Dancing to the Reality of MAARA – The success story

In the early 1950s, research fellows like J. H. Kwabena Nketia started capturing important ceremonies/events on sound and photographic media. This collection, according to an oral history by Nketia (2013), formed the basis of the establishment of the Institute of African Studies (IAS). As part of IAS developmental plan in 1974 the Media Centre was set up to compliment the already existing Sound and Photographic Archives to capture cultural events on sound, photographic and moving image media. This expanded the collection.

Far along in 2008, IAS inherited the audiovisual heritage collections from the renowned International Centre for African for Music and Dance (ICAMD). The ICAMD audiovisual archive was founded in 1992 by Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia. The aim was to serve the needs of scholars, researchers, and artists by collecting and producing audiovisual documentation on Ghana’s unique dance and music traditions as well as other attractive cultures around the world. The audiovisual carriers containing this rich collection spanned from quarter inch open reels, digital audio cassettes, micro cassettes, U-matics, Beta tapes, VHS, S-VHS, 78 rpm shellacs, LPs, Video8, Hi-8, audio cassettes, Mini-DVs, CDs, to DVDs. In terms of notable content, story-telling, songs, dances, and other oral and performance traditions formed part of the heritage materials that had been documented.

The greater part of the collections were essentially locked away on obsolete media formats, affected by mold and the inherent vice of sticky shed syndrome, whereby the tape becomes gummy and sheds the magnetic particles – the very particles that hold the content. The condition of the tapes is very common for archives in tropical areas and presents very real obstacles for preservation.

As the Archivist appointed to manage this important collection with such rich history and research value, but with inadequate staff, my task was a tough one. The archive had limited intellectual control over the contents of its collections and most importantly there was lack of awareness about the collection by potential users. 

The “breakthrough” period came when a former student of NYU’s Moving Image and Archiving Program (MIAP) – Jennifer Blaylock – who was on a Fulbright grant, visited the archive. She invited me to attend an NYU/APEX training workshop for audiovisual caretakers in Ghana, specifically at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) in May 2011. The APEX 2011 team was made up of Prof. Mona Jimenez, Kara Van Malssen, Jennifer Blaylock, and Ishumael Zinyengere. It was at this meeting that issues like collection assessment, metadata standards, caring for your collection, proposal writing, etc. were discussed. I told myself: “Hey, this is the best opportunity to create awareness about your collection. Don’t let go! Make some noise about it, and get the best out of this.” I actually did listen to my spirit and acted obediently to it. To my surprise, I turned out to be the star participant, because I won the Jim Lindner AV Archiving Challenge Grant for my Institute’s archive, which meant we could purchase a laptop and other equipment to start cataloguing. Thank you, Jim! Also, the APEX team fell in love with the collection, and they paid a visit to the place to see what could be done.

In February 2012, two of the team members, Mona Jimenez and Kara Van Malssen, came back to Ghana again, this time to do a careful inspection and assessment of audiovisual assets and storage environments within the University of Ghana campus. A 65-page document was commissioned by APEX and prepared by Kara in her position at Audiovisual Preservation Solutions (AVPS). It has the title University of Ghana Audiovisual Collection Assessment and Digitization Plan and in May 2012 was handed over to my institution. The document was prepared to support the University of Ghana’s vision of preservation and access of significant audiovisual materials.

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Copies were given to collection managers, Info tech specialists, and the decision-making hierarchy at UG – Legon. For me, this special document became my archive’s mouthpiece, advocacy and planning tool. Some of the assessment findings about media condition outlined in the report are: “The majority of the formats represented in the entire collection are at significant risk based on a combination of physical degradation and technical obsolescence;” “Media storage areas were found to have wildly fluctuating temperature and humidity which can badly damage media;” and “There is tremendous influx of dust from outside which is very damaging to media,” etc. These issues were discussed at a high level at a stakeholders meeting at the Institute.

Some of the key recommendations outlined in the report are: “Create a centralized climate control area with a segregated space for materials contaminated by fungus;” “Start planning for the creation of a digitization lab that will serve the highest priority items: ¼ inch open reels, DAT, options for outsourcing (possibly even outside of the country), etc.;” and “Increase storage capacity to accommodate digital files and plan for digital file delivery workflows.” Digitization lab? How were we going to do that? The outlined recommendations were not just left in the books, NYU and IAS did their best to make it happen. I will elucidate that later in the story.

To further support the effort, a summer internship was developed for a MIAP student, Kelly Haydon, who has a specialty in databases, between the months of May and July 2012. Her internship was developed as an extension of the recommendations outlined in the collection assessment report prepared by AVPS and APEX. Kelly worked with the archive for a period of ten weeks to customize the database to fit the archive’s needs, work with staff to create metadata standards, provide training, and assist the archivist with promoting the database within the largest context of the university.

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In February 2013, the APEX team visited again, this time to have a meeting with the faculty of NYU Accra (part of NYU’s Global network of academic sites), IAS, and NYU’s Africana Studies Program. Several IAS faculty teach at NYU Accra and all of the faculty teach courses have a direct applicability to the archive’s contents. IAS faculty addressed some important questions set up by the APEX team and the archive’s administration, to help IAS choose the most important collections for a first phase digitization project and also to plan for the best methods of access. The meeting was successfully carried out.

APEX re-emerged again in 2014, and this time to work with us execute the plan for the long awaited “digital repository” by setting up an audio digitization lab and a workflow for the files to be safely stored in the university’s computer network. Funding for the project came together from the NYU Provost’s Diversity Initiative; the NYU Global Research Initiative; the Institute of African Studies; UG – Legon; the NYU Tisch Dean’s Technology Grant; and the NYU Department of Cinema Studies. The funding covered equipment, consultant/trainer fees, travel, accommodations, subsistence, etc. In addition, some equipment was in place from IAS and Prof. Sutherland’s project “Shall I tell you shall I tell you not …”

AVPS was contracted to design the digitization lab. I felt honored to work with key figures in AVPS – Chris Lacinak, Rebecca Chandler, and Kara Van Malssen – and not forgetting the mother of the project, Prof. Mona Jimenez. In the months of planning, Rebecca, and sometimes Chris and Kara, kept bombarding me with emails to ask for room measurements, and photos of the ends of power cables and equipment, electrical receptacles on the wall, etc. (If you have not yet seen Rebecca’s story “Plug Panic …” on this blog – read it!) I really was in the abstract world as I tried to figure out what all these numerous requests were for. During the preparation process, as I tried to follow up on one of Mona’s email conversations on “equipment and supplies update,” it was so amazing to know that different individuals within NYU and AVPS were ordering equipment from vendors and manufacturing companies.

At IAS, we also ordered our side of the equipment and supplies as per our planning with APEX. However, the most heart-warming preparation on our side was that the Director of IAS (Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo), generously approved the expansion and renovation of the Archive to meet the project needs.

The moment we had all been waiting for finally came. On July 24, Mona Jimenez arrived with some equipment; a couple of days later, Chris and Kara arrived also with suitcases full of equipment and supplies.

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On the Monday after their arrival, the different equipment was unpacked and in a few days the digitization lab – the possibility I had pondered over years ago – was set up. The MAARA project was launched. One last member of the team, Seth Paris, who arrived after the lab had been set up by Chris, took staff through additional training on digitization for two weeks.

 

Seeing the reality of MAARA and knowing that our long-standing problem of the inaccessibility of our AV heritage collections would be a thing of the past, what could we do but treat ourselves to some good highlife music by Amakye Dede to express our joy.  This is my success story.

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