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Rare Africa Photos Go Online, Open New Options for Africa Research

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June 24, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- This week -- for the first time ever -- a searchable collection of thousands of rare photographs chronicling Europe’s colonization of East Africa becomes available to anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world, thanks to the efforts of staff at Northwestern University Library.

The Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860-1960 began attracting the interest of Africa scholars and others in 2002 when it was acquired by Northwestern’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies. The library officially launches the online collection today (June 25).

“The 7,000-plus photographs in this extraordinary collection document the changing relationships among Africans and between Africans and Europeans during 100 years of dramatic historic change,” says Herskovits Library curator David Easterbrook.

They include formal and informal portraits of Africans and their colonizers, photos of slaves and slave traders, and images depicting the building of railroads and urban areas and of traditional African life.

They represent the work of explorers, colonial officials, settlers, missionaries, military officers, travelers and early commercial photographers.

Visitors to the site can search for photographs by subject or browse them in a way that replicates how British collector Winterton organized the collection into 65 albums, scrapbooks and boxes. A “browsing feature” developed by Northwestern University Library technology specialists, for example, reproduces the experience of flipping through a photo album’s pages.

Jonathan Glassman, a Northwestern associate professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and specialist in 19th- and 20th- century East Africa and comparative race and slavery, says the collection’s special value lies in its unusual subject matter.

“The most familiar photographs from this era tend to dwell on what photographers considered East Africa’s glamorous aspects -- its spectacular wildlife, landscapes, settler life or the occasional posed portrait of an African sultan or Maasai warrior,” he says.

“What stands out about the collection is the large number of items that document prosaic matters -- matters that are precisely the most difficult for the student of African history to get a handle on,” adds Glassman.

Because the images are tagged with extensive metadata, they can be searched by date or keywords. A school group viewing the site in its pilot stage, for example, asked Easterbrook to see if the collection included any photos relating to President Obama’s ancestry. The result: 31 photos of people and places were found.

According to Easterbrook, photos going back as far as the 1860s are extremely rare in the history of photography in Africa, and opportunities to see and study them are rarer still. The creation of the digital Winterton site changes that.

One of its oldest photographs depicts a Zanzibar slave market circa 1860. Although faded and in poor condition, the photo can be viewed online in detail. It is one of many images in the collection relating to slavery and the slave trade.

Among them is a portrait of Tippu Tip, a businessman, plantation owner and advisor to the Sultans of Zanzibar. Of African and Arab descent, he was an active slave trader even after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.

To optimize its value as an education tool for students of all ages, the online collection was designed in consultation with a group of kindergarten to high school educators and members of Northwestern’s own renowned Program of African Studies.

In addition to explaining how elementary and high school teachers can use the collection for classroom projects and curricula, the online site links to other resources on teaching about Africa.

Generous funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services made it possible for Northwestern University Library not only to digitize the Winterton Collection images but also to design innovative tools to preserve and display them in electronic form.

With today’s launch, the Winterton Collection becomes the third Herskovits Library collection available online. The others are a collection of 113 antique African maps dating from the 16th to the early 20th century at http://www.library.northwestern.edu/govinfo/collections/mapsofafrica/and a collection of 590 posters reflecting the culture and politics of contemporary African nations at http://www.library.northwestern.edu/africana/collections/posters/

These and other digital collections are part of an innovative digital repository being designed by Northwestern University Library to most effectively preserve and display electronic text, visual, audio and video materials for online access.

Northwestern’s Herskovits Library of African Studies is home to the world’s largest separate collection of Africana materials.
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