Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Connectivity, Collaboration and Culture: Challenges of African Museums on the Web

Lorna Abungu, Lawrence Monda and George Ombachi, National Museums of Kenya, Kenya

The First Hurdle: Getting On-line

Use of computers in Africa is, sadly, very low. As such, connectivity rates in Africa are even lower. Even if one has a computer - or access to one - getting a stable telephone line and an Internet account are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. Even after getting 'wired', the challenges continue: slow connections, expensive dialup access, etc.

In Africa since the late 19th century, modes of communication are most commonly by post or telephone. Postal communications have become, of late, very expensive and very unreliable in many countries. Newer technologies, such as facsimile, are equally unreliable, as they are dependent upon an adequate power supply, expensive equipment, and reliable telephone lines.

While many developing countries are experiencing rapid extension and modernisation of their telecommunication, networks in Africa are analogue and many sections are highly unreliable, especially during the rainy season. Since the Internet depends entirely on the quality of the underlying telecommunication infrastructure, the poor quality of the network still remains a basic impediment to rapid development in this area.

Due to these unstable phone connections, sending and receiving E-mail is very difficult - it takes too long to download messages and constant disconnection due to weak connections make it impossible to remain on-line. The majority of international connections operate on analogue circuits rated at 9.6 Kbps, but are often pushed to 14 Kbps and sometimes to 24 Kbps. Upgrades to 128 Kbps are currently going on in some countries so as to increase efficiency. But even with a modem which boasts a [misleading] connection rate of 58 Kbps, the user is still only connected at the bare minimum as determined by the slow telecommunications rate, usually 14 Kpbs.

For those undeterred by the poor telecommunications infrastructure, E-mail has become the preferred choice of national and international communication. Despite this poor telecommunication infrastructure, over half of all African countries have now developed some form of reasonably priced local dialup store-and-forward E-mail service with a gateway to the Internet. Subscription rates for dialup Internet access in Africa vary greatly - from between US $10 and $100 a month. This means that in some countries, even if a computer is available, the service is beyond the reach of all but the top elite. In addition, because telephone call charges to the service provider usually form one of the major costs, the absence of a national Internet service effectively cuts off the majority of the computer-using population from the Internet. As a result of the high cost of full Internet based services (and also because of the increasing importance of electronic mail) the smaller, E-mail only store-and-forward systems with dialup connections to the Internet are continuing to attract subscribers in many parts of Africa.

As a result of the high ISP subscriptions, local dialup costs, and low international bandwidth available in many African countries, increasing attention has recently been drawn to the use of satellites for Internet services using VSAT. It offers a reasonably high bandwidth and substantially lower costs than most supplied international leased circuits. Other satellite-based communication systems are expected to radically improve access from the most remote areas of the continent, but the costs are unlikely to be within the reach of the average African.

So where does that leave the World Wide Web (WWW) in Africa? Unfortunately, if most people cannot even have access to E-mail, access to the WWW will be an even greater challenge. While the NMK has developed a web site that is meant to be informative to both local and international audiences, the sad reality is that most Kenyans, and indeed most Africans, cannot yet benefit from the site. However, while these challenges do exist, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Through various multi-institutional ventures, the NMK is developing programmes that will bring new technologies closer to the Kenyan public. Among these ventures is the Natural Partners Programme, with the Smithsonian Institution.

Getting Kenyans 'Wired' through Collaboration

Despite the problems encountered in getting on-line in Africa, the Internet has improved communication and has allowed for better exchange of information and sharing of resources. African museums have also discovered the advantages of this facility for effective exchange of ideas, sharing of scientific and cultural resources, and promotion of museum activities.

Most museums around the world have been utilising new Information Technologies in developing their programmes, especially for heritage management and education. Many of these museums' activities are related to the work in many African museums, and so it is very important to establish joint ventures.

Since museums in Africa are currently lagging behind in the IT field, it has become increasingly important for them to pursue joint IT ventures - which include scientific collaboration and training - with institutions in developed countries. The National Museums of Kenya has realised the value of such ventures and has begun collaboration on videoconferencing with the Smithsonian Institution through its Natural Partners Programme. This collaboration, although yet to be formalised through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), is very important to both institutions since it will encourage a lively exchange of ideas and resources between the two institutions.

Through an existing research-oriented MoU with the Smithsonian, National Museums of Kenya staff make annual study trips to the Smithsonian Institution and gain exposure on the latest trends in various scientific fields. Of late, IT staff have also been incorporated into this collaboration. With such exposure to new technologies, exchanges of ideas and experiences, museums in Africa will be better placed to keep abreast of latest technologies.

Through the new Natural Partners programme on videoconferencing, a whole new world of communication will be opened up, whereby American and Kenyan students can ask questions, share ideas and learn from each other. Such a project has never been implemented by a Kenyan institution, and it will certainly spearhead a new style of interactive education programmes.

Collaboration and Research

The National Museums of Kenya holds large collections of natural, biological, historic and cultural specimens which have been undergoing vigorous documentation, although much still needs to be done. Through various collaborative institutional ventures, the National Museums of Kenya has been able to acquire the necessary equipment and train relevant staff to enable it achieve its objectives. Not only does the NMK require the documentation of its collections for local researchers, but the digitization of collections will prove invaluable in placing data on the World Wide Web for access by millions of scholars worldwide. The recent acquisition a 3-D turntable will be used for creating QTVR images for presentations and collections databases which will also be incorporated into our Intranet and Internet sites.

Collaboration in videoconferencing with the Natural Partners programme and, through it, the New York Institute of Technology will be of particular interest as the NMK develops its internal capacity for new communications techiniques.

Already, the NMK's Computer Services Department is setting up an Internet videoconferencing link - or electronic chat room - for artists performing at the annual Kenya Museums Society's Arts Festival to be held at the museum in Nairobi in March 1999. This will bring together students and artists from the USA, through the Kennedy Centre, and performing artists at the Arts Festival. The two groups will engage in discussions, either through the chat room or via live transmission through the videoconferencing. This particular project has support from both local and international organisations and companies.

Such collaborative ventures are exactly the type the National Museums of Kenya requires to ensure the steady development of its IT infrastructure, and of its IT staff. More importantly, ventures such as these are very important, especially for African museums, to foster closer relationships between museums worldwide.

Yet after achieving these advancements in technology, how can and will African museums adapt them to suit their needs and specific requirements? How can African countries reconcile such modernity with the promotion and preservation of cultures that go back many centuries?

The Internet in Africa: Friend or Foe?

There are different views on whether the Internet is a suitable tool for promoting the positive and sustainable utilisation of African culture. Africa at present is mainly a consumer, and not a producer. Many agree that culture - in all its forms - is probably Africa's best, and only, marketable product. Yet, even this product is threatened by the activities of the developed world where African cultural resources and inventions are taken over and patented in the North. Examples of this include items such as the popular sisal bags, kiondo, music, and art. Even worse has been the 'brain drain' of African scholars and other professionals to the North because of the lack of support in their home countries. Television advertisements throughout the continent urge consumers to purchase foreign-made goods, while very few things made in Africa are shown. Yet all products made abroad and Africans are supposed to buy them with the meagre resources they have.

Computers and other telecommunications equipment come from the North, and the advent of the Internet has to an extent been associated with this kind of 'new colonisation' of the South by the North. The Internet, and the WWW, are no exceptions. This negative attitude towards western technology puts new technologies at a disadvantage from the start, more so when they touch on the issue of culture - one of the last remaining resources that many Africans feel they posses. However, others now view the Internet as a necessary tool in national development, including cultural development. The African continent and its peoples cannot afford to sit back and lament. As the old saying goes, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" - this is the reality of globalisation.

So the question is: How can African museums use these new technologies to spearhead the use of the Internet - through the WWW - to promote the cultural richness and diversity that the continent is so well known for?

Culture and Development on the Superhighway

Last year, 1998, was a year of culture, when culture attracted the attention of the world. It was a year when the world realised the role of culture in human development and when culture in itself was seen as an important resource. It was the year when, especially in Africa, the role of 'Cultural Tourism' (as opposed to the traditional 'sun 'n sand' tourism) was recognised. 1998 also signified the end of UNESCO's 'Cultural Decade' and the publication of a UNESCO report entitled Our Creative Diversity, prepared by a commission of eminent people and chaired by the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Jesus Perez de Cuellar. Conferences took place around the world - more notably in Lomé and in Stockholm- where international governments finally asked the question: What role can culture play in our national development? In Africa, development has always tended to focus on the basic human requirements: food, health, shelter, and education. However, it has suddenly become known that countries cannot develop in any of these areas unless that development is firmly rooted in culture; and this holds equally true for development in new technologies.

Despite its seemingly incongruous nature, the relationship between IT and traditional African cultures has never been more important. Museums around the world are fast recognising the importance of IT not just as another modern and [to some] incomprehensible technology, but as a valuable tool which can be used to promote national heritage. The National Museums has consistently been in the forefront of groundbreaking research in various fields, and has made tremendous efforts not to be left behind in communication technologies. Having seen the importance of the World Wide Web in its various functions, it developed it own Web site: one of the first major Web sites in the region. The NMK developed the site to serve multiple purposes and to serve many audiences; by no means an easy task for a diverse institution in such a complex country.

Africa, and Kenya in particular, has a rich and diverse heritage: Kenya is home to over forty ethnic groups, each one having its own language. It is home to beaches, coastal forests, dryland savannas, deserts, rich farmlands, mountains, lakes and cosmopolitan urban centres. The National Museums of Kenya has a mandate to conserve, protect and promote this unique and diverse national heritage. What better way than to do it through a web site, which has the potential to reach both old and new audiences better than any other traditional method of marketing ever could?

As the custodians of the nation's heritage, including culture, the National Museums of Kenya should be at the forefront of promoting Cultural Tourism in the country. The NMK has the capacity to study, interpret, preserve and even display the culture. It is therefore in the best position to put into place the best packages on cultural tourism that will not destroy the very culture it seeks to 'sell'. The NMK can only benefit by using the World Wide Web to assist in this promotion.

Culture in Cyberspace: Regional and International Cooperation

Culture has no boundaries. In recent years, scientific investigations - notably archaeological research into the origins of urbanism in eastern and southern Africa - have concentrated on unique collaborative and regional approaches that transcend all human-made/colonial boundaries. It is therefore important that when promoting culture, a regional approach should also be adopted. This brings to the fore the issue of countries in the southern hemisphere sharing information and resources, so as to reduce dependency on the North.

Yet while South-South collaboration and cooperation must be encouraged and promoted, North-South collaboration is also of great importance; the NMK's ventures with the Smithsonian Institution as outlined above are but one example. Another excellent example is the on-going Swedish-African Museum Programme, supported by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). Through this unique programme, African and Swedish museums are 'twinned' and are encouraged to promote their unique culture heritage through exchange of information and resources in the form of workshops and exhibits, among others. A large part of the success of SAMP has been in getting the sister African museums on-line. In Kenya, Kisumu Museum is a beneficiary of the programme, and now uses its Internet facility for easy and rapid communication. Lack of a local ISP and high telecommunications rates (dialup to Nairobi) have however resulted in Email-only service, which will hopefully in future be expanded to include full Internet access.

Despite Kisumu's limitations, the overall SAMP programme has benefited greatly from the World Wide Web in the sharing of information and resources. Examples include the work of the Namibian Museum which designs and hosts information the SAMP programme and pages from the SAMP conferences/programmes 'Museums Without Walls' and 'Music from the Villages', the latter of which even feature sound clips.

An archaeological research programme, 'Human Responses and Contribution to Environmental Change' (HRAC) which is coordinated from the University of Zimbabwe and Uppsala University, has also utilised the World Wide Web to popularise the work done by African researchers and make it available to a wider regional and international audience. The project home pages are hosted in Uppsala, while the project's bulletin, MVITA, is not only published once a year in Kenya, but is now published electronically in both French and English and is hosted on the NMK web site


From the above, it is clear that African museums, while still handicapped in the field of Information Technology in comparison to their counterparts in more developed countries, are indeed making great strides. In Kenya, the National Museums of Kenya has seen the importance of the Internet - and more specifically the World Wide Web - as a tool to promote and even market the country's rich cultural and natural heritage. As part of this recognition, the NMK in 1998 initiated the formation of an Internet/Multimedia Working Group. This Working Group comprises seven museum staff from education, audio-visual, library, public relations, computer and research departments. This unique mix ensures that most of the museums' diverse activities are reflected and considered in the development of new IT programmes. In its commitment to ensuring the success of the Group, the NMK supported three of its members to undergo training at certificate level in advanced Internet and Web design.

The existing collaborative ventures have endeavoured to promote both South-South and North-South relations, and many have successfully utilised the World Wide Web for this. It has so far proven to be an excellent method of information exchange and sharing of resources. However, there are still imbalances. Until existing power and telecommunications infrastructures are improved, and telecommunications and computer equipment made affordable to the majority, Africa will continue to be at a disadvantage. While some African institutions may have the capacity to develop Web sites and interactive learning tools, only a privileged few in Africa will have access to them. It is indeed a shame that few African museums are on-line, and even fewer have web sites. This imbalance can hopefully be rectified by African museum placing increased emphasis on and funding into Internet and multimedia-based activities, and through collaborative institutional ventures on both a regional and international level.