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Luanda Magere goes digital: Saving a nation’s cultural heritage

Arts and Culture
 Sports and Culture CS, Amina Mohammed, presiding over the activation of Kenya's Google Arts and Culture webpage that unveiled National Museum of Kenya to the World. [Source, NMK]

When Putin’s war began in Ukraine, the war-torn country rushed to protect her historical artefacts, their cultural heritage. This was despite fearing for their lives from the hail of Russian missiles raining down in the country.

The ones that could be moved, such as some statues and paintings, were moved to safe locations underground, while the immovable ones were wrapped in protective material such as fireproof sheets.

Stained glass windows were covered in protective wire, plywood and aluminium.Elsewhere, in Mali, Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, who has been referred to as ‘the badass librarian’, and who National Geographic referred to as ‘The Brave Sage of Timbuktu’, smuggled ancient manuscripts out of Timbuktu to save them from marauding terrorists affiliated to AL-Qaeda during political upheavals in the country in 2012.

Why are historical artefacts so important that there are people who want to save them even at the risk of their own lives?

The world is still reeling from the loss of the Great Library of Alexandria, which is said to have declined over several centuries, accidentally burned by Julius Caesar during the civil war in 49BC.

Ancient artefacts may be relics of the past, but their preservation is for the sake of preserving the future, says Dr Fredrick Manthi, Director of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments, and Senior Paleontologist at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).

“It is about taking care of the future,” says Dr Manthi. “When Brazil’s National Museum was burned down in 2018, they lost a lot of collections, and if those collections had been digitised, I think it would have been very different,” he adds.

Dr Manthi is referring to the incident where a sudden fire tore through the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro in September 2018, destroying the largest natural history museum in South America.

The museum housed over 20 million items, collected over its 200-year history.

If Kenya lost its records, it would be a disaster of monumental proportions, given that Kenya is considered to be the cradle of humankind – the very place where humans began, and the proof of that is stored in our museum.

Luckily, NMK had begun digitising their collections by the time the Brazil incident happened. The first phase began in 2017, and involved digitising 10,000 archaeological and paleontological records.

It also entailed scanning of 100 objects – 50 archeological records and 50 records of paleontology.

“We have even begun digitising some of our sites where the collections come from. We store the architecture and other artefacts we have on the ground,” says Dr Manthi.

On the cultural side, Kenya’s museums, prehistoric sites as well as cultural knowledge have been digitized and are preserved on Google Arts and Culture (GAC) website, an online platform of high-resolution images and videos of artworks and cultural artefacts from all over the world.

Further afield, Dr Haidara can now breathe a sigh of relief after the latest addition of Mali Magic, which is meant to preserve Mali’s historic and contemporary art and culture.

Digitisation is not just about taking pictures and uploading them as Carolyn Mwenda, Head of Marketing at NMK explains.

“Digitising or curating stories demands the painstaking process of determining what resources you have and then developing the different storylines based on what you have,” she says.

A partnership between the Ministry of Culture, NMK and GAC recently launched 61 stories of Kenya’s superheroes, covering all 44 officially registered communities.

Another project ‘Utamaduni Wetu: Meet the People of Kenya’, resulted in the collection of information and digitisation of images of 28 superheroes representing 14 communities and has since been expanded to include superheroes of all Kenya’s 44 communities.

Unlike before when Kenya’s history was passed on orally, Kenya’s content about Kenya’s communities is now enriched through 61 animations and accompanying stories created by experts at NMK and the creative agency, Shujaa Stories, shining light on Kenya’s pre-independence legends who fought for their communities’ land, freedom and spiritual well-being.

The superheroes, whose stories are now preserved, include Abdulla the mad Mulla, Mekatilili wa Menza - the wonder woman of the Giriama community, and the Abba Gadas - who are the core of the ancient Borana leadership system.

Others are  Luanda Magere - the story of the great Luo warrior, Queen Amanirenas - the story of the White Nile Nubi Archeress and other Kenyan heroes of old.

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