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MATRIX Travels to Senegal to Train Students in 3D Digital Preservation and Dissemination of Archaeological Artifacts

14 January on Africa, Archaeology, Digital Archaeology, Digitization, Grants  

Picture of the archives in the Senegal museum.In late December of 2012, MATRIX Director Dean Rehberger and Audio-Visual Lab Consultant Mike Green traveled to Senegal at part of a Smithsonian-funded pilot project that focused on creating 3D, digital representations of cultural heritage artifacts from the Gorée  Island excavations. The team used a process called stereophotogrammetry to create the 3D representations, which will then be shared freely online in the Gorée Island Archeological Digital Repository.

Stereophotogrammetry is the practice of taking high-quality digital still photographs in a circle around an object. These photographs are then fed into a computer program that uses the photographs to define and triangulate specific geometric points on the object. These geographic points are then matched throughout all the photographs taken of the object (which can often range from between 50-100 images) and are used to create 3D representations of the artifact. Stereophotogrammetry is a relatively inexpensive and mobile process, making it ideal for Africa-based cultural institutions who typically have lower budgets and need the capacity to document objects both within the museum and in the field.

MATRIA picture of a Senegalese student performing stereophotgrammetric work on a cultural artifact.X's trip to Senegal was intended to serve as a brief training session where Rehberger and Green taught local Senegalese students how to complete the work of stereophotogrammetry. This included instruction on how to use DSLR cameras, how to take high quality photographs, how to set up equipment, and how to manipulate images in the 3D photo creation software. During their one-week stay, Rehberger and Green were able to host three full days of training, which resulted in six Senegalese students now being trained in the art of stereophotogrammetry. These six students are now able to train other students, resulting in a multiplication of equipped personnel who can begin cataloging and preserving the extensive archives of archaeological artifacts that exist at Gorée Island (and in Senegal as a whole). In this way, the Senegalese cultural institutions are self-sustaining and are not dependent on outside help to complete importation documentation and preservation work.

The trip to Senegal was meant to serve as a test bed for future projects that will help create a larger, 3D digital repository of African cultural heritage materials as a way of both preserving the materials themselves and as a method of sharing these materials to scholars in an open-source, open-access digital environment. This project addresses dire needs in the African cultural heritage community, including a lack of best-practice-ready heritage institutions and personnel within Africa; a history of colonial bias in artifact description and preservation; and the rapid degradation of cultural materials in Africa due to politics, wars, environmental concerns, and time.

The Gorée Island Archaeological Digital Repository is made possible through active collaboration between MATRIX, Michigan State University,  AFRICOM, the Smithsonian Institution, the Association of African American Museums, and the American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums). MATRIX is excited to continue our tradition of international partnerships in order to preserve and disseminate these important cultural heritage materials in digital spaces.