Speaking from an African perspective: colonial portrayals dominate historical narratives, and the lines between biased characterizations and authentic representations have become severely blurred. Who are we? How do we see ourselves? These questions are as straightforward as they are complex. Undoubtedly, the burden of what we know as African history is that it has always been told to us, not so much for us to appreciate and feel proud of, but to accept and not question. In many ways, this is still reflected in our school curriculums and cultural institutions but in the face of changing media and technology, I see an opportunity to change this, even in the slightest of ways.
The situation we find ourselves in today is peculiar, in that, the power balance has shifted from institution to individual. Easy access to blogs and social media presents an opportunity for us to explore multiple meanings of things that were taught and perpetuated through singular narratives. What does this mean for cultural preservation? It means that we can drive preservation by promoting access; the more people are aware of the importance of something, the more they are compelled to use it, value it and preserve it.
My first and major attempt at using digital media as a historical preservation and awareness tool was through the Save The Railway project (2012 – 2016). An initiative campaigning for the preservation of Kenya’s antique railway stations and to appreciate the stories of those who were associated with it. By directly linking tangible aspects such as ruins and buildings to everyday lives, stories that we regard as mundane or menial begin to inherently possess more value when brought together to look at the bigger picture.
The opportunity to carry out this project helped me understand how we Kenyans view our own history. In some situations, passers-by would outright tell me to stop wasting my time on “ these useless buildings”, while other situations were fraught with suspicion and distrust (because documenting history was not a legitimate enough motive). This, coupled with institutional bureaucracies and the immense difficulty in finding local funding was evidence of a much greater need to change how we actively encourage individuals and communities to engage in preservation programs and what measures we put in place to facilitate this. In hindsight, I believe that as much as the Save The Railway project focused on one historical aspect, it was also reflective of the need to pay closer attention to the stories and treasures that we wittingly or unwittingly ignore as a society.
As I continue to explore heritage and culture through the rapidly changing lens of technology, I begin to realise more and more the potential for reframing narratives that exist and writing new ones as a whole. Having the opportunity to travel to museums around the world has shown me the immense potential that cultural institutions have to influence public perceptions of culture and promote community participation. At the same time, it has exposed me to the most recent advancements in museum technology and digital preservation.
As I envision this for our own institutions one day, it is important to acknowledge that African cultural institutions remain severely underfunded in comparison to their western counterparts making it difficult to compare them on a global scale. Still, I choose to look at this as more of an opportunity than a setback. While aspects of government funding and budgetary allocations are well beyond our control, opening up access to heritage is not. Currently, the digital heritage scene in Kenya and largely in Africa is still very young, but my belief in its potential is unwavering. It is my hope that the future brings with it more funding and opportunities to facilitate in-depth exploration in the field, and encourages more individuals to spearhead projects on local, national and continental scales. There remains immense potential through digital media to share, reimagine and redefine. This is not necessarily tied to large-scale projects but even to the little things we come across, the stories we share in our homes and the memories that are passed on to us.