Five hundred years online
The Archive & Public Culture Research Initiative has just launched the first phase of a promising new project, the Five Hundred Year Archive. This project builds on a resurgence of research interest in the history of Southern Africa in the five-hundred-year period before the advent of colonialism, manifest most notably in the recent work of the Five Hundred Year Initiative. (See, for example, its publications, Five Hundred Years Rediscovered: Southern African Precedents and Prospects, eds. A Esterhuysen, N Swanepoel, P Bonner, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2008; and [Special Issue] 'Rethinking South Africa's Past: Essays on History and Archaeology', Journal of Southern African Studies, 38(2) 2012.)
Much of the material concerning the Southern Africa pre-colonial past is misidentified, lost or dispersed in institutions across the world, or held in settings that are largely inaccessible and/or not recognisably archival. The primary aim of The Five Hundred Year Archive (FYA) is to create an accessible online research portal capable of virtually convening visual, textual and sonic archival objects and texts pertinent to the last 500 years of Southern Africa's pre-colonial past.
The research portal will be a considered, specialised intervention that will work across multiple media formats, be capable of handling diverse materials, and provide extensive contextual material by taking into account amongst other things, provenance details, the original spatial and temporal locations of archival objects and as much as possible about the circumstances of the collection and holding of the items, including the various forms of ordering, processing and/or preservation to which they have been subject. It aims to do this in a manner that is alert to the effects of politically-charged processes and Eurocentric concepts that led to these materials being treated generically as 'timeless', 'traditional' and 'tribal'. While some of these materials are text-based, many of them exist in other forms, the archival potential of which is neither readily recognised nor actively realised.
The primary aim of the FYA project is to develop a template for bringing into a single searchable framework a variety of such materials. While the focus is on materials (both textual and non-textual) pertinent to the 500 years immediately before colonialism, we will attend explicitly to the way in which materials dating from the early colonial period are used by researchers to illuminate even earlier periods.
The initial three-year intervention is a feasibility study that will be made in relation to one region (Swaziland, KwaZulu-Natal and the North Eastern Cape region of Southern Africa), but it will be designed in such a way that its regional coverage can readily be extended to a larger geographic area.
The first phase of the project is already underway. This is an extended planning phase in the course of which a diverse range of institutional partners (including, inter alia, Killie Campbell Africana Library, UKZN Press, Natal Museum, Ulwazi Programme, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Wits Historical Papers, Phonogramm Archiv Berlin, and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge) research and negotiate the terms of their participation and engagement in the project.
While we anticipate that the actual objects, and indeed most probably their digital surrogates, will be retained in their respective institutional homes, we have set out with the idea that this research intervention will cross over institutional barriers and thereby connect traditionally discreet disciplinary (and often medium-specific) preservatory 'silos.' It is anticipated that the digitised materials and the project's online infrastructure will facilitate in-depth research, inter-institutional dialogue and knowledge-sharing, as well as stimulate interest in institutions' collections through increased access and public engagement.
An important aim of the project is to create opportunities for extra-institutional participation in the project, notably in relation to what have been loosely termed 'ancestral stories' (see www.archivalplatform.org) pertinent to the eras concerned.
The Five Hundred Year Archive has received the support of the National Research Foundation (NRF) through its African Origins Platform, and is supported by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. Furthermore, the project has infrastructural and developmental support from our host institution, the University of Cape Town.
FYA is piloted by the Archive & Public Research Initiative, led by NRF Research Chair, Carolyn Hamilton.