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Friday 14 August 2020

The Future of History

A new context

With the NOMAD project, Abira Hussein is digitising Somali artefacts – making them more accessible and understandable for all

This article is part of Tortoise’s File on The Future of History, which considers what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest. To see the rest of the File’s contents, please tap here.


Museums tell a story. All too often, it’s a story of Western civilisation, and one which is enabled by – and forgiving of – Britain’s imperial past. Some people may not notice this story, or they may feel comfortable within its narrative, but the story is there; pervasive and pernicious. It is not a story about who I am. It is at odds with my experience, and others’. It turns museums, which should be places of collective learning and wonder, into places of alienation.

In recent years, there has been a shift in museum practice – towards wider access, participation and representation. And digital has been a huge part of that, as I know from my own experience.

This toy figure is of a lion carved out of wood, and was acquired in northern regions of Somalia.

In 2018, with the support of National Lottery Heritage Funding and Kayd Somali Arts, I co-founded the NOMAD project with Mnemoscene. This collaborative project uses “mixed reality” – an immersive combination of real and virtual worlds – and other web-based technologies to present archival Somali objects and also put them in context, alongside the people and traditions to which they belong.

The project was inspired by an exhibition I worked on with the British Museum, called Somali Object Journeys, and which led to the 3D digitisation of four objects. Like so many other museums, the British Museum’s relationship with Somalia began with the colonial encounters of the 19th and 20th Centuries – which led to its current collection of just over 2,300 objects. But the colonial dynamics didn’t end with Somalia’s independence in 1960. The ways in which many cultural institutions have displayed artefacts, always through a European lens and without engaging the Somali community, reflects what James Clifford calls “radically asymmetrical relations of power”. An object’s purpose and its creators are not valued – seldom even recognised.

Wooden drinking vessel with a lid which serves as a cup, decorated with geometric shapes, this item was created for decorative purposes.

This is so different to how I experience and enact my heritage. I remain tethered to my culture through stories, songs, poetry and dance; the sorts of mooring points that museums don’t provide. And so I became interested in how the digitisation of archives and objects could allow me and other people to engage with our heritage in ways that museums could not. If we placed these objects in a games engine – literally, the software through which video games are made – could we create a world around them? I wanted to explore the affordances of this technology, and whether it could be a reparative space that acknowledges an object’s past, its dislocation from Somalia, its migration to the UK, and my encounter with it as a member of the Somali diaspora.

This led to the development of a mixed reality experience; using motion capture to create lifesize characters, alongside digitised objects from the British Museum and archival songs from the British Library’s John Low collection. It is experienced through a Microsoft HoloLens headset. You see what’s around you, but with a virtual overlay, a tension between your reality and ours. Through an “air tapping” motion, you can select either a gourd, a woven basket or a headrest, which then floats down and is shown being used by Somali character, with sounds and music associated with each gesture.

Barkin is the modern Somali for pillow. This headrest is made of light but sturdy wood. Nomadic herders carried portable headrests and used them to rest while keeping an eye on their herds. They were not made for comfort, as herders needed to stay alert.

As a lightweight, wireless device, HoloLens enabled us to create a nomadic experience which could easily be brought to different communities and spaces. It was, in fact, toured during Somali Week Festival, where we shared it during workshops with participants of all ages.

We do, however, recognise that the HoloLens is expensive and so, alongside the mixed reality experience, we wanted to create something which was more accessible and could be shared more widely. Our solution was to create postcards using web-based augmented reality. Simply enter an address into your browser, point your phone’s camera at the marker, and an object appears with its associated song.

During the Somali Week Festival, we partnered with a number of Somali community organisations, inviting older women to engage with the NOMAD project, sparking their own stories and songs. The postcards became a way for younger people to connect with older family members who have a living knowledge of these objects. Digital can help to bridge the gap between generations and even cultures.

We also invited the Somali community to bring their own heritage objects, which were digitised in 2D and 3D and uploaded to an online archive under a Creative Commons license. We used a process called photogrammetry, in which hundreds of photographs are used to generate highly realistic 3D models. We also recorded hours of oral histories, as a key objective of the NOMAD project is reconnecting heritage objects with intangible stories and songs.

This Woven bowl would be used for presenting food such as fruit, particularly dry food. It is has been dyed with several colours to create a striking pattern. It has a woven ring underneath to provide height and stability, it is made out of dried grass like the bowl but has not been treated with a dye.

These records can be accessed on the Universal Viewer, an open-source platform, and the website is hosted on GitHub – which might sound technical, but these facts are crucially important. Many digital community archives disappear because they do not have the resources or the technical knowledge to survive. We wanted to explore methods that would allow us to not only record our own stories digitally in a sustainable way, but also to maintain control of our material.

NOMAD is about broadening the parameters of what objects and archives are. But, crucially, it is also about forming connections: connections between previously disparate types of records, from pottery to photography to song; connections between intangible, oral traditions and the tangible traditions of museums; and connections between the imagined records of Somali elders and those of young people. It’s about making our history come alive.

Images courtesy of Sophie Dixon and the Nomad Project. Illustration by Tim Vyner

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