Based at MIT’s Aga Khan Documentation Center, Archnet (AKDC@MIT) is an open-access resource focused on architecture, conservation issues, environmental and landscape design, urbanism, and visual culture with a particular focus on Muslim societies. With both advanced technical skills and deep engagement, Archnet enables MIT to claim a unique role of leadership and innovation in the field of the digital humanities. Having announced a major update to the resource (Archnet 3.0), this is a good time for a university-based researcher to ask: is it possible to decolonize university-based resources?

This is a good time for a university-based researcher to ask: is it possible to decolonize university-based resources?

Briefly: the commodification of documents regarding the past has emerged as problematic in training the next generation of historians. Commercial databases make it “more difficult for people to find documents,” such that “research access is a challenge for the discipline” and that a single “survey course may be the only college-level history course a student takes.”

An initial examination of Archnet reveals collections addressing built environments in Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, as well as the architecture of the Sahrawy peoples living under occupation. To these thoughts, I bring scholarly interest, a decade’s classroom experience in a U.S. Department of Education-recognized Minority-Serving Institution, as well as teaching experience in North Africa. Let’s break these collections down and then turn to key questions regarding access.

Indexed by “Algeria” are 1595 images, 174 sites, and 121 publications (as well as 51 videos). Most images derive from the “Mediterranean Postcards” collection, mainly collected before World War I (by a member of the Sinoutre family of Marseilles, principally between 1902 and 1914). Among the sites are floor plans, historical photos, and contemporary photos of Dar Aziza (a 16th-century palace built after Algiers came to serve as an Ottoman-recognized center). Finally, images of Paul Servant (amateur photographer, resident in Tangier, 1878-1958) include a number from Algeria. Videos include short sequences (less than a minute) from such sites as Dar Bakri, Dar Mustapha Pacha, and the Jami’ al Kabir, all in Algiers. Amine Kasmi curated “Moorish Monuments of Algeria: Richness and Diversity,” among them pre-colonial architectures of Tlemcen.

By way of contrast with its neighbor, less-populous “Libya” enjoys an impressive 24,570 images, 850 publications, and 651 sites (as well as 286 videos) in Archnet 3.0. Sites made available for research and classroom reference include a close exposition of construction techniques in Ghadammas, as well as mosques in Ghadammas’ old city representing the Fatamid and Ottoman periods. Archnet’s content manager, Dr. Michael A. Toler, highlights Environmental Design as a new collection on the platform, and many of the publications analyzing built environments in Libya derive from the journal. Finally, videos draw on the rich offerings of Maghreb in Past & Present podcasts.

Among Archnet collections, Morocco (with 6x Libya’s population) is represented with a comparatively-sparse 4,238 images, 528 sites, and 287 publications (as well as 194 videos). Images include such contemporary architecture as the Grand Théâtre de Rabat, the kingdom’s pavilion at the 1954-1965 World’s Fair. Music and architecture parallel one another in multiple ways, and Archnet’s “videos” from the kingdom include “Music of Morocco,” over 70 hours of recordings that Paul Bowles collected during performances during 1959, as well as some from 1962. The search engine turns up generic results that might mislead a novice researcher, such as the El Morocco Club (73 Wall Street, Worcester, MA); clearly, Archnet represents a “global maghrib” (and we’ll conclude with the implications such a “global maghrib” poses).

The architectural heritage of Tunisia is made visible to Archnet users via 1,923 images, 185 sites, and 163 publications. Images include color photographs taken by Dr. Marilyn Jenkins-Madina between the 1960s and the 1980s, as well as black-and-white photos from Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell during earlier decades. Sites include such 19th and 20th-century constructions as the Tunisia Youth Home, and the museum in Mahdiya. Publications include Besim S. Hakim’s “Reviving the Rule System: An Approach for Revitalizing Traditional Towns in the Maghrib” (2001); Hakim also curated “Tunis in the Husaynid Period” consisting of a series of maps showing the organization of neighborhoods and services, and uses of space. It is unfortunate that in the hands of a casual researcher Archnet’s search engine appears not to index resources for the architecture of the Sahrawy republic.

Clearly, the project is a rich resource for those who teach and research North Africa’s constructed environment. With that acknowledged, this digital project must distinguish itself from such knowledge projects of colonialism as the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris (with its history, and recent return of collections), as well as the previous Exposition Universelle (International Exposition of 1867), which historian Donald Malcolm Reid considers an allegory of 19th century political ideology. Certainly, an open-source digital platform offers one possible strategy for decolonizing collections of artifacts regarding North Africa’s architectural heritage.

Is a digital platform sufficient to decolonize a university-based collection? Ryan Cordell, in his “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities,” queries “the problem of ‘digital humanities qua digital humanities,’ particularly amidst the accelerated growth of undergraduate classes that explicitly engage with digital humanities methods.” Thoughtfully, he expresses a “concern with defining and propagating the field writ large [that] can interfere with innovative but necessarily local thinking about digital skills, curriculum, and research at both the undergraduate and graduate level.” These three points–skills, curriculum, and research–refine our ideas about decolonizing a university-based database. All three raise pointed questions about Archnet’s role in: 1) encouraging the development of digital skills, 2) in the curriculum, and 3) in research at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

  1. Encouraging Development of Digital Skills: here, it merits mention that proponents emphasize that “Digital Humanities is an extension of traditional knowledge skills and methods, not a replacement for them.” Specifically, the distinctive contributions that come from the digital humanities should not be used to obliterate insights from the universe of print (such as those of Reid); rather, they should add and supplement the humanities’ long-standing commitment to scholarly interpretation, informed research, structured argument, and dialogue within communities of practice;

  2. Place in the Curriculum: here, it’s worth focusing in on a specific aspect of the Archnet resource, the 32 course syllabi. These examples of such modules as “Aesthetics of Uneven Development” (Cornell University), “Architecture of the Islamic World” (MIT), and “Art in the Wake of the Mongol Conquests” (Harvard University) are offered to support faculty teaching about material and visual culture in the Muslim world writ large. It should be noted, though, that the overwhelming majority of these syllabi represent course offerings at “R1” universities in the Carnegie classification system, rather than Department of Education-recognized Minority Serving Institutions (such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities). That is to say, in order to decolonize a university-based database, an open-source resource based in a top-tier institution might build bridges to MSIs as a local step towards a global goal; and, finally,

  3. Significance for Researchers: Publications drawing on Archnet resources include Anne Beamish’s “Strategies for International Design Studies” in Architectural Education Today: Cross-cultural Perspectives (2002); Oleg Grabar’s Islamic Art and Beyond (2006); as well as Ashraf M. Salama and Marwa M. El-Ashmouni’s Architectural Excellence in Islamic Societies (2020). Here, again: if the scale of a digital resources is global, thereby invoking the “global maghrib” model that acknowledges differential access to educational resources based on race, to decolonize a university-based database would require an open-source resource based in a top-tier institution to build bridges to researchers at MSIs as a local step towards a global goal.

Since Archnet has attained its objectives, the question remains: what next? If our goal is to decolonize university-based resources in the digital humanities, we can collectively build on the strengths of the print humanities in order to expand a place for such images of North African architecture in general enrollment courses (such as those which are more frequently taught at MSIs than area studies). As three possible directions forward:

  1. Archnet might choose to host a Summer Seminars and Institutes for Higher Education Faculty with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). With regard to extending training of undergraduate researchers in digital skills and knowledge of built environments across the maghrib, two additional options are available.

  2. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) supports international Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) sites, which are frequently jointly funded by NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE). These Federal grants may permit qualified teaching faculty to include individuals who do not currently hold U.S. citizenship.

  3. Also, the NSF’s International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) program focuses on active research participation by undergraduate and/or graduate students in high-quality international research. Either—or both—would introduce a next generation of specialists currently training at universities in the United States as well as in North Africa to analytic skills this carefully-curated resource so richly rewards.

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