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[Source - Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative website, 2017: Research and enquiries into aspects of the southern African past in the periods predating the existence of European imperial and colonial archives have been complicated by the absence of contemporary written sources. One crucial move to address this apparent obstacle has been to make use of physical objects and sonic items. Yet much of the material concerning the remote southern African past – including artefacts in daily use, objects that testify to trade activities and creative works is misidentified, often undated, lost or dispersed in institutions across the world or held in settings that are largely inaccessible private and/or not recognizably archival. By archival we mean made available for use in such a way that their origins and provenance, and multiple histories across time, are foregrounded. A second concern lies in the ways this material, as well as the written documents that refer to earlier independent periods, was shaped by colonial and later apartheid knowledge practices.
The aim of this project, The Five Hundred-Year Archive (FHYA), a name provided by an earlier initiative (see Swanepoel N., Esterhuysen, A and Bonner, P (eds.), 500 Years Rediscovered: Southern African Precedents and Prospects (Johannesburg, Wits University Press, 2008)- is to develop and promote understandings of the archival possibilities of materials located both within and outside of formal archives and to facilitate their engagement. It does this in order to stimulate interest, research and enquiries into the southern African past.
An initial move in this endeavour is the creation of an accessible online exemplar, which is capable of convening, in a virtual format, visual, textual and sonic materials pertinent to these periods. The exemplar aims to be a conceptually innovative intervention geared to engaging, in a critical manner, inherited forms of knowledge organization. It is being constructed to work across multiple institutions and to incorporate a variety of media formats, be capable of handling diverse objects, and provide context, by taking into account, most notably, the provenance and spatial and temporal locations of the various materials, as well as their multiple histories. The exemplar is designed in such a way as to facilitate recognition and understanding of the ways in which disciplinary conventions and colonial and apartheid knowledge practices have shaped the materials concerned. In some cases, it unpicks aspects of that shaping, notably the forms of classification to which such materials were subjected historically.
The project is a feasibility exercise that explores the possibilities of new ways of thinking about, and stimulating activity in relation to, archives for a region long denied an archive; a region that was offered instead ideas of timeless traditional culture. It does not aim to create an authoritative, stand-alone digital archive that will exist in perpetuity. It is, instead, a catalytic intervention that seeks to activate new kinds of archival energies.
The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative (APC), based at the University of Cape Town, with the support of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, Wits Historical Papers and the Killie Campbell Africana Library, and with expressions of interest from a number of overseas institutions, took the lead in raising the funds for an initial three-year project, which directly addresses both the conceptual and technical aspects of such an endeavour. The initial feasibility study is made in relation to one area (what is today southern Swaziland, KwaZulu-Natal and the north Eastern Cape region of Southern Africa), but is designed in such a way that its regional coverage could be readily extended in an aggregative way to a much wider geographic area. The feasibility study has two phases: an initial consultation and preparation stage (July 2013 – June 2014) and a second implementation stage (July 2014 – June 2017).]