CALL FOR PAPERS for a special issue: "Participatory Digital Return: Collaborative Knowledge Production on the African Continent"


Abstract submission deadline: 31 January 2022

Vicky Van Bockhaven (Ghent University) and Jonna Katto (University of Helsinki)

The last decade has been characterized by a historical momentum for a more profound kind of decolonisation in Euro-African relationships. Particularly diaspora activists, who have joined a worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, have weighed on public policy through social media induced activism. In the decolonisation process, attention was mostly focused on iconoclasm of colonial legacies in European public culture and the restitution of looted heritage and human remains to the countries of origin. This special issue seeks to canvas the coming into being of projects, taking place in the background, that combine digital access to colonial archives and museum collections with new sorts of participative knowledge production and community engagement on the African continent.               

Following on recent decades’ race for digitalisation, new and more flexible content management systems (CMS) are now developed, which facilitate the sharing of colonial archives and museum collections, whilst also enabling community members to add content, produce knowledge and claim authorship. Such relational or reciprocal content management systems are accustomed to the increasing connectivity and uses of mobile phones and social media in Africa, whilst also counting with offline consultation. Typical for these CMS is that they allow for mixed storage of digitalised museum records, archival documents and audio or video recordings. Examples of past and ongoing projects in Africa are the Sierra Leone Heritage Website, the Namibia 1953  archive disclosed online, the AFRISURGE Transformative Heritage database for Northeast DRCongo (in preparation). In these new systems, diverse actors can access formerly existing collections and add alternative or post-colonial histories and heritage items, which helps to fill in colonial blind spots and biases.

 A growing number of projects are initiated by former colonial states and their historical institutions (universities, archives and museums), although initiatives are also arising in the formerly colonised countries and their communities. While such digital return projects often seek to redistribute authority and ownership in collaborative constellations, including grassroots participation, the access to funding remains unequal. Often these projects are interwoven with a developmental perspective focusing on capacity building in unequal relationships. The question also remains to what extent projects on the former coloniser’s side are paternalistically driven by moral obligations under pressure of public debate, and politically high-jacked to whitewash national reputations, rather than focused on source communities’ initiatives and needs from the start.

This special issue seeks to investigate the state of the art in such participatory digital return projects relating to the African continent and colonial legacies in archives, museum collections, media and research repositories, containing film and audio recordings (e.g. of oral histories). It revisits digital return projects, their context, guiding principles and dynamics and evaluates the resulting assets and pitfalls. Attention is not only paid to dynamics between Africa and Europe but particularly to related dynamics within and across African nations, between national institutions, political and academic elites, community stakeholders and eventual foreign actors, such as the NGO’s involved. An important question is also which lessons can be drawn from existing initiatives and in which domains digital return projects could improve in the future, e.g. in terms of ethics or to make collaborative relationships more reciprocal.

We invite papers focusing on, but not limited to, the following themes:

  • expanding the reach of digitalized archives in new ways to make them more dynamic resources for communities e.g. through connection with social media
  • experimenting with new digital platforms and revisiting old platforms in new ways
  • new creative initiatives e.g. experiments with new digital technologies
  • participatory practices in digital oral history and heritage archiving
  • community engagement applications related to web archives and collections
  • questions related to power and community control in digital archives and collections e.g. through traditional knowledge licenses and labels and copyrights and related ethical questions regarding accessibility and protection of sensitive data
  • questions of ethics and of making the collaborative relationships involved in these projects truly reciprocal
  • the relationships between digital return and return of physical collections and knowledge

We also welcome contributions in French.

Please send your abstracts (300 words)  to: