I was recently involved in a brilliant three-day workshop called ‘Building Shared Futures’, hosted at the Bristol Archives and the University of Bristol, including participants from both the UK and Kenya. It was attended by archivists, anthropologists, architects, historians, and a mix of academics, practitioners and experts in co-production and heritage. The event was both stimulating and exhausting.
The focus of the workshop was the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at the Bristol Archives, which were transferred to Bristol City Council after the closure of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in 2008. The collection contains a mass of material from people who worked in the colonies and then returned to Britain and includes photographs, films, letters and diaries. There are at least half a million photographs in the collection. The archive is undergoing the colossal task of cataloguing the material and digitising some of the photos to enable better access.
The collection is both fascinating and problematic. It is fascinating because it isn’t an ‘official’ archive created by colonial government departments but contains ‘amateur’ material. Yet, it represents the white imperial British perspective and thus the ‘colonial gaze’. There is a great deal of material relating to East Africa and Kenya in particular. Despite the problematic nature of the archive, the Kenyan participants felt that it could be useful in filling gaps in their own collections.
The workshop explored the photographic aspect of the collection, and several themes were identified that the participants would like to explore further, including education, design, landscape and environmental change, changing urban landscape, industrialisation and education.
I was invited to the workshop to give some suggestions about technical options that could be explored or adopted by a fully funded project, based on recent Digital Humanities activities and being one of the developers who worked on the AHRC-funded Know Your Bristol on the Move which created the Map Your Bristol website and apps.
I gave a short presentation which suggested:
- the use of Zooniverse or similar to crowdsource metadata about digitised photographs
- the use of International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) to deliver and present images
- explore using Georeferencer or similar in providing historical maps digitally
- and to consider whether or not we need apps or would a responsive website be sufficient?
I also discussed the issues of managing ‘technical debt’ and maintenance after any funding has ended. Institutions are good at obtaining funding for a project, but less proficient at financially supporting maintenance activities resulting in ‘digital rot’.
Possibilities are going to be explored at a further workshop in Kenya, where I hope to discuss ideas and learn from my technical colleagues based in the museums and universities of Nairobi.
Even though the technologies adopted for a bigger project need to be appropriate and sustainable, they are probably the least interesting part. It is there to enable access to a collection that is in many ways hidden. The exciting part will be how academics and local communities in Nairobi and beyond interact and respond to the archives and repatriate the material in telling the histories of their own communities.