The Lifecycle of a Digital African Studies Projects: Creating Sustainable, Equitable, and Ethical Projects

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Dean Rehberger

    Michigan State University

  2. 2. Ibrahima Thiaw

    Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) - University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar

  3. 3. Deborah Mack

    National Museum of African American History and Culture

  4. 4. Candace Keller

    Michigan State University

  5. 5. Catherine Foley

    Michigan State University

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For more than 20 years, researchers at Matrix, the Center for Digital Humanites and Social Science have been working on digital projects in several countries in Africa. While the technologies are critical parts of the digital humanities, ethical considerations also need to be part of any project that involves multiple projects. This is particularly true of Digital African Studies Projects because of the long and bloody history of colonialism, exploitation, and cultural theft. This long paper will explore through the context of two ongoing projects -- “Archive of Malian Photography” and the “Gorée Island Archaeological Digital Repository” — strategies to be deployed to develop sustainable, equitable, and ethical projects. While neither project is a perfect model, the strategies deployed set against the everyday frustrations of multiple partner projects, long distance project management, and problematic working conditions does help to expose what works and what still needs to be changed or augmented.
Mali has remained the international nexus of African photography for nearly twenty years. Since 1994, its capital, Bamako, has been home to the only biennial festival of photography from Africa and has produced the continent’s most globally renowned professional photographers. Matrix in collaboration with the Maison Africaine de la Photographie in Mali, is digitizing and rendering globally accessible the archives of the nation’s most important photographers, dating from the 1940s to the present. The “Archive of Malian Photography” addresses the following significant needs for scholarship and teaching in the humanities as well as the preservation of Mali’s cultural heritage:
- Although commercial, popular, and scholarly interest in African photography has flourished over the past twenty years, access to photographers’ studio archives is extremely limited and published materials are minimal;
- Retained in private archives, these materials are not catalogued, appropriately preserved, or internationally accessible for research and education;
- Due to the high commercial value of these archives in global markets, these materials are vulnerable to mistreatment, theft, and exploitation;
- Moreover, stored in harsh climactic conditions, the physical integrity of these collections is in serious jeopardy.
Photography was introduced to present-day Mali during the 1880s by French military officers and, later, colonial administrators, missionaries, and French expatriates. By the 1940s, an African market for photography developed in the French Sudan, as Mali was then known, and its professional photographers maintained a monopoly over the medium. As a result, their archives contain rare visual documentation of social, cultural, and political life as well as processes of urban development in the country, and in French West Africa more broadly. Spanning the eras of French colonialism, political independence, socialism, and democracy, their archives record important socio-political transformations of present-day Mali, its capital, and smaller towns along the Niger River such as Mopti and Ségu during the twentieth century. Employed by colonial and national governments, while operating private studio enterprises, each photographer’s collection houses unique African perspectives on local histories and practices, including personal and family portraiture, military activities, visits of foreign dignitaries, and images of the coup d’états that toppled the socialist regime of the nation’s first president, Modibo Keïta (1968), and the dictatorial rule of his successor, Moussa Traoré (1991). They also feature the construction of national monuments, governmental structures, bridges, dams, roadways, as well as prominent religious leaders, political figures, cultural ceremonies, and fluctuating trends in personal adornment, popular culture, and photographic practices from the 1940s to the present.
In addition to promoting the global accessibility of these materials, the project is designed to protect the physical integrity of the original archives, safeguarding the negatives from further damage and theft. After the popularization of Malian photographers’ images in exhibitions and publications around the world since the 1990s, their archives have become increasingly vulnerable to pilfering and misuse due to their high commercial value in the international art market. Underscoring the severity of this issue, today, some images from the archives of El Hadj Tijani Sitou and Abdourahmane Sakaly are illegally featured for sale online ( by a dealer in Denmark who obtained the photographers’ original negatives, along with those from Mamadou Cissé’s archives, from an administrator at the National Museum in Bamako who had been charged with their protection. To date, the dealer refuses to repatriate the negatives. In another case, prints from twelve of Sitou’s negatives appeared on the cover of African Arts in 2008, without his family’s permission. Such pervasive pilfering of negative archives by foreign collectors, dealers, curators, and scholars, as well as by the leaders of local cultural institutions (museums, galleries, libraries), has prevented these rare collections from entering formal, public archives in Mali.
The Gorée Island Archaeological Digital Repository seeks is creating virtual 3D representations of cultural heritage materials excavated from archaeological sites in and around Gorée Island, Senegal and share those representations in an open-access, online digital repository. This work answers at least three needs in the scholarly community. First, it enables cultural heritage institutions in Africa to digital preserve archaeological materials in a way that is unobtrusive, relatively inexpensive. The project makes use of photogrammetry, a process wherein a series of images are taken of an object and run through point-recognition software to create a virtual 3D image. This process inexpensive, portable, and relatively easy to complete, making it the jointly sustainable choice for African cultural heritage institutions. Second, the repository allows scholars both within Africa and around the world to have access to these cultural heritage materials without the restrictions and inconveniences of analog-based preservation. Finally, the Gorée Island Digital Repository builds capacity amongst Senegalese students, scholars, and organizations to continue documenting and preserving cultural heritage materials using industry best standards and practices.
The project is being developed through the collaboration of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar – Sénégal (UCAD), Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Michigan State University, Matrix with the support of the Centre de Researche Ouest Africain.
Documenting, safeguarding, preserving, interpreting/reinterpreting, and making accessible the myriad expressions of Africa’s many cultures is vitally important for Africa’s diverse constituent communities as well as for the rest of the world. Museums, libraries, and archives in Africa and around the world face an enormous challenge as Africa’s diverse and rich cultural heritage has been scattered by history and put at risk by wars, illicit trafficking, overwhelming economic challenges, and destruction or erosion due to human and environmental impacts. As pioneering efforts have demonstrated, the digital revolution opens up significant possibilities for long-term preservation and meaningful access that have proven unattainable in an analog world. However, to do so requires thoughtful, ethical, equitable, and sustainable strategies. These considerations need to be built into the very structure of digital humanities projects.
Significant barriers remain, however, that severely limit efforts to move beyond these individual projects and fully utilize digital technologies within Africa and with African cultural materials around the world. While we are at a moment of opportunity with digital technologies, this is also a period of crisis where invaluable cultural resources are at risk to be lost forever. This paper also calls for the need for major international leadership initiatives to tackle these barriers in coordinated fashion and chart a path forward for museums, libraries, archives, universities and other heritage preservation institutions to construct equitable international partnerships that can harness this powerful opportunity.

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