Collaboration and My Work with the Image of the Black in Western Art

This module focused on the Image of the Black in Western Art, a collection of nearly 25,000 images that is considered to be the authoritative reference on representations of Blackness and Black people in Western Art from antiquity to the present.

For an overview of the topic and project, please see Rebecca’s previous post here.

As a curator, I opt for collaborative work, yet before receiving the Humanities Engage curriculum development grant, I had not had the chance to collaborate on digital curriculum design with an experienced educator. With this opportunity in hand, my faculty mentor Dr. Gretchen Bender welcomed me to create a module for her course, Museums, Societies, and Inclusion, an anchor for the new Museum Studies major within the History of Art and Architecture department. Gretchen helped me refine the learning objectives for this unit and consider how to move from the historical material to a hands-on portion. I had the benefit of seeing how Gretchen incorporates her undergraduate teaching assistants, who are advanced undergraduate veterans of the class. These students assist in the small group discussions, curriculum design, and other aspects of the course. With them, our course team expanded from two to four. 

We structured the module to reach three goals: 1) fit within the existing structure of the course, an especially important concern in online courses where continuity of expectations is paramount; 2) demonstrate the connections between history and the forms of knowledge students and professionals in the field routinely use by incorporating opportunities for metacognitive reflections; and 3) integrate historical context, research, practical skills, and synchronous and nonsynchronous reflection within an entirely digital format by leveraging online delivery as best we can.

Students began the module with a visually rich lecture that I prerecorded. This lecture explained the origins and forms of the Image of the Black in Western Art (IOB). The collection is comprised of photographic reproductions of works of art that feature Black people rather than the objects themselves. This allowed us to examine the nature of a distributed collection and the formats in which we encounter them. These issues are central to discussions of access, equity, and justice that are at the heart of the project and the course. We considered the IOB as a collection that was shaped by particular historical contexts and that has been continuously remade into different forms: an archive spread between the Warburg Institute in London and the Hutchins Center at Harvard, a series of massive hardbound volumes with scholarly essays organized geographically and chronologically, and the digital version of the collection in ArtStor that the student would use for their practicum.

To better understand the nature of the physical forms, I relied on two other collaborators who helped me overcome some of the challenges posed by remote learning. Jackie Lombard (with whom I collaborated to design this project initially and who also received a Humanities Engage grant for another project on the IOB) shared her own photographs of the IOB archives in London she made during a research trip so students could see the organization of this specific archive. Given the pandemic, visiting physical archival collections as a class is out of the question. Jackie’s pictures gave undergraduates a peek into the nature of archives and the mechanics of graduate-level research. Frick Fine Arts Librarian Kate Joranson produced a two-minute video that showcased the grandeur of the books which are heavy tomes packed with exquisite color reproductions. As we couldn’t handle the books themselves, Kate’s evocative video stood in to provide a useful contrast with the art-focused historical portions of my lecture, Jackie’s documentation of the physical archive, and the explorations of the database the students were going to do next.

Digital archives are tricky things to navigate in the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, the IOB in ArtStor is plagued with incomplete metadata compounded by a challenging interface that is “less than user friendly” to borrow one student’s phrase. I modified the quiz function in Canvas (Pitt’s online learning system) to be a guided practicum that helped students identify, consider, and work around these frustrations. Responding to open-ended questions, the students reflected on the value and limitations of the database in terms of access, preservation, design, and utility. The practical skills scaffolded from basic technical knowledge ensuring they could in fact search the database to implementing creative problem solving within the database. After learning the essential features of ArtStor through trial and error, students had to search the collections to propose two objects for a hypothetical exhibition on bodily adornment with a rationale for each. I chose this theme because it could encompass the many interests of Museum Studies students who come from Anthropology, Linguistics, History, and Art History and whose interests fall in nearly all time periods and places. I wanted students to find something that aligned with their own interests to subtly demonstrate that race-specific collections such as the IOB have universal resonances. Students posted images of their proposed objects with their rationales to their small group discussion board, essentially making an impromptu proposed checklist, the basis of any exhibition.

That week, I joined the class’s five small group synchronous meetings to discuss the IOB, their proposed objects, and curatorial practice. The conversations ranged widely based on student interest and preparation. Highlights of these discussions drew out the limitations of the database despite the importance of the collection by comparing this online collection to other online museum experiences they’ve had in the class and in-person museum visits. We discussed the nature of archives and databases in museum work, with the undergraduate TAs and students reflecting on their own experiences in previous internships and other work.

One of the groups was unprepared to have a reflective discussion. Instead, the synchronous time served as a primer on museum work and career paths, curatorial project development from the cycles of idea-to-research and back again, ethical considerations of race as a topic for exhibitions, and the varied collecting standards and practices of natural history and art museums. Though these students weren’t able to dive as deeply as some groups into the nature of the IOB itself, providing a place to ask extremely direct questions demystified the nature of museum work before and during the pandemic. Pivoting from the lesson plan on Zoom initially felt harder than it has in face-to-face encounters, and I wasn’t able to launch to relecturing about the material as I might in a tutorial. I believe it was necessary to acknowledge that this group of students hadn’t watched the lecture or taken the quiz or even known what the IOB was and then deviate from my plans to make the time valuable for these students. I am happy to report that nearly all of these students chose to watch the lecture and complete the unit after our energetic discussion.

Pedagogically, the most valuable lesson for me was recognizing the value in refitting the existing online system to do something that I might not have thought compelling enough to spend time on in a face-to-face class. By creating a practicum through the Quiz function, I was able to design a simulation of real-world museum work in a format that was familiar to the students. This simulation provided a space to reflect on the actual working conditions of the museum and the move to digital collections research methods for curators that the pandemic exacerbates. More than other lectures I have given in museum studies courses on being a curator, the activity cut through the mysteries of exhibition development that remain even as students begin to challenge the received wisdom that the selection of objects on museum walls is a natural consequence of their inherent value. Additionally, identifying early on what I would’ve done face-to-face that I couldn’t do in an online setting (visiting an archive and having browsing time with the books themselves) allowed me to enlist collaborators who helped me develop tools to work around those limitations.

History of Art and Architecture
October 26, 2020

Learn about all the projects from the Curricular Development Opportunity for Ph.D. Students