Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Digital Sudan: cultural heritage revived & preserved

Offering a new view of Sudan to the world and to itself through digitisation.

by Marilyn Deegan


"Documentary heritage reflects the diversity of languages, peoples and cultures. It is the mirror of the world and its memory. But this memory is fragile. Every day, irreplaceable parts of this memory disappear for ever."    UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.

Introduction

Simon’s blog post on the destruction of cultural heritage in Mali back in January of this year stirred a great deal of interest, and as a direct consequence, he and I have become involved in a project called Digital Sudan, an effort to digitise Sudanese cultural heritage and stop the loss of valuable content though decay and destruction.


Via Sheila Hingley, Head of Heritage Collections at Durham, Simon and I were contacted by the Sudanese Association for the Archiving of Knowledge (SUDAAK), a small NGO which works for the preservation of Sudanese cultural heritage, for expert advice on future digitisation projects in the country.  Durham holds a significant archive of Sudanese materials and has close links with SUDAAK

Following on from these initial contacts, in May 2013, I was invited by SUDAAK and the Ministry of Information in Sudan to visit Khartoum with a view to advising the newly formed National Cultural Heritage Digitisation Team (NCHDT) on the digitisation and archiving of Sudanese cultural heritage.

The Sudan

Pyramids at Meroe
Sudan is one of the most diverse and culturally rich countries in the world--something that is not widely known.  It is ethnically diverse: the Sudanese are divided among 19 major ethnic groups and about 597 subgroups and speak more than 100 languages and dialects.  It is also culturally diverse: tradition, ceremony, language, poetry, art, drama, music and dance, are all vital cultural practices, and Sudan is one of the richest countries in Africa in archaeological remains, given that it was home to the earliest kingdoms and civilizations south of the Sahara. Sudan was also one of the earliest countries to adopt Christianity: ancient Nubia was reached by Coptic Christianity in the 2nd century.

Sudan's riches rival those of Egypt, Greece and Rome, but war, famine, displacement and the ravages of time, climate and lack of funds means that the cultural heritage of the country is under severe threat.  The opportunities offered through the preservation and recovery of cultural heritage by digitization are well-understood by the Sudanese, and many outstanding projects exist throughout the world for Sudan to draw upon.  The world knows much about other ancient civilizations, but not much about Sudan.  Digitization will help show the riches of Sudan to the world--and to itself.  Many citizens are ignorant of the greatness of the history of their country, and schoolchildren and their elders can benefit greatly from access online to their rich heritage.

The Visit

As in many African countries, plans for the large-scale digitisation of cultural heritage in Sudan are still largely on paper. Though numerous initiatives have been carried out in recent months in Sudan towards the building of a national digitization infrastructure, no comprehensive overall strategy yet exists for the digitisation of the country’s most important cultural heritage assets.  The Sudan is not alone in this--few countries have a nation-wide strategy, so in creating its plans, Sudan, though seemingly less developed than other nations, is attempting something rare and difficult, with few models to follow.  However, such is the overarching need for preservation of and access to the cultural heritage, institutions are making serious plans to collaborate in this significant endeavour.

To take forward these plans, the NCDHT was established in April 2013 with a vision to develop a roadmap for the digitisation plans.  In order to show me as much content as possible, and in order that I could meet as many of the key players as possible, a whistle-stop tour was organised--fascinating and exhausting in equal measure--the temperature regularly reached 45 degrees and not everywhere was air-conditioned.  I stayed in a hotel in the city centre that is the favoured lodging of archaeologists and aid/humanitarian workers: the Acropole run by George, a Greek, his brothers, and his Italian wife.  George could arrange anything for you--want a swim?  No problem.  A hat?  Ditto.  Camera batteries? All done.  And George also loved to introduce everyone to everyone else, which made for a wonderfully social time.

The visit started at the National Library, which was initiated in 1999 and established in 2003 as a library for the written heritage, based on Archives established by the British in 1903. It is modelled on the famous libraries of the world: Alexandria, the British Library, the Library of Congress, and it hopes to play a significant role in cultural emancipation in Sudan.  The Library is one of the leaders of the NCHDT.  The NCHDT was formalised in April 2013 and has a mixed membership of public and private organisations who are also members of the World Digital Library.   The aim is to create a collaborative infrastructure to integrate resources and facilitate usage.  The partners have diverging needs but common purposes in terms of content and technology.  Currently there are 13 members of the Team, and this includes participants from the cultural heritage sector, government and the private sector.  There are a number of ongoing digitisation projects within Sudan and also outside Sudan of Sudanese materials.  The NCHDT aims to build on the various links currently existing and to foster national and international cooperation in finding, cataloguing and digitising the cultural heritage.  There is a feeling that outside Sudan the culture is not well known (indeed, this is to some degree true within Sudan) and that digitisation is a route to greater cultural awareness and to transparency.

Sudan Radio and TV

We then moved on to Sudan Radio and TV, where there are archives of radio tapes, video tapes of TV programmes, and documentary film.  Sudan Radio has an archive of 160,000 hours of radio tapes.  These are being cleaned, conserved and digitised.  So far, 26,000 - 27,000 hours have been converted.  Sudan TV has 60,000 TV tapes in a range of formats, none yet converted.  Also on the same campus as Sudan Radio and TV is a cinema archive of 7,000 documentary films of huge importance for Sudanese history and culture since independence.  These are in a very poor state.  The building is not air conditioned and is very dusty; the film canisters are rusting and dirty; and the films are deteriorating badly--there is an overpowering smell of vinegar in the room, caused by the deterioration of the acetate film.  There is equipment to project the films, but it is very old and in constant need of repair.  Finding parts for repair is increasingly difficult.  If a film is needed for any purpose, it is projected onto a screen using the old projection equipment, and then refilmed onto digital video.  This archive is the most urgently in need of intervention of all those I visited in Sudan.
Documentary films
Khartoum University (originally named Gordon Memorial College) was inaugurated in 1902 and built by the British in memory of General Gordon.  Its Library at constitutes one of the largest and most prestigious literature and information resources in the Sudan. It hosts valuable and rare collections of both national and international importance. The archives hold manuscripts that go back to the birth of Islam.

Khartoum University
Documents at the University
The library is developing a digital library, initial plans for which were formed in 1997.    The University also has a Geography faculty that has a great deal of expertise in GIS, and it has other significant archives such as the folklore archive which holds materials on music, folklore, religion and history from different parts of Sudan.

The National Archives and the National Museum also hold vast numbers of artefacts and documents about the history and administration of the country, some of which are in the process of being digitised.  There are around 30 million documents in the National Archives alone.  Of particular note is the Department of Photography at the Ministry of Culture, which holds 76 million negatives in 35mm and other formats: all events of any significance have been photographed for decades. This is an enormous number.  The US National Archives, for example, holds 25 million negatives.  In Sudan the negatives are in dire need of sorting, conserving, cataloguing and reformatting.  Outside of Khartoum, there is a photographic studio in Atbara, some 5 hours up the Nile from Khartoum, established in 1946 by a professional photographer--the first photo studio in Sudan.  This has documented all significant local events and has an archive of around 4 million negatives. Early materials are deteriorating rapidly and are in urgent need of  conservation and reformatting.

Sudan National Museum
Sudan is fortunate in having a good telecommunications infrastructure, both private, run by Sudatel, the countries telecoms provider, and public, run by the government.  The government has ambitious aims for Digital Sudan, focussing on eCulture, eHealth, eGovernment and eEducation.  There is a massive amount of wonderful content, and a wealth of experience in the content, in cataloguing and in library and information skills.

The most important factors in the development of the Digital Sudan, however, is the dedication, commitment and enthusiasm of everyone I met. Watch this space for more about these exciting developments.

Note from Simon:

I am very pleased that Marilyn has been able to share her experiences here on my blog. I hope you find this as interesting as I have. Marilyn is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London.
If you have any comments or wish to get in touch then please leave comments attached to this blog or contact Marilyn directly via marilyn.deegan [at] kcl.ac.uk


Note from 2018: The project has been funded. See here for the announcement.


3 comments:

  1. This is a very inspiring experience and an important one because of the value of digital collection of the magnitude envisaged in this initiative. I was totally absorbed by the narration of the visit experience as I was also surprised to hear about what that country is doing to keep a memory bank for future research. Your effort is commendable and you've made my day in getting me to know that we can hear something different from a country that is pertually captured in global imagination as a violent, war-mongering and poor environment. Great job. Kudos!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Mr. Tanner: I would be glad to find a way to colaborate with the effort for digital migration of any kind of artifacts, including photographic prints and film.

    I asist as ponent in image quality at Fotoconservation2011 and can show some of the proyects I have been involved from institution and gallerist.

    Saludos

    Jose Bueno

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for sharing this very inspirational account. The world of digital media is such a fast moving and ever-changing one, may I know the kind of considerations undertaken in terms of 'format' in the migration of film materials?

    Laiyee Cheng, Singapore

    ReplyDelete