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Issue 203

Knowledge Base

How archival collections are being re-animated via new technologies

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Opinion | 24 APR 19

At a recent British Museum study day concerned with narratives and community engagement in African museums, Paul Basu, professor of anthropology at SOAS, University of London, spoke about his ongoing project ‘Museum Affordances/[Re:]Entanglements’. As part of their research, Basu and his team reconstructed the journeys taken by Northcote W. Thomas, the first anthropologist appointed by the British Colonial Office who, from 1909–15, travelled through the territories that became Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During this time, Thomas produced thousands of photographs and audio recordings of communities in the area, most of which are now held at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, along with many of the objects he collected. One of the aims of Basu’s project is to consider the present-day significance of such objects, something he and his team are doing, for example, through the return of digital copies of original materials to their places and people of origin – in many cases enabling the first encounter between communities and these artefacts of their own histories. As Enotie Ogbebor, an artist and research associate on the project, explained: ‘A lot of people know about their illustrious forebears, but have never seen them.’ Now they are able to do so, thanks to digital prints of delicate glass-plate negatives and audio tracks of recordings originally made on fragile wax cylinders. Some of them document languages unknown to archivists in the UK; they can now be interpreted by people hearing their ancestors’ voices for the first time. 

Community members in Yagala discuss photographs of their village taken by Northcote W. Thomas in 1914. The photographs have been digitized from fragile glass plate negatives and community members are amongst the first to see them in over a century. Courtesy: © Paul Basu/re-entanglements.net 

Although Basu sees his work as a means of ‘liberating collections via digitization’, it often remains object-based, because many of the communities he works with do not have electricity, computers or the internet. Digitization is thus a means to an end and much of the material he brings back to West Africa is relatively low-tech, such as prints on paper and audio tracks that people record on their mobile phones and share. What is important is the knowledge associated with an object, rather than its status as either original or copy, digital or analogue.

Recent debates around collections and archives – such as those about the repatriation of artefacts from European museums to Africa – have mainly been couched in terms of the physical presence and ownership of objects. This limited interpretation risks obscuring the value of objects and documents as repositories and transmitters of knowledge – a value they are likely to retain even when captured in digital form. In some cases, digitization enables additional and new meanings to be gleaned from archives. In June, the University of Connecticut (UConn) will hold a public workshop with historians, academics in the field of digital humanities and curators from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and from the Nuremberg Trials Memorial to evaluate the prototype of ‘Courtroom 600’. An educational project that uses virtual reality and game design to enable people to interact with digitized archival material from the Nuremberg war crimes trials of 1945–46, ‘Courtroom 600’ will later be used by students at UConn and in museums dedicated to Holocaust and human-rights histories. The project is named after the courtroom where the Nuremberg trials took place and it aims to involve learners in discussions about human rights in the past and present. With access to 50,000 digitized depositions, photographs and pieces of evidence from the trials, users take on the role of a fictitious member of the US prosecutorial team to build a case against a specific defendant, interrogating witnesses and participating in legal discovery, testimony and strategy consultation. This project arrives at a time when the far right is gaining traction and public awareness of the Holocaust seems to be waning, with a recent study – commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany – finding that one in five millennials in the US ‘haven’t heard of, or are not sure if they have heard of’ the Holocaust. 

The part played by digitization in both these projects points to the current importance of technology in preserving and disseminating the details of history. Having access to vast databases can also enable new ways of building on the past and perhaps even of departing from what came before. In February 2018, UNESCO announced an international effort to revive the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was devastated during the offensive of 2015 – a protracted battle during which 11,000 civilians were killed and countless buildings were destroyed. ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’ draws on millimetre-precise data gathered in 2015 by the French company ICONEM, whose drones flew over the embattled city to conduct high and low altitude scans, which were then used to create realistic digital 3D models of the city and its monuments, including the 12th-century Great Mosque of al-Nuri.

Members of the bronze casting guild in Benin City's famous Igun Street compare a miniature iron bow and arrow used as a votive offering on their shrine with a photograph of an example collected by N. W. Thomas in 1909 now in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Benin City, Nigeria. © Paul Basu/re-entanglements.net 

The question of reconstruction can be controversial, as Louise Haxthausen, director of the UNESCO Office for Iraq and UNESCO representative to Iraq, alluded to at the launch of the initiative: ‘The more conventional approach to conservation is that authenticity is a key criterion so, if something is destroyed, we cannot reconstruct. That is really changing, and that change started after World War II for some cities. Warsaw is a very good example, where a decision was made to reconstruct.’ In Mosul, the data gathered by ICONEM’s drones provides a detailed plan that could be used for an exact copy of the city. However, reconstruction that privileges authenticity above all else may not be the optimal solution, especially if it is done at the expense of society’s current needs. For Haxthausen, the goal is a reconstruction process that also fosters sustainable development, social cohesion and reconciliation between communities in the renewed city.

Speaking at the British Museum, Basu described museums as ‘collections of people and relationships, mediated through objects’. This is significantly different from the traditional view of the museum as a building in which collections of objects are stored and exhibited. ‘Courtroom 600’ and ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’ place similar emphasis on the centrality of people and sustainable relationships to their projects. The primacy of the original object, and the imperative to preserve it, are foundational principles of cultural heritage. Nevertheless, they are increasingly challenged by nascent paradigms, which find that collections need to be dispersed – through the use of digital technologies, for example. And as paradigms continue to shift, there is a pressing need to examine – and perhaps even to overturn – conventions around authenticity and originality that no longer serve the community. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Back And Forward’

Main image: Northcote W. Thomas's photograph of the gate that once marked the entrance to Idunmwowina, superimposed on the scene as it appears today. Courtesy: © Paul Basu/re-entaglements.net 

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.