Reanimating cultural heritage: digital repatriation, knowledge networks and civil society strengthening in post-conflict Sierra Leone
Dr Paul Basu
Higher Education Institute
Institute of Archaeology, University College London
Please see the project's main output, the SierraLeoneHeritage.org digital heritage resource for a wide range of images, videos and other media generated through the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project.
The ability of material culture to open horizons of knowledge and imagination beyond that transmitted through text is fundamental to contemporary museum practice. Interactive digital technologies, especially, provide new opportunities for reanimating ethnographic collections in exhibition and outreach contexts, in the field of museum and source community relations, and as a means of generating and connecting diverse knowledge networks around objects. Such technological developments necessitate a radical rethinking of what ethnographic museums and their collections are and do in the digital age.
This multidisciplinary project is concerned with innovating 'digital curatorship' in relation to Sierra Leonean collections dispersed in the global museumscape. Extending research in anthropology, museum studies, informatics and beyond, the project considers how objects that have become isolated from the oral and performative contexts that originally animated them can be reanimated in digital space alongside associated images, video clips, sounds, texts and other media, and thereby given new life. In partnership with the British Museum, British Library, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Glasgow Museums, World Museum Liverpool and collaborating institutions in Sierra Leone, a digital heritage resource is created that utilizes social networking technologies to reconnect objects with disparate communities and foster reciprocal knowledge exchange across boundaries. Whereas the practice of 'digital repatriation' has become increasingly popular with museums, the reception of such initiatives by source communities has not been critically assessed. Thus, a crucial part of the project is to employ innovative participatory methods to pilot and evaluate the digital resource in Sierra Leone.
As well as its impact in Sierra Leone, the research will inform museum policy-making more widely, exemplify how museums can play a role in strengthening international relations, and provide a platform for future research and capacity building initiatives. The process and findings of the research will be publicized widely through a series of innovative dissemination methods, including a project blog and multi-sited exhibition.
Whereas Sierra Leone was once renowned for the vibrancy of its cultural traditions, including the varied music, dance, masquerade and storytelling practices of its several ethno-linguistic groups, the dominant image of Sierra Leone today is of a war-torn society held hostage by child soldiers and corrupt politicians. Despite six years of peace, infrastructure is only now beginning to return, and Sierra Leone remains one of the least developed countries in the world, with a literacy rate of just 35%. The disruptions of a decade of conflict have had a huge impact on cultural as well as economic activities. Alongside infrastructure- and governance-related development programmes, there is therefore an urgent need to reanimate Sierra Leone's cultural life and heritage.
The problem is that those institutions, such as Sierra Leone's National Museum, which might lead such cultural renaissance, have themselves suffered from chronic neglect and have few resources and little expertise. At the same time there is a wealth of Sierra Leonean material culture and associated scholarship dispersed in the world's museums. This project is concerned with exploring how these 'diasporas' of objects and knowledges can again become meaningful resources for Sierra Leoneans who currently have no access to them.
The project not only investigates how the digitization of museum collections provides an opportunity for the 'virtual repatriation' of objects, but also how 'remediating' collections in digital space can reanimate them and generate more diverse knowledge networks around them - bringing together academic scholarship, for example, with indigenous knowledges in a way that potentially enriches both, whilst disrupting conventional knowledge-power asymmetries.