Opinion

Seeking New Ways to Document and Share Culture

Artist Abrakoah performs as an angelic unicyclist in James Town, Ghana. Photo by Selorm Jay, via Africa is a Country.
Artist Abrakoah performs as an angelic unicyclist in James Town, Ghana. (Photo by Selorm Jay, via Africa is a Country)

Recently, I took a look at Alan Lomax’s lovely digital archive of folk music culture from the United States. Part of what made it effective was the simple fact that it was digitized; instead of wallowing away in obscurity in a physical space, its reach has expanded substantially, and in a wider variety of forms that ensure his research remains rich and relevant.

But how else can we document culture? Two recent articles shed light on different ways to document often unheard or at least less-heard voices and perspectives.

On Africa is a Country, I read recently about James Town, Ghana, an old slave port just a short walk from central Accra, Ghana’s capital. The area is the focus of the Chale Wote 2013 street festival, organized by ACCRA [dot] ALT. I was struck by a quote from Mantse Aryeequaye, who co-founded the organization:

“History stops at the forts … The teaching is set up in a way that disengages you from your own history.”

Like the legacy of slavery on the other end of the Atlantic, the story of slavery in Ghana seems to be told only in bits and pieces.

Author Billie Adwoa McTernan explains:

So when I sat in Ussher Fort with a 9-year-old boy, trying to explain to him the reason for the fort’s being, surrounded by an artist’s photographic depictions of colonial masters and traditional leaders, it felt like sharing a different type folklore.

In a world where movies like Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave continue to attract big audiences, it’s clear that the legacy of slavery remains a topic that needs to be discussed and brought to light. A media intervention like a street festival seems like a particularly potent way to enter that dialogue.

Lapiz family photos waiting to be digitized. | Photo: Catherine Trujillo, from the family album of Arcadia Lapiz. Courtesy of The Re/Collecting Project. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. (http://reco.calpoly.edu)
Lapiz family photos waiting to be digitized. | Photo: Catherine Trujillo, from the family album of Arcadia Lapiz. Courtesy of The Re/Collecting Project. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. (via reco.calpoly.edu)

Then there’s the Re/Collecting Project in San Luis Obispo, California, recently featured on KCET. Focused on California’s Central Coast, it’s a digitization project of stories from Japanese and Filipino families, some of the earliest Asian immigrants to the United States:

The grassroots Re/Co project [that founder Grace] Yeh devised digitizes on the spot photographs, letters, objects, and oral histories. The originals remain with the owner — in their native formats such as family albums and mementos held sacredly in weathered keepsake boxes stored in garages and closets inside the private homes of their caretakers. The digital surrogates are processed by students and Yeh herself, and subsequently added to the Re/Co archive.

The act of digitizing the collection serves a twofold purpose: on the one hand, it gives observers online a way to access the archives quickly and easily. But it also ensures that those whose stories are being archived retain ownership of their materials.

Both of these projects got me thinking about different ways to document and share stories about cultures and histories that are so often forgotten and erased in mainstream histories. They’re important models for how archival work and cultural discussion can move forward with new tools and media.

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