, they presented their work in front of the class.

In past semesters, I observed that students had difficulty working in groups, struggled with the technical aspects of web design, and felt the project was disconnected from the course. Therefore, during Fall 2006, I refined this project by redefining how groups were formed, eased the technical burden of website deign by providing step-by-step technical instructions, and included previous students' websites in lectures to integrate the project with course material.

Because the website is meant to be viewed by the public, I wanted students to produce A-level work. I therefore taught toward mastery by viewing multiple drafts and scaffolding the project with assignments at several stages. Consequently, the web pages were, for the most part, well researched. However, when I compared student products from before Fall 2006 to those produced when I enacted changes in my course, I found that the changes I made did not result in a higher level of student performance; in fact, web pages seemed to contain less factual background for the objects, and-though technically sound-most pages lacked the level of creativity exhibited by students in previous semesters.

Based on course evaluations, students appreciated the exposure to many aspects of the art history field that they gained while working on this project. Moreover, they responded positively to the idea of situated feedback; that is, the idea that I was not the sole audience or beneficiary of their work. They appreciated and appeared motivated by the fact that they were creating something their classmates and the general public would see and use-not just something a professor would grade. Therefore, I will continue to seek ways that students can produce work for an audience other than myself.

However, the fact that student performance did not improve, combined with comments I received from students on evaluations, has prompted me to re-evaluate my approach to this project and consider future changes. This project may be more successful if I were able to devote more class time to group work; however, that does not currently seem like a feasible option for this class structure. Therefore, I may consider making this project an option for individual students. I also think that by providing students with technical directions, I may have removed some of the challenge that in previous semesters captivated students and increased their investment and creativity in the project.

Course context

Art of Central Africa (pdf) investigates the indigenous artistic practices of the peoples of Central Africa. In class I focus on a large corpus of art objects, anything from beautifully finished wooden carvings to intentionally assembled heaps of unrecognizable stuff; from ancient remains to material collected during the colonial period to indigenous practices that continue today. The course also deals with performance art, e.g., ritual procedures, festival arts, and masquerades.

Art of Central Africa is a 300/500 level course and involves beginning, advanced, and graduate art history students, fine arts majors, and students signed up through the African Studies department. Typically, 70 students enroll. This large, mixed student body presents a challenge: African Studies students often lack the skills for interpreting visual culture, while the art history students typically know less about Africa and are not familiar with the interdisciplinary nature and methodology employed in a non-Western, non-Asian art history course.

Teaching a course on Central Africa presents other challenges, as well. The scholarship on Central African art tends to be in French; it is therefore accessible to few students. In addition, the scholarship on Central African art is often not current because it has been dangerous to conduct recent fieldwork in much of the region. Much of the scholarship still resonates with colonial values and focuses on connoisseurship and classifying objects rather than creating an understanding of the context for artistic production.

Course goals

Aside from the goal that the students acquire the basic knowledge of the artistic repertoire of the major ethnic groups of Central Africa, the basic enduring learning goal revolves around cultural sensitivity towards an “Other.” Students should have no doubt about the necessity to approach artworks of an “Other” through a thorough understanding of the cultural context of artistic production. How does standard (Western-derived) art historical methodology apply to or not apply to artworks made in Africa? What methodologies do African art historians use, and how might these be useful to historians of Western art history? How does an investigation into literature, anthropology, social sciences, economy, or politics provide a basis for cultural understanding?

On a more sophisticated level the course's overriding aim is to investigate how Central African people's basic attitude towards those types of objects and performances, that Western people might label “works of art,” differ substantially from Western ideas about aesthetics. Furthermore, the course asks how alternate models of aesthetics might inform aspects of the Western art world. Can we discern specifically African conceptions of art /aesthetics and specific African models or attitudes towards creativity? How might these enrich the cultural vocabulary of a global art culture? What shifts in the power structure of the art world would have to occur to allow the integration of such concepts?

The subject matter of the course, as well as many of the specific questions addressed during lectures, is quite removed from the students’ everyday concerns. As a means to spark the student’s interest and to draw them in, I designed the web project to provide hands-on experiences with artworks and to cater to the students’ savvy and apparent preference for working with technology.

Website project goals

I chose to focus class around the virtual museum project for three reasons.

  • First, art history courses typically require a research paper as a final project. However, I have found that students don’t often achieve a mastery level of scholarship on their paper topic. Students tend to cite websites without seeking primary literature, and they may never read the instructor’s comments on final versions of the paper. Web-authoring, on the other hand, requires a high level of scholarship. Students must use primary literature and often personally contact a leading scholar. They must seek the most recent information available, as the website will likely serve as a resource for the public.
  • Second, a web-based gallery serves to make the African collections more visible to the public and to other scholars. Thus, students provide a service to KU and the museum by researching and providing background for the art objects.
  • I also believe the website offers students experiences that will inform their career decisions in the field of art history. By exposing them to all phases of the discipline—research, curatorial tasks, and visual presentation—students can make a more informed career choice. In addition, students also learn professional skills such as reading sophisticated texts, researching, writing and editing, along with enhancing their technical know-how in the field through scanning images, assembling a PowerPoint presentation, web authoring, subduing one’s ego during team work, public speaking, and handling museum objects.

Furthermore, the website helps achieve overall course goals by providing a forum where students explore and develop a thorough understanding of the context of the artwork of an “Other.” Students do this by acquiring in-depth knowledge of the repertoire of artworks in the region from which their focus object originated.

Project description

Students created a virtual museum for the KU Anthropological Research and Cultural Collections. Each group picked one object from the African Collection, created a condition report detailing the current state of the object, photographed the object, and created a digital surround image, a map, a formal analysis, a contextual analysis, a description of the culture that produced the object, and a brief report about the national context. All of these files were loaded into a website that students themselves designed and created. For examples of those those photos, see below.

General approach

Because this website is meant to be viewed by the public, students must produce A-level work. I therefore scaffolded this project by requiring several drafts (see below) and set up the project in stages that were reviewed along the way. Students were required to edit each stage of their work based on the instructor's comments. I also provided students with a rubric (pdf) that I used to evaluate written work and their final web product. To better understand the individual’s performance within the group, the quality of students' contribution to the website project was evaluated (see below) by their team members.

First draft with comments

Specific assignments

Students were exposed to every aspect of the profession of art history by completing assignments that scaffolded the final project. During Fall 2006, I met with each team individually on a weekend at the beginning of the semester to help them along and to impress upon them the importance of working on this project throughout the semester. They researched the historical context of particular artworks and learned to navigate various databases. They contacted a scholar (pdf) and learned what kind of interactions with professionals solicit a positive response and what kinds do not. They learned how to handle objects. In the process of working on a condition report and investigating the museum’s catalogue records, they acquired insight into collection management issues, the importance of donors and patrons, and preservation issues. They learned to maneuver the technology with which art historians have to be familiar (scanning images, creating PowerPoint presentations, presenting in public). Because they worked on a live website, they took the quality of their writing more seriously than they otherwise would. Most importantly, they gained confidence in their ability to conduct research.

Team composition

For the website project, the students were divided into teams. When I first implemented team-based projects in my classes on African art, I imitated how people do things in Africa. In most African societies, at least in rural areas, people work cooperatively and democratically. By following this model, I hoped to provide insight into the workings of indigenous societies. To model one aspect of African culture, the eldest member of each student team was automatically assigned a leadership role and was given a veto right. This was difficult for my students—they were not used to having to subjugate themselves to a group’s best interest or to an older, wiser persons’ council. Still, it taught my students the extent to which the notion of respect for elders penetrates everything in African thought.

During the Fall 2006 semester, individuals were assigned to teams on the basis of their availability for meetings outside of scheduled class time. (Through much trial and error I found this to be the single most important factor in creating teams that can actually function properly). Each team chose one of a number of pre-selected artworks from KU’s collection of Central African artworks and created a webpage for that object.

Technical aspects of web project

During previous semesters the technical side of the creation of the website was a bit hap hazard, and the completed webpages required professional revision of background files after the students finished their work. During the Fall 2006 semester I sought out technical help from the outreach coordinator of the general libraries and from a graduate student who had been hired by the Anthropological Research and Cultural Collections to maintain the museum’s other websites. Fall classes started and I created very detailed instructions (pdf) for the students; these provided step-by-step guidelines for streamlined procedures that resulted in a more uniform layout of the various websites and far fewer technical glitches.

Integration of the web site project into course goals

In previous semesters, the website project and lecture period felt like two very separate components of the class. During the Fall 2006 semester I integrated discussion of already existing student webpages into the lecture material, drawing on student-created maps, their photographs of objects, and the contextual information they had found during their investigations. I also tried to bring more social interaction among students into the lecture periods. I did this by assigning some lecture content as readings ahead of class meetings (this took the form of assigned articles and fully annotated PowerPoint presentations) and spending more time in group projects and class discussion during the actual class period. As an example, for one lecture period I had students read and discuss a recently published article which was highly critical of older scholarship on Igbo Mbari houses. During the lecture period, the students were then asked to work in teams to revise my PowerPoint presentation—which was based on the older scholarship—into a presentation based on the new critical viewpoint.

Website products

During previous semesters, the creativity involved in the creation of the webpages was quite astounding (see Best Sites below). Some teams had solicited the help of friends, who were not enrolled in the class, to provide their expertise with drawing, creating music, and/or video samples. Additionally, the webpages were for the most part well researched and designed, although many technical details were overlooked or inconsistent across the class pages. Students appeared invested in the quality of the final project—some students even corrected small mistakes after final exams!

Student performance during the Fall 2006 semester (see below) was surprisingly markedly poorer than during previous semesters. Except for one team, student groups consistently handed work in late and really did not engage in serious research until it was too late to create substantial documents. This lack of enthusiasm is clearly discernable in their websites. Although the Fall 2006 websites were virtually free of technical errors, they were less interesting visually compared to websites from previous semesters.

During earlier semesters students went out of their way to exploit the available technology to its fullest, and some teams created fun profiles of the team members that clearly reflected the students’ pride in their work. During the Fall 2006 semester, only one team worked to achieve that same high level of performance.

Still, numerous students expressed that they enjoyed the complexity of the tasks involved with making the web page. They also expressed appreciation for the degree to which they were exposed to all phases of the profession of art history.

The website as a team project

On a positive note, students enjoyed working together. All of them benefited tremendously from other students’ of their written contributions. Many students made new friends and, in general, students reported that they loved the dynamics of the classroom. Students reported that getting to know their team members helped them feel more secure in the classroom environment and that this created a livelier atmosphere than in most classrooms. One anecdotal measure of success in the class was the fact that students always talked to each other before and after class (compared to the silence among students in other courses!). In fact, I often found it difficult to get the students to settle down at the beginning of class and to suspend their conversations, and likewise, at the end of class, students often stood around in clusters continuing their discussions.

As was to be expected, some students complained a lot about the amount of work and the distribution of work among team members. Team members, with some supervision, divided work amongst themselves based on particular interests, talent, and time management concerns. The division of labor took many different forms. Usually one or two students took on a leadership position, sometimes quite aggressively. Where this happened, other students in the group tended to become more passive. Some students found it nearly impossible to find the time to meet with others outside of scheduled class periods, and others complained about the difficulty of cooperating with peers. But there were just as many positive reports about teams, where team members quickly became very good friends and worked together fruitfully.

Students also complained about being evaluated as a team. They were given a chance at the end of the semester to provide feedback about their own involvement with the project and about their peers’ contributions. These peer evaluations were taken into consideration when a final grade was assigned. Overwhelmingly positive comments about a student’s participation by more than one peer resulted in extra points (half to one full grade) , while consent among team members that a student had done nothing or next to nothing resulted in a reduction of points (half a grade).

The website as service

The virtual gallery arose, in part, in response to a political debate on campus regarding issues such as the importance of the African art collection, accessibility of the collection, and the future of the collection. The student-created websites helped to draw attention to the collection, both on and off campus. At KU, the website helped to demonstrate that the collection was needed for classes and valued by the students. The political issues around the art objects made the students feel that their effort was meaningful and relevant to a world beyond the classroom. Ultimately, in part as a result of the student-created virtual tour of the ethnographic collection, 10,000 objects from Africa, MesoAmerica, Oceania and Native America were taken out of storage and transferred to KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, where they are currently being integrated into displays of what was previously a museum focused exclusively on Euro-American and Asian artworks.

Moreover, my colleagues at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association mentioned having seen the website. And recently, a representative from the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco requested to borrow the Yoruba Dundun drums for an exhibition called “Africa.Dot.Com:  Drums to Digital.” She saw the drums on the website, initiated contact with me, and in her correspondence expressed her appreciation and admiration for the students’ work.

I made a number of changes to the course during the Fall 2006 semester. The virtual gallery of ethnographic artworks was a central focus of the class as in previous semesters, but I altered the ways I prepared the students for the project. For example, I changed the way I formed the groups, I integrated former student-constructed web pages into my lectures, and I provided technical assistance for the gallery project. The lack of improvement in the quality of the web pages has raised questions for me about how to execute this project successfully in the future.

1. How can I better arrange teams and use them effectively as a teaching and learning tool?

Although virtually all of the students provided positive feedback about their website project experience, students still complained about the logistics of a team effort. They found it very difficult to coordinate their schedules. For students carrying a full load of classes this created considerable stress. Students also complained bitterly about the unevenness in terms of various students’ effort. The evaluation process, which was based on the team’s effort—not an individual’s effort—was consistently subject to resentment, and I have yet to find a perfect solution for this problem.

I believe team-based projects like the one I describe here can be meaningful learning tools and the results can be far greater than what can be accomplished by assigning individual research papers. However, I need to reexamine the process of forming groups and assessing individual participation within the group.

In the future, I will have students create the website material on wiki pages first, using Blackboard. This will eliminate time conflicts and allow me to see and evaluate students’ individual contributions. Once all materials are prepared in this manner, they can then easily be transferred to the webpage format.

2. How can I better scaffold to enable a high level of performance and keep students from procrastinating?

Although I had met with each team individually on a weekend at the beginning of the semester to help them along and to impress upon them the importance of working on this project throughout the semester and to meet the deadlines for various components, the class as a whole did not follow through until the very end of the semester. I was probably much too forgiving and did not have grade consequences for late work.

Next time I will enhance the scaffolding assignments in order to keep students responsible across the semester, alleviating the end-of-semester stress and hopefully working toward a high-level product. To accomplish this, I plan to assign grades for various components, rather than just grading the final result.

3. How do I better achieve the balance between offering helpful guidelines and allowing for intellectual challenge and creativity?

In Fall 2006 I provided students with detailed instructions that streamlined the website-building process. I felt I was removing a degree of difficulty from the project in order to allow students to spend more time and energy on the research and design elements. However, I observed the opposite effect: Students produced web pages that were less creative and less researched. The technical challenge of building the webpage appears to be related to the creativity and level of investment students in previous semesters devoted toward the project. Next time I teach the course, I will not provide them with the specific step-by-step guidelines; however, I know that this presents other challenges (see below).

4. How can I make this project more efficient both for me and the students?

As was to be expected, some students complained a lot about the amount of work involved. Student dissatisfaction with the workload was expressed and reflected in their evaluations of the course. This is despite the fact that in Fall 2006 I provided students with detailed instructions that streamlined the website-building process.

Moreover, this project also required substantial amounts of my time and energy. So far, I have worked on the websites with 35 teams of about five students each. Of these 35 teams, only two or three required little supervision. For most of the teams I had to provide the driving energy and often helped facilitate communication among group members.

I believe the project is a valuable learning tool; however, making it more efficient is necessary. One possibility is to assign various components of the website to particular students rather than to the team as a whole; this could potentially cut down on the workload.

5. How can I increase the level of student investment in their work?

Overall, I believe in the importance of a public element of their work which requires students to present products to the class and/or to the general public. Instead of students completing assignments in attempts to please me (i.e. what does she want from me?), public presentation shifts the focus to doing good work so they can share it with their colleagues with pride. In this way, I become just another member of the audience. In the website and in other projects I include in my courses, I will continue to require public (either to the class or a wider audience) presentation of their work so that students have added incentive to produce high-level work.

6. How can I convince students that learning out of class is time well-spent?

Structuring classes around “Enduring Questions” to which there are no definitive answers was generally appreciated by the students. I felt that engaging in backward design—i.e., designing the whole course, specific lectures, exams, and the website project around specific learning goals—also improved my course. However, I required students to actually read material in preparation for classes and held them responsible for the standard two hours of study for each hour in class; consequently, students complained about the workload.

I believe the keys to having students appreciate the work they must complete out of class time are to a) hold them responsible for learning that material and b) consistently provide them feedback on assignments stemming from work outside the classroom. In a course I am currently teaching, I set the tone early for reading outside of class and based assignments on that reading. Now, students seem self motivated by the fact that they are learning a lot and also realizing that challenging themselves intellectually can be fun. I actually had to revamp some of my lectures and bring them to a higher level, because the reading has improved the students’ critical faculties considerably. In light of this, I realize now that not holding students to deadlines or holding them responsible for smaller components of the website project contributed to students not valuing the work they were required to do out of class.

Thus, although I attempted to alter my course in such a way to facilitate student performance, I was surprised to note that my increased instructions lead to less creative or researched final products. I have also become aware of several challenges that I am currently facing within the structure of this course. However, given these challenges, I still feel that the webpage projects are beneficial to the students and to the cultural community at large. Therefore, I am interested in using these challenges as jumping-off points for future semesters.