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Africa Media Online

‘Africans telling Africa’s story’ – that’s the vision and mission of African Media Online (AMO).

As a freelance journalist and photographer in the 1990s, David Larsen amassed an large collection of images. In 2000, at the dawn of the internet era, he decided that he needed to order this material somehow, and make it available to others online. Working with an IT specialist partner, he set about developing a system to do this. What they thought would be a quick and simple task turned into a year-long process, but by the end of this time they’d developed a system that could be applied to other collections. They had, they realised, unwittingly filled a gap. Today Africa Media Online provides a range of digitisation services and media management systems. Two large projects they have been involved in recently have been a project to digitise the best images from South African museums and archives, and a project to document Africa’s first FIFA World Cup, Twenty Ten: African Media on the Road to 2010 (and beyond), which reported on African football from an African perspective. AMO also operates an online media library and sales service, making media available to publishers and broadcasters around the world.

Over the last three years Africa Media Online has been involved in a project to digitise the best images from South Africa’s museums and archives. Known as the African Image Pipeline project and funded by the European Union through the KZN Department of Economic Development’s Gijima KZN programme, the project provided partial financing to enable participating museums to digitise an initial 500-3000 images each. These images were digitised by Africa Media Online’s digitisation service, captioned by the museum staff and uploaded onto Here, the images can be searched and browsed and publication rights purchased. Altogether 24,000 images have now gone online.

View the Africa Media Online website

Find out about AMO’s mission and what it does

Read about AMO’s new collections management system

Read about the Twenty Ten: African Media on the Road to 2010 (and beyond)

Read more about the African Image Pipeline project

{image_2}Africa Media Online is a business operation, but it’s driven by a different imperative. As Larsen says, “It’s important to tell the news from an African perspective.” He illustrates this with a story of how at a media function at the launch of the African Union, Guy Berger, Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, asked a group of international news editors where they sourced information about Africa. 90% replied that their main source was the BBC. Larsen likens this situation to colonialism explaining how in the ‘old days’ western nations came to Africa and took away the raw materials needed to drive their economy.  “Now,” he says, “in today’s knowledge economy, we need to be sure that ownership and custodianship of information stays in the hands of Africans.”

Easier said than done, one imagines! But Larsen envisages a ‘digital trade route’, a way of linking information to far-off market places, while the right mix of systems and rights ensures ownership and control is still held safe in the hands of the local custodians of those collections.

Larsen uses the example of the Vukani Digitisation Project that was tackled jointly by Africa Media Online and the Vukani Museum staff to explain the way in which AMO operates. Digitisation is a costly and time consuming process and one that most South Africans cannot afford to fund from their operating budgets. So, the first step in the process is to raise funds. AMO assists organisations to identify potential funders and to prepare funding proposals. Funds are raised and managed by the museum or organisation concerned and AMO provides the service, for which they are paid. The second step is training for museum staff, through AMO’s Heritage Digital Campus. This orientates the museum staff in the digital world and developed the understanding with which to make wise decisions. Thirdly, the digitisation process involves digital capture, processing, cataloguing and tagging images.  In Vukani Museum’s case it involved photographing 3,500 museum objects. The fourth step in the process is the creation of a website, an interface through which the public can access the digitised images and a collections management system through which museum staff can track the images and objects in their collection. Finally, AMO can also represent the digitised collection to publishing and broadcast users relieving the museum of the onerous task of negotiating rates for usage and delivering digital files.   

{image_3}I know that some museums are open to the concept of digitisation, but others are reluctant to deal with this issue until a national policy and guidelines are in place. Larsen agrees with this and identifies three common concerns.

Museums are concerned that digitisation will lead to a loss of control and fear that their holdings, especially sensitive material, may be used illegitimately or without due regard for its value and dignity. In terms of AMO’s representation of images from museums, Larsen says that images are purchased for editorial purposes, to illustrate books or for documentaries, which is part of fulfilling the education mandate that museums carry. Museums images are not offered for commercial applications such as in advertising, as that is seldom appropriate. He adds that all requests are carefully screened.

In Larsen’s experience, museums also fear the unknown. As he sees it, many are unable to bridge the ‘digital divide’ and are afraid that digitisation may threaten the security of their collections. Yet if done properly, digitisation can contribute considerably to the security of a collection, from providing users access to a collection without having to handle the original object through to having an accurate record of an object should it become misplaced or stolen.

A third area of concern lies in what to digitise. Museum collections may include thousands of artefacts or images and it could take years to digitise these. So, museums need to find a way to make wise choices and decisions about what to prioritise for digitisation. Larsen says this is best done on a project by project basis, by collection or theme. Every selection process, he says, involves choices and decisions and results in material being ‘framed’ in a particular way and if done badly it could result in the collection becoming completely decontextualised. Larsen stresses the need to make the criteria for selection explicit, so that the biography of the selection is not lost.

View David Larsen’s presentation to the South African Museums Association (SAMA) conference to learn more about the threats and opportunities for museum collections in the digital era as well as some solutions that have been developed.

Digitisation presents a number of challenges, but Larsen is optimistic that museums are recognising its value. He hopes that the public participation process around the national digitisation policy, which is in the process of being drafted, will provide opportunities for the sector to debate and thrash out some of the difficult issues.

Larsen’s quiet determination is reassuring and AMO’s track record suggests that the organisation is making headway in achieving its mission – ‘Africans telling Africa’s story’ is a vision we should all bear in mind!

Jo-Anne Duggan
November 2010

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