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Canon SA extends partnership with Wits rock art digitisation laboratory

- Wits University

Canon South Africa and the Wits Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) partnered in 2021 to keep the preservation of rock art heritage alive.

Rock Art Research Institute's Digitisation Laboratory technicians

Today, the well-known optics brand will continue to fund posts in the RARI Digitisation Lab for another year. By extending their sponsorship, Canon SA has generously contributed three Transformation positions to the laboratory, showcasing Canon's expertise in the realm of digital storytelling while supporting the lab's mission.

RARI's support from Canon 

The Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) is home to the African Rock Art Digital Archive, a comprehensive digital collection of rock art images from across the continent. ARADA houses the national rock art digital records from institutions all over South Africa and Lesotho, but it also hosts the national archives of Namibia, Malawi and Zambia as well as the collections of multiple individuals and organisations worldwide. The new Canon staff look after some 300,000 digital images of world heritage. With a wealth of research and knowledge spanning over four decades, RARI has solidified its position as a leading institution dedicated to uncovering and preserving this diverse cultural heritage of our country and continent.

In November 2022, RARI launched an exhibition People Who Are Different, Come Together, of a new ultra-high-resolution facsimile of the exceptional San rock art panel. The panel contains the original painted image chosen for South Africa's national coat of arms. The facsimile also featured other San art at an ultra-high resolution thanks to Canon's expertise.

"One thing that Canon is quite big on is cultural heritage digital preservation," said Sam Challis, Head and Senior Researcher at RARI. "They are interested in supporting community initiatives and what they do aligns quite nicely with what we do."

The Digitisation Lab  

The Digi-lab has been running for many years and relies on both external and internal funding. When RARI approached Canon, the optics brand examined the digital laboratory located at the Origins Centre, to see how they could possibly improve it with new technology and solutions. People worldwide use the ARADA images archive for preserving and managing historical materials, so over time, requests, tasks, and everyday administrative work have steadily increased. This has made it clear that the Digi-lab needed more resources to handle everything. The sponsorship of three positions by Canon has boosted RARI and Wits enormously.

Rock art image prepared for processing

"We have three people currently working in our Digi-lab. We have our laboratory manager and two interns who assist with image processing. That is everything from digitally scanning the images to handling the metadata attached to it and managing the servers and requests," said Challis.

"Our laboratory technicians have also been through various courses and conferences in other related fields concerning digital archives. It's about growing them as people in the professional world of digital archiving."

Sello Mocumi, a digital image processor and Canon intern at RARI, started his career in Information Technology and Software Development before joining the institute.

“It’s really nice getting involved with students, lecturers and researchers here at Wits who discuss their findings with us. Learning about rock art and digitising it has been eye-opening over the last year,” said Mocumi.

On the other hand, Sihle Matshona, also a digital image processor and Canon intern, has a background as a librarian. Before joining RARI, she worked on metadata at the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town. Her journey into digitization began in 2016.

"Digitisation brought me here to RARI. I love history and being able to preserve it. I love working on these new scanners thanks to Canon. I am in a position where I enjoy the technical side of preserving history and learning about it," said Matshona.

Hailing from KwaZulu-Natal, laboratory manager Mbongeni Tembe has been an archivist for many years and holds a Master's degree in Information Studies.

"Here at RARI, I am dealing with records that differ from what I am used to. Before I joined, I was dealing with paper-based records and audio-visual records. Today, I am basically preserving history for future records," said Tembe.

Tembe, a professional archivist, emphasized that once history is lost, it is gone forever. That's why preserving materials becomes crucial, especially with the continuous development of new technological techniques.

"What was once drawn or depicted on a rock, is now on the internet for millions of people to see. They have access to that history thanks to the work we do."

Rock Art Digitisation Lab team