18 May 2018. Blog article by Primrose Ntumba, invited by The Royal Museum for Central Africa Tervuren. For this blog article, Primrose Ntumba reflects on the SWICH Workshop in Ljubljana (19-21 March 2018) where she presented the project AfricaTube for The Royal Museum for Central Africa Tervuren together with Elke van Hoye.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa, AfricaTube and Digital Contact Zones
by Primrose Ntumba
AfricaTube (with its double meaning referring to a YouTube-like concept on the one hand, and to a round-shaped room in the museum on the other) is part of the larger modernisation and digitalization project of the RMCA, intending to offer a direct view on contemporary Africa through the eyes of and aimed at youngsters. Although the museum certainly is active online, the digital platform we want AfricaTube to be will transcend a mere online presence of the museum and its collections. As a digital contact zone, the interactions between the outside world and the museum will be central and crucial to the existence and correct functioning of ‘the tube’. There’s also a physical AfricaTube space in the museum that will serve as an interactive space equipped with multimedia tools, interactive walls but also traditional literature and documentation formats. Museum visitors can come to this spot to take a break of the habitual tour guide and collections, and discover “what’s alive” in Africa at the moment. Targeting youngsters for AfricaTube is in line with their extensive social media use. Would it be naïve to think that they might have the power, through their participation, to make a real difference for the RMCA and what the museum stands for in the eyes of the public?
Because the museum was built on the onset of colonization, it presented African artefacts, objects, animals etc. in an atmosphere reminding Afro-descendants of the negative, obscure and painful events that took place during colonisation (and after). Hence, one of the most challenging tasks of the museum (and of AfricaTube as well), is to change the opinion of the African communities about the museum and what the museum stands for. I think with this project we have given ourselves a twofold mission:
1. Creating a ‘popular’, online platform in order to bring the museum closer to society in general, and more particularly to the youth. As society has already and continuously is digitalizing on the macro and micro level, it seems important to address the common use of hardware technologies (smartphone, tablets, big projection screens…) and of software (social media and other apps), without neglecting more advanced technologies (AI, 3D simulations, VR applications, holograms etc.) researched by organizations like the Knowledge 4 All Foundation.
2. Bringing the African contemporary culture closer to the museum by addressing Africans, Afro-descendants and Afro-enthusiasts to participate in the story telling process of the museum’s exhibitions and activities. This way ‘real people’ can tell ‘real stories’ based on their own experiences either in Africa, Europe or elsewhere. By doing so we lower the risk of western-like or stereotypical kinds of representations.
This online platform and the presentation of contemporary African topics need to be modern and accessible, which has made us think about how we want to present AfricaTube’s database. At the SWICH workshop, there were three elements a professor from the Cambridge Botanic Garden took into consideration in regards to putting material online useful for education purposes: searchability, clear visuals and adaptability of content. As claimed by Davor of the Knowledge 4 All Foundation, people are mostly attracted to the visual aspect of information, so it is important for the visuals to be clear, but also that the structure of the database is clear and user-friendly. For accessibility language plays an important role, and for Africans or the African diaspora to participate, the platform must be accessible in African languages such as Swahili, Lingala or Kinyarwanda to name a few. They might be fundamental to be successful in the attempt to show contemporary Africa and to have true flows of information exchange. A second conclusion was that the communication design needs to be central. In the digital contact zone, is the museum offering the content or do online visitors participate in the content creation or even produce it entirely? The main advise was to integrate individuals from the target group in the creation process. In our aim, we intend to work with even younger generations (teens) to help us create an accurate idea and clear concept of what activities and content need to be addressed.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in general by attending the SWICH workshop, it is that it’s better to bring together a lot of different views on and ways of thinking, working, communicating, and to filter at the end. Taken into account our two-dimensional (online and physical) contact zone and the multiple goals we would like to achieve with it, the project is a magnificent one but also demands a real input in time and energy of all involved stakeholders. In comparison to the other projects presented at the SWICH workshop, I think AfricaTube as a digital contact zone is unique, aiming to gather different levels and types of knowledge, footage and culture, while offering a two-dimensional platform (on- and offline) in which visitors as well as all interested people with internet access, can participate and learn. The digital dimension is a pertinent one, but as illustrated by a lot of presentations at SWICH in terms of communication strategies, the ‘real’, physical contact can complement and in some cases even be superior to digital communication. In regards to accessibility, the language aspect is one we should definitely take into consideration for AfricaTube. I would say we’re on the right track and should continue to develop the idea of the rhizomatic structure for the database. It enables to keep thinking in a large manner and tie elements to each other rather than trying to separate them into categories. Personally, I really do support this way of thinking and being part of the RMCA in particular, has shown me the deeper face of challenges I already knew existed, but on the institutional, professional and societal levels. As an institution, the museum has a responsibility towards society and also has to follow society’s new context of digital, rapidity and diversity. On a professional level, museums wanting to create a digital contact zone have to be prepared to work with professionals from all kinds and not think they know everything better. And then there’s the societal level: the fast-changing and diversified population in Belgium (and elsewhere in Europe) need new ways of being approached and talked about if we want everybody to feel equally important. As individuals in a society, we might have forgotten what museums are actually about. Digital contact zones in relation to museums are much needed to change this. It will be my mission, amongst the others mentioned through this article, to remember society (African communities included) of what the RMCA can contribute to their life, as well as what they can contribute to the museum.