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Building a Multilingual and Interactive Database for the Africa Collection

Research period: April 2017 – March 2022 / Project for Database Establishment (project period: max. 4 years)

Coordinator IIDA Taku



A document database in the official languages of African countries such as English, French, Swahili, and Portuguese will be created based on information from approximately 19,700 materials at Minpaku that have been collected from sub-Saharan African countries. This database will have the function of reflecting comments written by users authorized to access the database. The information in each material will be improved further through staff members at research institutions in Africa. The purpose of this project is to present new findings related to the connection between the condition of the entire African culture which is based on material culture, and to identify development by holding research exchange activities such as international symposia and local workshops using such a database and strengthening the relationships of academic cooperation built between the African research institutions and Minpaku.


Results of searches in databases of detailed information related to sample materials available for viewing at Minpaku include large collections of materials from sub-Saharan African countries such as Cameroon (2,597 materials), Kenya (2,575), Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) (1,768), Senegal (1,597), Nigeria (1,234), Mali (1,204), Ethiopia (1,104), Sudan (1,073), Ghana (940), and Botswana (627). Half of these countries are places in which former Minpaku staff members collected information during their fieldwork. In other words, during the 40 years since the foundation of the museum, the current staff members have no grasp of the situation of data collection. This situation is unavoidable when only about five members must take charge of research that covers the entire continent. Those circumstances suggest that the current museum staff must consciously pass down the research networks built by the former staff members to the next generation.
Minpaku’s African research network was upgraded significantly through an Asia and Africa Science Platform Program, “Preserving the Cultural Heritage of Africa: From Memories to Histories,” conducted jointly with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science during fiscal years 2005–2008. Not all connections of the current staff members have been integrated into this network, however. The connections of former staff members, too, have been included only inadequately in the network. The network must be expanded further and improved, especially considering that a decade has passed since the program was implemented and considering that many personnel transfers of counterparts and entry of new members have occurred on the Japan side.
For the Minpaku African exhibition project team in such a condition, the aim of the Info-Forum Museum Project to integrate the materials currently stored at Minpaku into a multilingual, interactive database might not be a simple goal to reach. Synchronizing the network expansion and enhancement and the database development, however, can be expected to facilitate the future progress of the project. Although the primary purpose of this project is to develop a database with added network expansion and enhancement necessary for the database development to the plan as appropriate will help build the basis of future growth and strengthen the database and network.
Based on such an understanding, we expect to develop both the database and network in all fiscal years. Related details will be presented in sections 5-3 and 5-4.

Expected results

Note: Results also reveal what kind of database it would be.
We expect to build the initial database at the end of the first fiscal year and to begin trial operation of the database (multilingual database) equipped with a function to apply comments in Japanese and official languages of African countries such as English, French, Swahili, and Portuguese. This database will be used by several to dozens of researchers as a basis of communication rather than being published on the internet. Data entries and document titles in the sample will be made searchable in at least these five languages, which will be available for viewing to researchers based in Africa and which will accommodate the addition of document information as necessary.
We shall hold workshops in multiple countries (two countries each year are planned) in the second and third years to have participants use the database as a trial and add information about the materials. In the final fiscal year (fourth year), we will build and release a small public database using detailed information added by the participants in the workshops in each country in which the workshops are held. Although the small databases might be available in only one language rather than in multiple languages (or two languages including Japanese), we are planning to build detailed databases that incorporate consideration of the local context.
We will hold an international symposium in Japan in the final fiscal year and will discuss the relevance between the cultural situation of the entire Africa, which is based on material culture, and identity development. We expect to publish the results in SES or SER.
Achievements in the network development will include the ability to pass down the networks of individual members to future generations collectively and extend and widen the personal connections of young researchers. We will be able to hold an international symposium in the final year based on academic exchange agreements.

Annual Report

Outcomes from 2020

1. The state of the implementation of this year’s research

We carried out a thorough examination of the provisional database (with 908,644 records in English and Japanese), which is already in use by the members of the project team. Further, concurrently with this work we also produced the data in French and Portuguese. These two streams of work will be complete in May 2021. Once completed, it is anticipated that the number of records will double to 1,817,288 records. Currently, the database is in limited release to those related to the project, but following the above period, data registration and then checks will occur through the in-house Minpaku launch, and by the end of September it will be available online to general internet users.
Due to the considerable impact COVID-19, during this year of the project we were unable to hold the international workshop where we had planned to use the provisional database. This project was originally scheduled to be completed by March 2021, however special measures gave us the permission necessary to rollover funds and use them after April 2021. Once COVID-19 abates, it will be possible to hold workshops with the complete database in its four languages.
In the completed database in order to effectively collect local information on materials, we have newly established a ‘memory card accrual function’ which will aid smooth communication between Minpaku and local researchers and furthermore, with source communities.

2. Overview of the research results (achievements of the research objectives)

It is a point of regret that we were unable to complete the examination of the database within the project time frame. We will carry this out quickly and once we have completed the French and Portuguese data, we will make the complete database open access by the end of September 2021.
Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic we were unable to hold the international workshops. However, we have kept in contact through email with researchers in Cameroon and Kenya who we were in touch with until the previous year. Once the pandemic abates, the preparations to restart our project plan have been made. As we have received permission to rollover the funds that we were unable to expend in 2020 until 2021, if there is no concern with the pandemic, we plan to hold the international workshops with the complete database and collaboration with local researchers and the source community can take place.

3. Records disclosing achievements (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)

・Iida, Taku. “Making Museum Objects Revive in Human Societies: An Experience of an Image-Sharing Project between Africa and East Asia” Serial Academic Webinars of Minpaku Special Research Project “Cultural Transmission against Collective Amnesia: Bodies and Things in Heritage Practices,” Online Conference, National Museum of Ethnology, February 27, 2021.
・Iida, Taku. “Re-embedding Museum Objects into Local Communicative Networks” ACHS (Association of Critical Heritage Studies) Fifth Biennial Conference 2020, Online Conference, University College London, London, UK, August 26, 2020.
・Iida, Taku/Abiti Adebo Nelson/Thomas Laely/Kiyoshi Umeya/Jacqueline Grigo/Ryo Nakamura/Keiya Hanabuchi/Katsuhiko Keida. “Local Values of Heritage in Africa: Swinging between the Universal and Local, as Well as the Tangible and Intangible” ACHS (Association of Critical Heritage Studies) Fifth Biennial Conference 2020, Online Conference, University College London, London, UK, August 26, 2020.
・Hideaki Suzuki. “The Rise of Nosy Be: Conjunction between Indian Ocean network and imperial expansion” A Statistical Study of Indian Ocean Trade: Towards a Reappraisal of Regional Trade in Modern World History, Online Conference, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, October 30, 2020.

Outcomes from 2019

1. The state of the implementation of this year’s research

Building on the English-Japanese database constructed last year, we continued to implement the following work:
1.Artifact names, region names and ethnic group names were reviewed in English and Japanese
2.Careful examination into whether the names of those who collected the materials can be released in English and Japanese (privacy considerations and so on)
3.Preparation of the content categories displayed in French and other languages
4.Supplementation of detailed information in English and French
In regards to numbers 1. and 2., together with a part-time staff member who progressed the mechanical work forward, Professor Iida carried out occasional checks, and in relation to 3., Iida progressed the majority of investigation. In relation to 4., work is most progressed on the Cameroon materials and we held workshops over August and September in order to investigate future organisational work. These were, as indicated in the original documentation, for the ‘refinement of ethnological information’. We organized the data collected by our cooperating partners in Cameroon, entered it into our data spreadsheet software so that it would be reflected in the database, and discussed the work plan moving forward. At the workshops, our Kenyan cooperating partners who are working on the organization of the Kenyan materials, which have not progressed as far as that for Cameroon, also participated and we discussed our future cooperative relationship.

2. Overview of the research results (achievements of the research objects)

In regards to points 1. ~ 3., work is still continuing as we approach the end of the project year. We will finish work in the last year of the project, by the latter half of 2020, and plan to upgrade the current provisional database version to a publicly available database.
In relation to 4., through a process of discussion on the detailed categories at the workshops, a plan to create a private section within the public database, where informants can add in their memories of artifacts over the long-term, was put forward. If we follow this plan, and an interview was carried out regarding an artifact, the same number of ‘memory cards’ as informants would be created and could be shared amongst cooperating researchers. Once the project is completed, and the publicly available database is active, through the use of this ‘memory card accrual function’, this part of the project which we were unable to start during the project period could be developed (with separate funding).

3. Records disclosing achievements (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)

Outcomes from 2018

1. The state of the implementation of this year’s research

Information on materials collected from sub-Saharan African countries and owned by Minpaku was organized, and a pilot version of database accessible in Japanese and English was created. At the beginning of this year, the number of materials was 20,737; however, owingto overlapping items found later, the final number was reduced to 20,651. This database is now available on the Internet exclusively to the persons concerned who know the password.
In Kenya, discussions were held by presenting this database for further study cooperation. In January, researchers will be invited from Cameroon to hold a workshop at Minapku, where we will discuss how to use Minpaku’s materials with Cameroonian researchers and members of the source communities, mainly through browsing this database. In addition, in February, we will talk about how to develop the activity for profound understanding of the materials with local researchers, while advancing the research on Ethiopian and Botswanan materials.
In the first half of this fiscal year, the information-related operations of Minpaku were unexpectedly concentrated due to an earthquake and a mail server trouble, which resulted in a brief delay in building a database. However, in the last half, research interaction was activated as planned, by using the final version of the database. In the next year, the activity in this field will be accelerated further.

2. Overview of the research results (achievements of the research objects)

The completion of the database enabled its users to understand at a glance the African collection status of Japanese ethnographic museums. Coincidentally, President Macron in France decided to return part of the collections owned by French museums to its former colonial countries in Africa, and the movements of the museums attracted much attention. The Africa-related researchers of Minpaku do not feel that the collection should be returned soon. However, it is important to disclose the database step-by-step to initiate the discussion. The positioning in the research project is expected to be focused on further.
The completed database requires further improvement on notation of the sample material titles and privacy of the collectors. To prevent such problems, perfect checking should be finished, and the database should be “multilingualized” for access in French, Portuguese, and Swahili.

3. Records disclosing achievements (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)

(Oral Presentation at an Academic Meeting)
Taku IIDA “Escape from Geographical Restraint – Toward a Museum for Africans and Africanists” at the 55th Annual Conference of the Japan Association for African Studies (May 27, 2018, Hokkaido University, Sapporo)

Outcomes from 2017

1. The state of the implementation of this year’s research

This project handles the sub-Saharan African collection of Minpaku, comprising 20,737 items. We extracted all records related to this collection from databases that are currently available in Japanese, renamed the items in Japanese based on a certain policy, and translated them into English. Based on these translations, we expect to build a database for Japan that includes the new names and an English database containing the minimum required information at the beginning of the next fiscal year. We will be able to use the databases as the platforms of studies related to artifact collections at Minpaku and to develop the studies in and after the next fiscal year. During the current fiscal year, we held researcher gatherings in four countries including Ghana (Iida Be and Yoshida), Benin (Iida), Cameroon (Iida and Toda), and Ethiopia (Iida and Kawase), and discussed the feasibility of future joint research. As a result, researchers proposed joint research not only of artifact collections, but of various academic resources held by Minpaku such as audio materials recorded by Professor Kazuhisa Eguchi, which are included in the Minpaku archive collections, and images related to overall cultural phenomena.

2. Overview of the research results (achievements of the research objects)

We were able to examine the Japanese names of the items and to determine their English names, which is an important achievement made during the current fiscal year. This achievement enables us to build an English database containing the minimum required information and to share it with African researchers who are non-Japanese speakers. Although we had originally hoped to complete translation into other languages such as French, we have decided that we would be able to achieve progress more efficiently by sharing at least the English database with researchers outside Minpaku to conduct joint research using the English database while simultaneously translating it into other languages.

3. Records disclosing achievements (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)

Nothing in particular