National Museums of Kenya unearths a path to the cloud for its collection

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman May 28, 2017
 Records pertaining to some of the most important examples of our earliest human and pre-human ancestors will be hosted on Amazon and accessible to all through a ‘virtual museum’.

Turkana Boy

The East African nation of Kenya is often called the ‘cradle of humanity’ or the ‘birthplace of humankind’ and it’s at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) that the evidence is kept to back up that claim.

The state-run organization is in charge of a variety of sites, monuments and regional museums around the country, but the jewel in its crown is the Nairobi National Museum in the capital.

Alongside its wider collection, this is home to some of the world’s oldest and most fascinating hominid specimens, the remains of our pre-human ancestors, mostly in the form of bone fossils, as well as some of the stone tools they used.

Important exhibits in the Nairobi National Museum include fossils of Paranthropus bosei, a hominid that dates back between one and two million years, and the only known specimen of Homo rudolfensis, thought to have lived between 1.8 million and 1.9 million years ago. One of its most popular exhibits is Turkana Boy, the almost-complete human skeleton of a young boy thought to have been around eight, who lived around 1.5 and 1.6 million years ago and was discovered in 1984 near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

In short, NMK has one of the largest records of human cultural evolution in the world, and with digitization and cloud technology, it’s about to open up its treasures for the world to see. That’s because it’s working with Digital Divide Data, a non-profit specializing in digitization, data science and social research, along with AWS and Intel, to capture 10,000 records relating to its most valuable artifacts from its Archeology and Paleontology collections at the Nairobi National Museum.

These digital versions of records will then form the basis for an open-access digital archives database and a ‘virtual museum’, open to researchers, educators and the general public, explains Dr Fredrick Manthi, head of earth sciences at NMK:

There have been a few efforts here and there over the years to digitize small parts of our collections, but this is definitely the first mega-project we’re embarking on. We’re really excited and happy about it. Our collections attract people from around the world, especially from the US, but this project will reach so many more people.

The other day, I was looking at some of our records and found that even the duplicates are fading fast. In many cases, these are records taken all over the country. When we go out in the field, we’re compiling records in notebooks of the geographic locations of where fauna were found, the context in which they were found, how they were found – these are all collected on paper and some have deteriorated a lot over the years. So through this project, we’ll be able to preserve them and to share them.

The first phase of this project involving scanning and 3D imaging, is expected to take around a year, he says, and is due for completion in October 2018. From there, it’s hoped that NMK will move on to second and third phases, involving records of specimens from the Botany and Zoology collections. DDD will help train NMK staff in the first phase - five from Archeology and five from Paleontology. Employees from Amazon and Intel are helping with the cloud platform and the web front-end for the virtual museum. Says Dr Manthi:

At the end of it, through the help from DDD and the support from the technology partners, I think we will be able to make sure that staff at NMK are able to carry on the work independently and take the lead on future digitization projects.

It’s the desire of every museum in the twenty-first century to really, really understand and use technology and we don’t want to be left behind. We’re moving into a different era, and through this project, we’ll always have a back-up beyond the hard records we keep, making it easy to share them. We’re hoping over time to start sharing data too, with different colleagues and different museums, and we’re planning to talk to researchers and ask them to send us digital images they have of our specimens, so over time, we’ll be keeping a big archive of records, data and images.

This is important work in terms of helping everyone understand human cultural evolution, as Dr Manthi highlights:

If we are able to successfully digitize this collection, it will be a wonderful thing. It's a collection for all of us, it's a collection for the world. This is humanity's heritage that we keep and Kenyans are just custodians of this heritage. I'm so happy we can come together to share it with everyone.

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