The Soweto '76 Archive: Virtual Heritage, Human Rights & Social Justice in the New South Africa

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Angel Nieves

    Hamilton College

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The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities
(MITH) and the Hector Pieterson Memorial
& Museum (HPMM) propose a transatlantic digital
collaboration to create the Cultural Heritage Platform,
an extensible web interface and toolset for the detailed
study and conservation of historic resources. We further
propose an extensive technical training and support program
for curators and staff at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg;
The District Six Museum, Cape Town; Red
Location, Port Elizabeth; and Kliptown, Johannesburg,
enabling them to populate the digital archive with content
from their collections. This joint effort would create
a core “digital cultural heritage trail” that could be further
extended to other related South African museums
and that would allow students, teachers, and the general
public from anywhere in the world to explore digital
recreations of some of the most important places in the
struggle against Apartheid. This paper will focus on the
development of a digital archive, Soweto ’76, currently
being built at the Maryland Institute for Technology in
the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland
in collaboration with the Hector Pieterson Memorial &
The Soweto ’76 project began in early 2006 as a collaboration
between the Maryland Institute for Technology in
the Humanities (MITH) and the Hector Pieterson Memorial
& Museum (HPMM), Johannesburg, South Africa.
The initial scope of the project included the digitization
and preservation of the archival collections of the Museum
with the intention of providing on-line access to its
holdings for broad public use. Due to a lack of available
resources for their care and preservation, these holdings
were considered endangered, and the MITH project team
began the process of digitizing them in 2006. By early
2007 the team determined that the material in the archive
could be best presented in an interactive 3D virtual environment
with social networking functionality. Such an
environment would stimulate critical historical thinking
by raising questions about the nature and construction of
historical narratives in newly developing democracies.
In addition, the online archive would make the materials
in it broadly available to scholars interested in doing
research on the history of Soweto and the student
movement against Apartheid. Currently Soweto ’76 is
completing the digitization of its holdings including
oral history interviews, video interviews, historic photographs,
commemorative memorabilia, maps, and other
material artifacts. A collection of over 200 South African
newspaper articles from the period 1976-1980 have also
been digitized and transcribed as part of the archive. The
project staff has recently started the process of “tagging”
(that is, describing) text, image, video, and audio files
from already digitized collections.
As MITH developed the Soweto ’76 interface, they
worked, according to the best principles of software design,
to make their work as generalizable and as reusable
as possible. It soon became apparent that the interface
might be used for other archives to create a larger cultural
heritage platform for historic sites. This large, multiinstitutional
archive has become the goal of the project
we are now proposing.
The link between human rights and the preservation of
cultural heritage resources is often misunderstood. Forgetting
our histories is politically problematic for many
reasons, primarily because it denies the potential for
building broader cultures of democracy. Nations must
apologize and/or offer compensation for historical injustices
if there is to be a process of healing and remembrance.
If we are truly seeking social justice, we must
remember these historical injustices and recognize how
they continue to shape identities even today. It is therefore
essential to understand cultural heritage resources
as a part of peoples’ efforts to maintain and construct
their own identity. Historic sites are critical elements in
the struggle for equality and democracy, and new technologies
can be used to increase access to the information
kept in these important spaces.
In addition to providing access to archival materials extant
in collections such as those of HPMM, our database
interface will allow users to explore historically accurate
recreations of heritage spaces in South Africa, and
to access digital artifacts related to each particular space/
place. This focus on place is important because so much
of the critical urban fabric of places such as Soweto, District
Six, or Red Location was erased during the Apartheid
era. Under the post-apartheid Mandela and Mbeki
governments there has been an assumed connection
between urban redevelopment and heritage programs,
particularly if they promote foreign tourism. As some
scholars have argued, “political transformations can create
new urban political identities, but the politics of tourism
can give cash value to the memorializing of select pasts.” Over a decade of democracy has brought massive
reforms and advances across the heritage industry, but
there remains a lack of understanding regarding the cultural
significance of Black heritage resources in South
Africa’s still isolated townships. Unfortunately, much of
the physically extant heritage does not easily lend itself
to the traditional standards of what is considered “architecturally
significant” or “visually impressive.” Much of
the history of the anti-apartheid movement took place in
the townships amongst what many heritage professionals
would consider to be “the mundane” and ordinary
structures and environments of the poor. Therefore, it is
necessary to develop a different set of criteria and strategies
for documenting and preserving these important
Once the Soweto interface is complete, other cultural
heritage institutions in South Africa concerned with
human rights and social justice can be added easily to
the digital heritage trail, as long as they conform to our
metadata standards. Each additional institution thus will
not only make its own content visible to the world, but
will also enrich the collectively searchable content of the
archive as a whole, which will always be greater than the
sum of its constituent parts. In this way we hope to create
a “Digital Heritage Trail” that connects the cultural
institutions in South Africa together in virtual space.
Of course, creating the XML files that comprise each
digital object can be demanding work, especially for
those whose technical skills are not highly developed.
For this reason, we will also provide access to the Ajax
XML Encoder (AXE), developed in 2007-2008 at MITH
(originally for the Soweto ‘76 project) with funding from
a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Startup
grant. This tool allows non-technical users to describe
or “tag” text, image, video, and audio files using an intuitive
Web-based interface. Graduate students working on
the Soweto project have already successfully used the
tool, and a public beta version is planned for the end of
the summer of 2008. Because our interface will be open
source and our metadata standards will be readily available,
they will be adaptable for the collections of other
cultural heritage institutions in South Africa and around
the world.
Institutional Partners
Hector Pieterson Museum & Memorial (HPMM), Johannesburg,
South Africa Maryland Institute for Technology
in the Humanities (MITH), College Park, MD,
USA Africana Studies Program, Hamilton College, Clinton,
New York, USA
Project Partners
Dr. Angel David Nieves, Soweto ’76 Project Director
Mr. Ali Khangela Hlongwane, Chief Curator & Museum
Director HPMM
Dr. Doug Reside, MITH Assistant Director
Mr. Greg P. Lord, MITH Web Designer & Software
Mr. Arik Lubkin, Graduate Student, UM-CP

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None