No Way Back – Reflections on the Future of the African Archive by Jurg Schneider and Paul Weinberg in the journal History in Africa.
Authors and archivists Jurg Schneider and Paul Weinberg tackle the heady issue of African archives in a digital age. The authors argue that while digitization has “evolved seismically” since the 21st century, its impact concerning African archives on the continent and throughout the world is riddled with contradictions. With extensive resources made available in the first world for digitization, it is easy to see how Ross Parry from the Leicester School of Museum Studies enthuses that “[d]igital media has allowed the museum to become everywhere, to become 24 hours, to be connected to all visitors irrespective of their location.” Or as Italian curators, Valentina Bachi, Antonella Fresa, Claudia Pierotti and Claudio Prandoni effervesce, “Cultural Heritage becomes something to be told with an ever new story, to be shared, capitalized, promoted, re-created. Through digitization, Cultural Heritage belongs to the mass.”
While the digital train continues to surge in the first world, its progress in Africa is less impressive the authors offer a less optimistic and more sobering reality, “In principle, everybody with access to the internet can consult and store all digitally available images on his or her computer. In that sense, information technology has strengthened Africa’s presence globally and embedded Africa’s photographic heritage in “multiple elsewheres.” Many photographers in Africa and the African diaspora upload their images to the internet, participate in global art competitions, and make their work available to a wider audience thereby overcoming barriers of space and time. There is conscious disruption and rebellion against the protection and inaccessibility of archives. A form of anarchic reclamation, if you like. While that is encouraging, the reality is that Africa’s photographic heritage is still predominantly under the tutelage of the Global North, through digitizing projects resourced by well-funded museums, libraries, and archives, compared to the situation in Africa.”
Added to this, is the global internet penetration is 30% globally but only 18% in Africa. The authors also argue that it is not simply a question of resources but quite often a lack of commitment by African governments to embrace this moment. However, the digital moment has helped popularise and make accessible many historical archives sitting outside of Africa. In this way, a form of repatriation has taken place.
They note, “Digitization opens up new conversations with otherwise inaccessible material from the past and situates it in the present.” This applies to many controversial ethnographic collections as well. They argue further that that digitized collections may morph into, “alternative historical resources in countries that boast robust oral and visual creative traditions, yet in which rates of illiteracy remain high, photographs are profoundly accessible and community-orientated capital whose circulation to wider audiences and markets has the potential to expand exponentially the spaces of public dialogue and exchange in Africa.” As hidden photographs become visible, they become vehicles to engage with history and to “play host to numerous dramas of contestation.” In conclusion, Schneider and Weinberg suggest that there is no way back, “Digitized African photographic archives offer hope for a highly contradictory inaccessible pattern of visual consumption. No longer tied to their location and now accessible, they can offer many new kinds of conversation. Able to ‘sustain powerful durable narratives, which we count on as individuals, families, communities or nations’ they can become distribution outlets for re-imagining memory, history and heritage in their localized African contexts.”
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