Nomad — Reconnecting with Somali Heritage

Centered on workshops engaging Somali communities in London, Nomad explores the creative use of immersive and web-based technology to contextualise archival Somali objects with the people and traditions to which they belong. Nomad is a collaborative project by Mnemoscene and Abira Hussein. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and premiered at the British Library and British Museum during Somali Week Festival 2018.

What was the motivation to start this project?

Nomad’s story began with three objects of Somali heritage: a headrest, a bowl, and an incense burner — all digitised by the British Museum. Thanks to Object Journeys, another project of Abira Hussein, these objects were freely available to use under a Creative Commons license.

A Somali headrest digitised using photogrammetry

What was your role in the project?

At Mnemoscene, Ed Silverton and I worked closely with Abira Hussein throughout the project. We initially met at a briefing event and soon discovered a shared interest in archives, collective memory, community stories, and immersive technology. After our meeting, we started to think about the ways in which we could use immersive technology to explore, present and experience Somali culture.

Original image of the British Library Foyer by Robert Day. Digital visualisation by Sophie Dixon.

How did the use of Mixed Reality (MR) help in telling your story?

Going back to our initial ideas, we wanted to contextualise Somali heritage inside everyday spaces and so, from an early stage, we identified Mixed Reality(MR) as our medium. Unlike Virtual Reality, when you wear an MR headset such as the HoloLens you see your everyday environment transformed with a virtual overlay.

Participants trying the Mixed Reality in a workshop
Workshop participants using the Augmented Reality postcards

What happened at the workshops?

As a nomadic experience, the project itself traveled as a workshop to different public spaces during Somali week. These workshops were exciting events in which participants, inspired by the experience, were also able to digitise their own heritage objects. We used a light tent and turntable-based photogrammetry process for the digitisation, alongside oral history recordings to capture the stories of their owners.

Workshop at the British Museum during Somali Week Festival
Photogrammetry taking place during the workshops
Diagram to show the relationship between archive, immersive experience, and workshops

What was the biggest challenge?

For us, some of the greatest challenges faced emerged when creating the Mixed Reality experience. While the concept came to us very easily, turning that into an immersive experience took much longer. It was important for us that the characters looked ephemeral enough as so not to distract attention from the objects, yet still be identifiably Somali. We had a very clear idea of how we wanted the experience to look and went through many iterations to achieve it. In addition, we also faced UX challenges as, in particular, the HoloLens currently has quite a restricted field of view. To overcome this challenge, we used motion and sound to guide the users’ gaze to ensure they didn’t miss anything.

Was there something specific you learned about collaboration?

Given that immersive technologies are still relatively nascent, there’s always an aspect of discovery and experimentation. In my experience, it seems that if you’re not careful you can lose sight of why you’re using the technology and become preoccupied with what you’re making and how you’re making it . From experience, I’ve found that collaborating with people from different backgrounds and skill-sets can mitigate against this as you’re having to re-establish the project goals and meet on common ground in every conversation. Abira, Ed, and I approached Nomad from very different perspectives and as a result, our differences in opinion would always lead to a solution that had been thoroughly interrogated. For every idea that came to fruition, there were many which we left behind.

What does the term “storytelling” mean to you?

Nomad is about showing not telling. With the exception of a short intro video, the Mixed Reality experience doesn’t have a voiceover telling you about the objects, sounds, or people. It was a response to the restrictions that can come when we attempt to label things, when we attempt to impose narratives onto objects which we ourselves have not directly experienced. We invite people who try the experience to fill the absences with their own interpretations and questions. We acted as facilitators during the workshops to record the stories of people who had brought objects to be added to the archive and in that regard, Nomad is an experiment in “bringing your own narrative”. It’s an exploration in finding out ways in which immersive technologies can be used to encourage new narratives about the past to emerge in the present.

Thank you for the interview, Sophie!

Sophie Dixon, co-founder of Mnemoscene, is a visual artist and educator working with film and immersive media. She has taken up residencies in the UK and Europe, and has exhibited in solo and group shows at events including the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam and the Turner Contemporary in the UK.

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