Digital Kitambo

Kenya currently hosts the longest record of human technological evolution in the world, spanning some 3.3 million years. As the national repository of natural, cultural and artistic heritage, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) is responsible for promoting the country’s heritage and conservation efforts and developing public outreach and cultural tourism using this heritage. The Swahili word ‘kitambo’ connotes an occurrence that has happened long ago, but is usually understood to be at least indirectly connected to the speaker. Digital Kitambo is an initiative to bring the past into the future at NMK using innovative technologies and communication tools.

From August 2013 - February 2014, the Korean National Research Foundation funded a pilot project, which I co-directed, to digitize a selection of archaeological artifacts in the NMK collections, establish digitization protocols, train museum staff, and develop a plan for scaling up the Digital Kitambo project.

In 2016, Digital Divide Data (DDD) partnered with NMK to secure funds from Amazon Web Services and Intel, using the success of our 2013-2014 pilot to demonstrate the feasibility of Digital Kitambo. As a consultant hired by DDD, I worked with a large team of developers, researchers, curators and other museum staff to create the Kenya Heritage Resources Information System (KEHRIS), a comprehensive collections and heritage sites management system. Open Heritage, based in Cape Town, led the effort to build KEHRIS after successfully developing and implementing a similar system in South Africa and Namibia. The first phase of the project, completed in August 2019, included digitizing 10,000 artifacts and specimens from NMK's archaeological and paleontological collections and creating an online exhibition of a selection of digitized objects. I helped to curate the online exhibition and spearheaded educational outreach programs, including an art workshop for high school students and focus groups with teachers in the Nairobi school district.

As an integral part of the website development process, the NMK Education Officers and I organized focus groups of primary and secondary teachers to better understand their curricular needs. One of the goals of Digital Kitambo is to provide useful resources for both local and international educators.

Each focus group began with a behind the scenes tour of the archaeology and paleontology labs at NMK. Interestingly, a resounding comment in the feedback from teachers was that they would like to bring their students for such a tour, reinforcing the idea that virtual museums will never replace their brick and mortar counterparts.

In July 2018, I developed a workshop, "Art of Origins" for the Nairobi National Museum's Art Club, an artists-in-residence program for graduating high school seniors. Researcher Dr. Stanley Ambrose showed us around the archaeology and paleontology labs and shared objects in the NMK collection that demonstrate the artistry of our ancestors from thousands of years ago.

After the lecture and tour, I led the artists in an activity to creatively express their experiences with the NMK collections using soil mâché, a combination of chapatti flour, water, recycled paper and soil. The artists were asked to reflect on what it means to be human and how Kenya's cultural heritage is a source of identity for them.