Kenya mak­ing his­tory with vir­tual mu­seum project

Business Day - - LIFE - Les­ley Stones

Ancient relics from hu­man an­ces­tors and the lat­est imag­ing tech­nolo­gies are com­ing to­gether to give sci­en­tists across the world ac­cess to rare frag­ments of Kenya’s his­tory.

One of the largest col­lec­tions of arche­ol­ogy and palaeon­tol­ogy — which in­cludes bone fos­sils and tools hu­man an­ces­tors used to pre­pare food and de­fend them­selves — is be­ing cap­tured in 3D dig­i­tal im­agery by the Na­tional Mu­se­ums of Kenya (NMK).

The NMK holds more than a mil­lion items and the project to cre­ate dig­i­tal records of the arte­facts is be­ing car­ried out with Ama­zon Web Ser­vices, In­tel and the Dig­i­tal Di­vide Data (DDD), an or­gan­i­sa­tion that de­vel­ops dig­i­tal ar­chives for cul­tural her­itage or­gan­i­sa­tions.

To­gether, they will cre­ate and store dig­i­tal records in a sci­en­tific data­base and set up an in­ter­ac­tive web­site as a vir­tual mu­seum, giving more peo­ple ac­cess to the frag­ile ob­jects.

The NMK’s mis­sion is to col­lect, pre­serve, study and present Kenya’s cul­tural and nat­u­ral her­itage and it re­alised it could tap into the knowl­edge of global ex­perts to help with its re­search if it digi­tised the arte­facts and made them avail­able on the in­ter­net.

Other mu­se­ums have cre­ated vir­tual col­lec­tions of arte­facts but the Ama­zon, In­tel and Dig­i­tal Data Di­vide (DDD) ini­tia­tive will be a gamechange­r, says Fredrick Man­thi, head of Earth Sciences at NMK.

“As the dig­i­tal ar­chive will be based in the cloud, the world­wide sci­en­tific and re­search com­mu­nity will be able to vir­tu­ally ac­cess com­plex and de­tailed data sets on spec­i­mens and arte­facts.

“This will act as a cat­a­lyst to ac­cel­er­ate re­search and data anal­y­sis and hope­fully pro­vide opportunit­ies for new re­search projects and dis­cov­er­ies.”

The first phase will in­volve cre­at­ing dig­i­tal records of cul­tur­ally and sci­en­tif­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant arte­facts and fos­sils, cat­a­logu­ing those files in a dig­i­tal ar­chive stored in the Ama­zon Web Ser­vices Cloud, and de­sign­ing the vir­tual mu­seum web­site.

The mu­seum owns so many items that un­til the end of 2018, the work will fo­cus on digi­tis­ing 10,000 of the most valu­able arte­facts in the arche­ol­ogy and palaeon­tol­ogy col­lec­tions at the Nairobi Na­tional Mu­seum.

The col­lec­tion in­cludes 2.5-mil­lion years of hu­mankind’s palaeon­tol­ogy cul­tural evo­lu­tion. The col­lec­tion houses mil­lions of fos­sils dat­ing back to the Oligocene era from 23-mil­lion to 33-mil­lion years ago, in­clud­ing some of the best­p­re­served ho­minid spec­i­mens.

Over time, the cov­er­age will ex­pand to in­clude cul­tural her­itage col­lec­tions from more than 20 other mu­se­ums that fall un­der the NMK’s um­brella.

By stor­ing the in­for­ma­tion in the cloud, or­di­nary peo­ple with an in­ter­est in his­tory as well as the sci­en­tific and re­search com­mu­ni­ties will be able to ad­mire Kenya’s col­lec­tion through the vir­tual mu­seum, Man­thi says.

The project will also mit­i­gate the risk of los­ing valu­able in­for­ma­tion re­lated to the arte­facts due to de­cay and will cre­ate dig­i­tal records that can be used to train the next gen­er­a­tion of re­searchers with­out need­ing the pres­ence of the gen­uine, frag­ile items.

As a spin-off, non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion DDD will train young Kenyans in digi­ti­sa­tion, cloud ser­vices, mo­bile tech­nolo­gies and data­base ad­min­is­tra­tion for the du­ra­tion of the project.

“These are valu­able nextgen­er­a­tion dig­i­tal skills and will help cre­ate jobs for Kenyan youth across the public and pri­vate sec­tor,” Man­thi says.

“DDD was in­tro­duced to us a few years ago and has played a key role in un­der­stand­ing our goals and ob­jec­tives and bring­ing to­gether tech­nol­ogy lead­ers such as Ama­zon and In­tel to help sup­port the dig­i­tal ar­chive pro­gramme.

“It has a large team in Kenya that pro­vides digi­ti­sa­tion ser­vices to var­i­ous in­sti­tu­tions world­wide and we hope to use this ex­per­tise in our project.”

The NMK is a state-run or­gan­i­sa­tion formed to pro­tect Kenya’s cul­tural and nat­u­ral her­itage. It dates back to 1910 when the East Africa and Uganda Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety es­tab­lished a mu­seum in Nairobi to house and pre­serve its col­lec­tions.

The most im­por­tant ex­hibits in the Nairobi Na­tional Mu­seum in­clude Paran­thro­pus boi­sei, a ro­bust ho­minid dis­cov­ered in 1969 east of Lake Turkana. In 1972, Homo rudolfen­sis was dis­cov­ered in the same area and is an early mem­ber of the hu­man lin­eage.

In 1994, the ear­li­est mem­ber of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus, Au. Ana­men­sis, was dis­cov­ered, dat­ing back 4.19-mil­lion years. Stone tools dat­ing back 3.3mil­lion years have also been un­earthed at Lomekwi, west of Lake Turkana.

The Nairobi Na­tional Mu­seum dis­plays casts of those spec­i­mens to ed­u­cate peo­ple about Kenya’s rich pre­his­toric her­itage and to show how these find­ings have helped to un­der­stand hu­man evo­lu­tion­ary his­tory.

“These will form the ba­sis for an open-ac­cess dig­i­tal ar­chives data­base and a vir­tual mu­seum in­tended to lend greater vis­i­bil­ity to these price­less arte­facts for the pur­poses of re­search and ed­u­ca­tion,” Man­thi says.

The process of cap­tur­ing valu­able ob­jects as 3D dig­i­tal im­ages has helped many mu­se­ums and art gal­leries to make their col­lec­tions more widely ac­ces­si­ble.

In 1997, tech­nol­ogy com­pany IBM tack­led one of the most am­bi­tious web-based mu­seum projects by putting the con­tents of Rus­sia’s mighty Her­mitage Mu­seum on­line.

The Her­mitage — founded in 1754 by Cather­ine the Great — asked IBM to de­sign a fully in­ter­ac­tive vir­tual tour in Rus­sian and English and to cre­ate an on­line ver­sion of the mu­seum shop so vis­i­tors could buy a real me­mento of their vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ence.

This was one of the ear­li­est ex­am­ples of the art world us­ing imag­ing tech­nolo­gies and the in­ter­net. The project in­volved IBM staff in Rus­sia, Italy and the US col­lab­o­rat­ing with art his­to­ri­ans at the Her­mitage.

The team cre­ated lush 3D im­ages with zoom-in fea­tures, rich in­for­ma­tion files and down­load­able cour­ses that are used in schools across the world. The Her­mitage houses more than 3-mil­lion works and this project turned it into one of the most tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced mu­se­ums in the world.


Web work: Na­tional Mu­seum of Kenya direc­torgen­eral Mza­l­endo Ki­bun­jia, left, and Dig­i­tal Data Di­vide pres­i­dent Frank Heit­mann seal a deal to digi­tise col­lec­tions.

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