Director General of National Museum of Kenya Mzalendo Kibunjia, left, and President of Digital Data Divide Frank Heitmann, right. Picture: SUPPLIED
Director General of National Museum of Kenya Mzalendo Kibunjia, left, and President of Digital Data Divide Frank Heitmann, right. Picture: SUPPLIED

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 game-changer, 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 best-preserved 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 next-generation digital skills and will help create jobs for Kenyan youth across the public and private sector," Manthi says.


These are valuable next-generation digital skills and will help create jobs for Kenyan youth across the public and private sector

"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 3.3-million 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.

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