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Danny Birchall
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If any organisation proves the case that archives can never be neutral any more than museums can, it would be the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, south London. It was instigated as a desperately needed project to provide anti-racist educational resources in the 1970s, but the inner-city uprisings of the early 1980s and the inspiration of a US activist transformed it into an archive.
Its earliest collections of black British history were bought from antique dealers in west London. Today, it stands on the brink of another transformation in its newly restored home on Windrush Square in Brixton.

This is a story that is told in the Black Cultural Archives’ new home on Google Arts and Culture. It sits alongside presentations of familiar stories from black British history, such as the Notting Hill carnival and the 1981 uprisings; and some less familiar: the UK black power movement and the story of the independent black British press.
The site is rounded out with presentations on David Olusoga’s book, Black and British: A Forgotten History, and the musical stories of the rapper Derek B and the turn of the 19th- to 20th-century composer Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The Google Arts and Culture interface remains nothing to write home about, but it’s great to get intimate with the detail of Rudi Patterson’s oil paintings through its gigapixel technology.

The deep-zoom feature also offers a tour through the terrifyingly stacked odds of Stella Dadzie’s satirical Womanopoly game. At the same time, it’s frustrating to be able to see high-res scans of magazines such as Liberator and not be able to dive into a fully digitised archive.

There’s clearly been a great deal of value in Google offering its equipment and expertise to a small organisation to make an important archive more open. Hopefully, it will also offer a springboard for the archive to forge ahead with equally powerful digital projects of its own.

Mixed-reality project | Nomad

Nomad is an initiative that shows more potential for technology to shape our relationship with objects and memory than projects with budgets 10 times the size. It is a collaboration between the researcher Abira Hussein and the immersive 3D company Mnemoscene, which is based in Brighton.

Workshops with members of the British Somali community have produced a small archive of digitised 3D objects from both institutional and personal collections. These are supplemented by descriptions and audio recordings, which add a depth of understanding to the objects not usually found in institutional collections.

A short film demonstrates how mixed-reality technology can bring elements of nomadic life into our everyday cityscapes. It’s a small but beautifully formed example of how a little imagination can go a long way in humanising digital cultural heritage.

Mixed-reality project | Nomad

Nomad is an initiative that shows more potential for technology to shape our relationship with objects and memory than projects with budgets 10 times the size. It is a collaboration between the researcher Abira Hussein and the immersive 3D company Mnemoscene, which is based in Brighton.

Workshops with members of the British Somali community have produced a small archive of digitised 3D objects from both institutional and personal collections. These are supplemented by descriptions and audio recordings, which add a depth of understanding to the objects not usually found in institutional collections.

A short film demonstrates how mixed-reality technology can bring elements of nomadic life into our everyday cityscapes. It’s a small but beautifully formed example of how a little imagination can go a long way in humanising digital cultural heritage.

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Website | Making African Connections Digital Archive Where does the process of decolonising a collection begin? With the objects? With the staff who work with it? Or with the online catalogue and archival documentation? The answer is almost certainly all of the above. But this small interdisciplinary research project takes the last topic as its starting point for looking at African collections held in three museums in south-east England: Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham, Kent, and the Powell-Cotton Museum, in Birchington, Kent.

The archive is cataloguing and digitising objects, putting them online and making them available for discussion to researchers beyond the UK. It is also creating further public engagement with a Wikimedian in residence.

The online catalogue begins to undo some of the certainties associated with such documents. The creators of objects are pointedly “unrecorded” rather than “unknown”. Browsing the catalogue reveals objects, project members and previous collections’ record cards all at the same level.

With the focus on the fixed-term project, the website is an experiment and will inevitably be transient. The project’s creators have made an effort to ensure that when the website dies, the catalogue data is safely stored on the Github developer platform. With the emphasis on openness in a critical context, exposing both historical and contemporary preconceptions, they might be demonstrating that even digitisation isn’t neutral.

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