Even before virtual instruction and social distancing became our new normal, this class was not an ordinary one. Our class, Atlantic Travelers, sought to approach the early modern Atlantic from the perspective of a diverse set of travelers who repeatedly navigated the Atlantic from the age of conquests to the Age of Revolutions. To accomplish our goal, we embarked on the collective endeavor of creating an online museum exhibition that would highlight the lives, times and travails of our Atlantic travelers. It was each student’s job to write a museum label about a specific Atlantic traveler. Thus, in class, we brainstormed to decide which Atlantic travelers to research and feature. We wanted an eclectic group of travelers to showcase the incredible range of people who crossed the Atlantic during the early modern period.
The curators at work in a brainstorming session in McGraw 215.
After each student selected a traveler, the first stop on our voyage was to visit and tour exhibitions at the Johnson Museum of Art on Cornell’s campus. Guided by Leah Sweet, the museum’s curatorial coordinator for academic programs, we took note of the various texts that accompanied the artwork in the exhibitions. Through our observations, we began to identify key elements in exhibit labels, thinking about ways of incorporating them into our own online exhibit. During our tour we spent time analyzing Agostino Brunias’s View of Roseau Valley, Island of Dominica, showing Africans, Carib Indians, and Creole Planters and David Bailly’s Vanitas. These paintings were not only relevant to our coursework because they were painted during the historical period we were studying, but also because the succinct and informative texts that accompanied them offered useful models to think about our own labels. We learned, through observing these paintings, that the artwork should speak for itself, and the complementary texts should briefly support the painting and provide educational context.
Left: Agostino Brunias, View of Roseau Valley, Island of Dominica, showing Africans, Carib Indians, and Creole Planters. Right: David Bailly, Vanitas. Images from Johnson Museum of Art.
While reflecting on the information gained from the Johnson Museum of Art trip, we then traveled to Uris Library on Cornell’s Campus to further our investigation of our Atlantic travelers. With the help of research librarian Virginia Cole, we learned about the various early Modern Atlantic history resources that Cornell’s libraries offer. These resources ranged from online bibliographies to primary sources that included letters and personal documents. By utilizing these sources, we were able to discover unique and thorough accounts about our Atlantic travelers and incorporate these details into our labels about their trajectories.
Library research session led by librarian Virginia Cole.
Unfortunately, a global pandemic disrupted our lives and destroyed our ability to continue working on our online museum exhibition together, in class, on campus. However, we smoothly transitioned to virtual instruction, continuing to meet through Zoom twice a week, and proceeded with our exhibition. We all took individualized approaches as to how to continue developing content for our Atlantic travelers. Some of us began by creating an interactive Google map depicting our travelers’ journey, while others began writing labels for their travelers. Despite our varied approaches, we are confident that we were able to uncover the incredible life stories of men and women of the early Atlantic world and are grateful to those who helped us in our curatorial process.
The curators in one of our last zoom meetings before the exhibition's opening.