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Digital lieux de mémoire. Connecting history and remembrance through the Internet

Madalena Cunha Matos, Johan Lagae et Rachel Lee

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1Digital Humanities is an emerging field of knowledge that has triggered scholarly interest throughout the past decade. Architectural historians are also engaging in it, presenting their findings in new ways via multimedia companions to scholarly journals, using advanced techniques of 3D-simulation to study historical built environments, mining data from the growing number of historical sources that became available via digitisation projects, or drawing on data-visualisation software to map networks. The new technologies demand new approaches: as the sources change; what we perceive as sources also changes. Thus, the digital revolution does not only impact on our work procedures, it makes us apprehend the seemingly immaterial contents of the www as new material to work with. Beyond readily accessible digitised databanks, and high resolution photographs in official digital archives, for example, the Internet also offers access to everyday, personal sources on urban history.

2Non-institutional web presences that address the urban pasts of cities in former European colonies across the world have emerged as potential sources of this kind. Most often instigated by former colonials, these websites, which are situated in a liminal space between fact and fiction, pose challenges to architectural historians, all the more so since individual as well as collective memory is commonly framed in spatial terms, so that such websites in many cases offer a wealth of particular material related to buildings and sites.

3To address these challenges, three perspectives are introduced here that highlight variations of this global phenomenon. Madalena Cunha Matos, who initiated the reflection on this topic during a presentation at the 3rd Annual Meeting of the COST-Action “European Architecture beyond Europe”, in Lisbon in February 2013, will explore the particular case of websites dealing with or touching upon colonial built heritage in the former Portuguese colonies of Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. This is followed by Johan Lagae’s discussion of the potentials and limitations of similar websites in the former Belgian colony Democratic Republic of Congo. Finally Rachel Lee presents a single case study from Bangalore, India, that in some ways contrasts significantly with the previous examples.

Digital lieux de mémoire. Notes from a Portuguese perspective by Madalena Cunha Matos

Between Memory and History

  • 1 Pierre Nora, “Between History and Memory”, in Pierre NORA (ed.), Realms of Memory: Rethinking the F (...)
  • 2 Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian”, The American Historical Review, vol. 37, no. 2, January (...)

4The partially overlapping fields of Memory and Heritage Studies have both recently undergone acceleration and expansion. Heritage, the more traditional form of enquiry, is largely the domain of historians, while interest in the implications of memory has led to the academic line of research affiliated to Nora’s lieux de mémoire. For architectural historians working on colonial built heritage, it is important to be aware of as well as engage with these different disciplinary fields of knowledge and the existing tensions between them, as they challenge the ways we approach our topic of inquiry. In this discussion, I would like to extend the concept of memory sites to our present-day world and ask how architectural historians can engage with former colonial places that are recognized, written about, photographed, and discussed by a non-predetermined collective over the World Wide Web, thereby taking into account the suspicion towards memory that Nora posits (1996).1 Every man his own historian indeed: no longer by the self-defined task of Nora’s “everyone” who sets out to explore origin and evolution and in so doing redefines the identity of the social group to which he happens to belong, nor in the pragmatic sense of Carl Becker’s “Mr. Everyman” (1932) who, by minding his own business, chooses and collects data in order to live.2 Our means of communication and production have changed substantially since then. Diverse publishing opportunities now abound. Everyone can collaborate, initiate, present and produce material, comment upon it, and engage with others in the particular public sphere of the Internet.

5One can argue that the websites, online forums and blogs devoted to the colonial experience come under the umbrella of the Noresque concept lieux de mémoire. Places, sites: at once natural and artificial, simple and ambiguous, concrete and abstract. These hybrid places, which convey the presence of the past, forever changing and making us part of a real-time, present-time experience, while functioning as Mobius strips between the individual and the collective, challenge architectural historians working on colonial built heritage to come to terms with their significance.

6Architectural historians share objects of perception and knowledge with the rest of society: their common ground is the built environment. Infrequently, a paradigmatic event, such as the gaining of political independence, ruptures that common ground. After these social upheavals, many previously constructed and used buildings retain a particular status as constants, persisting throughout the subsequent demographic and political rifts. At the same time they are carriers of yet further meanings. Michael Guggenheim (2009) extends the notion of collaboration between humans and non-humans, as he relates door-openers and closers, Latour’s now classical example of a technology, to entire buildings. They are mutable immobiles, long-term occupiers of specific sites, differing from technologies because they are unpredictable. They accommodate different uses by different people simultaneously, and can be extended—or diminished—over time. Supposed stabilizers of society, they incorporate changes in time and space, and are prone to dismemberment and semiotic transformation: they escape control. It is their privilege of continued existence that interests us here—even if that continued existence only persists through photographs. In any postcolonial context, images of colonial buildings are reminders of what was lost in the former colonies. They can cause emotional longings and produce a memory that is constantly made and remade by the addition of further strata of meaning. In the era of the Internet, the image, whether static or dynamic, is multiplied ad-infinitum and activated by the user-maker. What role do these on-line artefacts play in the production of architectural knowledge? How do they affect the long mourning and healing process associated with loss? What opportunities and challenges for the architectural historian emerge from the omnipresence and quick availability of images of buildings in former colonial territories through the Internet? I will discuss such questions by exploring the websites linked to the particular Portuguese situation.

Coming to terms with a recent decolonisation

  • 3 For an early study of Portuguese colonial architecture in Africa, see José Manuel Fernandes, Geraçã (...)
  • 4 See for instance Ana Magalhães and Inês Gonçalves, Moderno Tropical. Arquitectura em Angola e Moçam (...)

7Portugal’s revolution of 1974 and the subsequent end of 500 years of empire occurred at a particular moment in history that was somehow different, more protracted, than the end of the other European colonial empires. These portentous events antedated by two decades the advent of the Internet, which was commercialized in 1995. Since then, the independence of the ex-colonies in Africa has prompted the emergence of both institutional and spontaneous web presences that allow individuals to personalize and present information about the lands where many of them once lived. Due to the temporal proximity of decolonisation, numerous ex-colonizers or ex-military in the Portuguese colonial wars are still alive—and keen on having their experience recognized. Most often, the material they upload is largely image based. Portuguese architectural and urban historians, who have only very recently taken an interest in colonial matters,3 have so far almost completely disregarded these web productions; scant attention has been given to similar material elsewhere. This is all the more striking since the colonial memory that is constructed via these “popular” websites is in fact often built around or attached to specific sites and buildings, the physical lieux de mémoire that Nora described. More often than not, the vanishing memory of the Portuguese colonial past in Africa, be it individual or collective, is woven into the tangibility of places, ranging from the wide open areas of geographies remembered via advertising signs, such as the well-known large yellow lettering on the roof advertising CUCA beer on a recently demolished high-rise building in Luanda,4 from the turning of a street corner to a Sunday afternoon ice-cream parlour; just like Proust’s petite madeleine.

Buildings as condensors of meaning

8What struck me most when I began considering the relevance of websites and blogs in colonial history was the layering process that their very existence entails. The layering of meaning onto buildings and places occurs everywhere, but in the settings of the Portuguese ex-colonies, remembrance of places is still fresh and present in the minds of a vast number of individuals in the former metropolis. As compared with most African colonies, and more so Asian ones, the décalage of ten to fifteen years from the period European colonizers lived in these territories means that the Portuguese returning home, or to their home country, include a younger generation, who are perhaps more prone to initiating web-based projects. It also includes a large group of military personnel who fought the colonial wars and lived, albeit often through obligation, a part of their youth years in African and Asian cities and rural areas. After arriving at their war destination these young men often photographed their new surroundings, the results of which are now sometimes to be found online. Rumo a Fulacunda is an example of a blog created by one of these former military figures, who was transported to the colony of Guinea, nowadays Guinea-Bissau, in the early years of the war between the PAIGC guerilla and the Portuguese. A valuable collection of photographs, constituted by the author’s private records, but also by many of his comrades in arms and other contributors, mainly shows the buildings in Bissau but also in other towns.5 The site Luís Graça & Camaradas da Guiné6 is a collectively edited blog of a group that also waged a war in the territory of present day Guinea-Bissau. The soldiers’ former military barracks are documented alongside images of the city of arrival and landscapes. Consider for instance the entry titled “Guiné 63/74 - P2691: Memórias dos Lugares (6): A Bissau dos anos 50, que eu conheci (Mário Dias)”, in which a collection of known and unknown buildings and settings are illustrated and commented upon; personal knowledge of the sites, their use and transformation is revealed.7 In a photograph from that entry, shown below (fig. 1), what is striking is that the photograph on the one hand captures the mid-century residential building typology of the edifice in a precise manner, but on the other hand does not reveal anything of the former colonial environment it was part of; it is solely commented upon on the basis of the commentator’s personal experience, providing no clues to situate it historically.

Figure 1: Guinea-Bissau, 1950s.

Figure 1: Guinea-Bissau, 1950s.

Guiné > Bissau > Anos 50 > Uma das muitas moradias que um pouco por toda a cidade de Bissau iam surgindo. Esta situava-se, e situa-se ainda, em frente à residência do Prefeito Apostólico (bispo) e nela residi durante algum tempo por ser propriedade da minha madrasta. Creio que hoje é residência de um embaixador. Qual, não sei. (MD) = Guinea > Bissau > 1950s > One of the many villas that were being put up all around the city. This one was situated, and is still situated, in front of the residence of the Apostolic Prefect (bishop) and I lived here for a certain time because it belonged to my stepmother. I believe that today it is the residence of an ambassador. Of what country, I don’t know. (MD).

Source: Mário Roseira Dias.

Distant and local voices

9Some blogs exist in more than one medium: the above has a facebook presence.8 Many of these blogs are collectively constructed and are part of an affiliation kept alive as a nostalgic or identity-centred action; residents of such or such a place, alumni of such or such a high school, collect data on their common past. The appearance of architecture or urban design is almost always a side effect of the exposure of the website authors’ life experiences; nevertheless, the spatial turn is a defining factor in these websites, even the crux of the matter. It is the location that allowed these people to meet, to live in close quarters and to intermingle their lives; it is the location that gives them their identity. Many blogs and sites do combine present day elements—be it people or experiences. Buildings reappear in a notation of their present state—of decay or of transformation. Beyond the websites by military personnel, others are created by African citizens; a large percentage is a product of expatriates living temporarily in these African countries; some are by Portuguese citizens who either stayed on, or came back after having lived a number of years in Portugal; others are by people who emigrated—as part of the new generation’s need to leave Portugal, a generation already born outside of the colonial relationship.

10Contrasting with the above-mentioned global geographical interest, the main focus of other websites is to collect postcards and photographs of particular cities; in so doing, they distinguish pre and post-independence images, further contributing to the temporal readings of the territories. Some are silent, using no words and functioning by a juxtaposition of images (fig. 2). Others speak through captions only. The observation of the same territory decades later is the objective of some blogs, such as the one initiated by a former resident on the area of Benguela and Lobito, after having returned to the spot 30 years later.9 The open air Kalunga cinema in Benguela, Angola, built in the 1960s, is registered in its state of conservation as of 2007 (fig. 3).

Figure 2: Before and after in Blog Lubango (Angola).

Figure 2: Before and after in Blog Lubango (Angola).


Figure 3: Cinema Kalunga

Figure 3: Cinema Kalunga

Passando a entrada e já lá dentro... temos de passar ‘o arco’ (Angola) = “Having crossed the entrance and being inside already, one has to cross the “arch”.


11On the other side of the postcolonial spectrum, locally constructed blogs have steadily sprung up, especially in Angola (fig. 4), where in a number of cases anti-colonialism still seems an agenda. Some movements in the protection of the modern heritage have been vocal but have achieved only modest results; promising movements are that of the Luanda’s nationals, inhabitants and friends Associação Kalu and the “Campanha REVIVER – Poruma Luanda com Alma”, which is directed by the Angolan architect Ângela Mingas. Mainly, non-nostalgic blogs are of less interest to the colonial architectural historian, because they do not focus as strongly on the built environment. Yet, some do contain elements of interest, such as the Mozambique centered maschamba10, in which the Maputo based anthropologist and archaeologist José Flávio Pimentel Teixeira is a leading figure. It encompasses all aspects of the cultural life in the country and gives a critical and engaged view of life in post-colonial Mozambique, including the built environment (fig. 5). The Companhia de Moçambique11, whose author is reticently identified as Rui M. P., is a very useful blog in the understanding of the early 20th century political and economic situation of Portuguese Eastern Africa. The extraordinary quality of its textual contents makes the fact that it has not been updated since 2010 all the more disappointing. Such websites highlight the unique relationship between people and buildings at a particular moment in time that cannot be reiterated and, by implication, has no link to how others view these buildings. This makes them a volatile, yet precious media.

Figure 4: Facebook group Baú dos tempos.

Figure 4: Facebook group “Baú dos tempos”.

In which province, municipality, district or neighborhood is (was) located this building?’ (Angola).


Figure 5: “Small epitomous building” in Maputo: a critique of the “vitrification” undergone by the city.

Figure 5: “Small epitomous building” in Maputo: a critique of the “vitrification” undergone by the city.


12Sometimes the photographs are the only remnants of the buildings and the urbanscapes that existed and were the setting of life for generations. More than the civil wars that ravaged Angola and Mozambique, decay and an aggressive real-estate redevelopment has destroyed ordinary and exceptional buildings alike. Blogs and sites register the transformations; some are critical and are a powerful media to share and to create a public opinion that can help reverse the climatically irresponsible glass-tower seduction.

13But blogs and sites disappear at a rate much higher than we like to think, accustomed as we are to long-standing materials, deposited in archives and libraries which, brittle as they may be, retain a certain materiality; these digital sources, on the contrary, are volatile and the maintenance of the texts, photographs, drawings that they exhibit is not a given. Particularly the individual blogs and sites are much dependent on the motivation, health or life of their authors (fig. 6). These precious testimonies, which are made available by the generosity of anonymous or notable individuals, are prone to disappear into oblivion, as observers are distracted. No institution has taken on the task of safeguarding these fragile materials; perhaps they should. Perhaps more sustainable collections should be built around or out of these unorthodox sources.

Figure 6: The Colonial mooring in Lisbon after one more crossing of the Atlantic, in the middle of the war.

Figure 6: The “Colonial” mooring in Lisbon after one more crossing of the Atlantic, in the middle of the war.


Digital lieux de mémoire. Notes from a Belgian perspective by Johan Lagae

“Who needs experts”?

14In a soon to be published volume Who Needs Experts? Counter-mapping Cultural Heritage (2014), editor John Schofield argues, as he has already done elsewhere, for including the local and the everyday within cultural heritage discourse, arguing that these can offer “a meaningful challenge to authorised or ‘expert’ views of heritage” and usefully contribute to a “more inclusive and socially relevant cultural agenda”.12 I tend to agree with this point of view and believe that in this respect it is important for architectural historians working on the built environment in former colonized territories to engage with—often popularizing—websites explicitly or implicitly related to the topic. Over the course of the last years, I have in fact been following a number of websites dealing with the colonial past of the former Belgian Congo that offer particular entry points for studying the built environment for a number of cities, such as Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui13 or Kinshasa then and now14, but also ones that address particular target communities, such as the—no longer active—website of the former students of (colonial) schools in Katanga15 and a remarkable website on the Jewish cemetery in Lubumbashi, that targets the worldwide Jewish diaspora.16

Figure 1: Homepage of the website Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui.

Figure 1: Homepage of the website Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui.


15All of these websites were initiated by former members of the white communities of colonial society. As such, they offer a very particular perspective on colonial history and its built environment, where feelings of nostalgia often lurk around the corner. In the opening statement of the website Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui, its founder Jean-Luc Ernst touches upon the issue, explaining that the initiative was, at least partly, triggered by the ambivalent feelings of a former colonial who holds fond memories of his youth spent in Congo but since the 1980s was being confronted in Belgium with a growing critical stance on Belgium’s colonial past. By creating a platform that would allow to collectively bring together a wealth of information on this particular city, he hoped to avoid the pitfalls of the very polarized debate on Belgium’s colonial past, arguing that “the work of history should deal first in stating the facts, and second with trying to make sense of them, but never with judging them”.17 What makes this website remarkable in relation to the others discussed here is that it has succeeded in involving a large number of participants. Under the section “Remerciements” (Acknowledgements),18 there is an impressive list of people who have posted material on the website, including quite a number of Congolese. This wide range of contributors, coupled with the fact that this website is updated several times a week ever since it was launched, shows how such media can be a powerful means of creating a widely shared interest in and awareness of (local) history. One should of course not forget that only a particular section of the local population has the means and the literacy to engage with such a platform. That is to say that, in this particular case, this website can only constitute one of many elements of information to (re)write Kisangani’s urban history. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that scholars should take such sources into consideration, as they not only provide a wealth of documentation but, as I will argue below, offer a way into an “embedded” perspective on particular built environments.

Sites, Buildings and (some) collective memories

  • 19 Hélène Lipstadt, “Review of Pierre Nora (ed.), Realms of Memory: the Construction of the French Pas (...)

16What is remarkable in the four websites mentioned is that they all, to a greater or lesser degree, provide a wealth of material on buildings, sites and urban landscapes. While this characteristic of course is first and foremost linked to my interest in websites that would offer me information on the former colonial built environment, it also results from a more general phenomenon—namely that “space is a component of the social framing that makes memory collective”, as architectural historian Hélène Lipstadt noted in her review of the English version of Pierre Nora’s book project Lieux de mémoire.19 It is thus not surprising that one of the most developed sections in the aforementioned website on Kisangani is the one dealing with buildings.

Figure 2: Menu Buildings of the website Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui.

Figure 2: Menu “Buildings” of the website Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui.


Figure 3: Photographs of the construction of a 1950s collective residential complex, posted by Rémi d’Heere on the website Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui.

Figure 3: Photographs of the construction of a 1950s collective residential complex, posted by Rémi d’Heere on the website Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui.

Source: Rémi d’Heere.

17Organized according to building typology, it offers anyone interested in the city a very rich visual database of both historical images as well as contemporary ones, and even a “virtual tour” in which recent photographs are linked to an urban map. But more telling is perhaps that the section “Recherche” (Questions) contains quite a number of requests for information posted by former inhabitants of the city that are explicitly linked to photographs of particular sites and buildings, demonstrating the extent to which memory is linked to physical sites and via a physical artefact or lieu can develop from the personal to the collective.

18The website targeting former students of schools in Katanga offers a further demonstration of this phenomenon of the spatiality of memory. Of course, alumni constitute a very particular kind of community and this website was partly initiated as an instrument to strengthen it. It acts as a virtual forum for encounter, but also stimulates the coming together of the community physically, as a number of the requests posted consisted of invitations for dinner parties and the like. What made this website relevant for my own research on Lubumbashi, however, was that an important part of it provided a wealth of material on the former school buildings of the city, from annual lists of students to a bulk of visual material. Hence, its relevance for research was double: the visual data complemented the documents that I had already collected on the topic in official archives, but the website also formed an entry point to come into contact with potential informants on the city’s history, and setting up an oral history project.

  • 20 Moise Rahmani, Shalom Bwana. La saga des Juifs du Congo, Paris: Romillat, 2002 (Terra Hebraïca).

19In terms of linking memory and space, the website of the Jewish cemetery in Lubumbashi is quite peculiar, as it is constructed around a site of remembrance par excellence. Initiated by a former member of the city’s Jewish community who now lives in Brussels and has also written a history of the Jews in Congo that is largely based on interviews,20 the website documents each tomb in the cemetery of a community that during colonial times played a very important role in Lubumbashi—the synagogue built in 1929-1930 is in fact the most important one in the whole of Congo.

Figure 4: Series of tombs in the Jewish cemetery of Lubumbashi.

Figure 4: Series of tombs in the Jewish cemetery of Lubumbashi.


  • 21 Few tombs actually have specific information attached to them.
  • 22 A part from Moise Rahmani’s popularizing account of Jewish presence in Congo, I would like to refer (...)

20Inviting members of the Jewish diaspora worldwide to post information on those buried here, the website turns the cemetery into a genuine digital lieu de mémoire. So far, however, the initiative has been much less successful than the Kisangani website in involving outsiders to post material.21 But again, it offers an interesting starting point to come into contact with a peculiar group of Lubumbashi’s former colonial society that has only recently received some attention in scholarly research.22

  • 23 On this “memory work” see Bogumil Jewsiewicki, “Travail de mémoire et représentations pour un vivre (...)
  • 24 On the important role of the Greeks, see Georges Antippas, Pionniers méconnus du Congo belge, Bruxe (...)

21Although the aforementioned websites provide us with links to collective memories which can be useful for research, we of course need to consider that we are talking first and foremost on memories of a particular community, namely that of members of the former white colonizers’ society. The African memories are almost completely lacking in the four websites I discuss here. This is important to stress, not only because we thus lack a local perspective on the buildings and sites presented by these websites, but also, as the “memory work” conducted among current inhabitants of Lubumbashi, or Lushois, suggests, local communities would highlight other sites and buildings.23 The Jewish cemetery, for instance, is completely absent in Lushois urban memory. And it is quite telling that in the wealth of material compiled on the urban landscape on Kisangani, we do not find any indication of the so-called “quartier des arabisés” (the “Arab quarter”), which was a constitutive element of the urban environment during colonial times. If Congolese cities were quite cosmopolitan, with a complex mix of Europeans, Africans, Indians and Asians living together, this is an aspect that is neglected in the websites consulted. The website Kinshasa then and now for instance includes a long entry on American presence in the capital city of the Belgian Congo, but not on the different African groups that lived in the city, nor on the urban experiences of the Portuguese, Greek, Italian or Jewish communities.24

A partial, yet intimate knowledge

22This said, one of the advantages of these websites is that they sometimes offer the scholar ways of getting a glimpse on intimate knowledge of the places that he/she is researching. Many of these sites offer a wealth of visual data, some of which is quite different in nature to what one can find in official archives and that most often is limited to official propaganda photographs. When images and documents that once belonged to the private sphere are posted on these websites, they enter into the public domain and become available for scholarly research.

Figure 5: Photograph of a marriage in Stanleyville – Kisangani.

Figure 5: Photograph of a marriage in Stanleyville – Kisangani.

Posted by Raymond Franck in the section “Recherches” of the website Stanleyville – Kisangani, hier et aujourd’hui.

Source: Raymond Franck.

  • 25 Elizabeth Edwards, Raw histories: photographs, anthropology and museums, New York; Oxford: Berg Pub (...)

23As visual historians such as Elisabeth Edwards have convincingly argued, photographs are sources for historical research that are not always used to their full potential. Providing the researcher with “raw histories”, they have a value beyond that of mere documentation, but are sources with which one has to work and that can, on occasion, help to re-assess conventional narratives.25 From this perspective, there is a lot to gain from the visual material that these websites allow access to, even if such images, of course, always have to be contextualized and studied in relation to other source material.

  • 26 Rebecca Ginsberg, At Home with Apartheid. The Hidden Landscapes of Domestic Service in Johannesburg (...)

24Often offering information and even contact details of who posted an image or a piece of information, such sites can also become valuable starting points for creating a network of informants and setting up an oral history project that can complement the ways in which we have been studying colonial architecture and planning so far. Rebecca Ginsberg’s 2011 book At Home with Apartheid. The Hidden Landscapes of Domestic Service in Johannesburg can serve as a good example to show what architectural history scholarship has to gain from engaging with oral history.26 Her analysis of the patterns that came to the fore on the everyday practices of domestic service by interviewing both former domestic servants and their masters, illuminates a crucial yet hitherto understudied aspect of South Africa’s spatial history. In my own research, I have been following such leads by speaking both with informants in Congo as well as with members of former white communities of various Congolese cities. Drawing on networks of former colonials such as those constructed via the websites discussed here, I invited a 76-year woman who once lived in Matadi to participate in a research seminar that I conducted on the city with students. Using google earth and large scale prints of old city maps and aerial photographs, we spent a whole afternoon discussing with her how she remembered her perception and experience of the urban spaces during her youth. As a pedagogic experiment, it was useful to show students what one can gain from such intimate knowledge, while simultaneously illustrating the extent to which it always remains partial and very often does not provide the responses to the questions raised by historical research.

Towards a historical scholarship 2.0?

25If these sites often provide a wealth of material and, in the best cases, a glimpse of how particular people perceive particular urban sites and buildings of interest, they do not, of course, provide profound reflections and critical analyses on them. In most cases, they remain reservoirs of data which the architectural historian can draw from to construct his/her own narrative. It is striking for instance that the Kisangani website, even if it focuses quite explicitly on buildings and urban landscapes, remains completely silent on the particular relationship that exists between a building and the larger urban environment that was shaped according to a policy that sought to introduce a neat spatial segregation along racial lines. The one website of those mentioned here that does address such issues is Kinshasa then and now.

Figure 6: Current homepage of the website Kinshasa then and now.

Figure 6: Current homepage of the website Kinshasa then and now.


26This particular site, or better, blog, was started on January 6, 2011 by someone who calls himself “Mwana Mboka” and, according to the info on the website, “moved to Congo in 1954 and Kinshasa in 1956” and “has lived and worked there off and on ever since”.27 From reading the different entries of this blog, it is clear that it was put together by someone with an intimate understanding of the city. Each of the entries is dedicated to a particular historical theme, the discussion of which hinges largely upon specific buildings and sites. While most entries focus on well known buildings such as the city’s main airport, sometimes the blog also addresses peculiar and often completely ignored edifices, such as the “Mad Baron’s Castle”, a residence that was erected in an elite area in Kinshasa during the Second World War and was demolished in 1989.28 Well researched and based on period documents of the time, each of the entries forms an insightful lesson on a particular aspect of the capital city of the Congo, that often complements existing sources on the history of Kinshasa’s built environment and especially provides a wealth of visual material on the topic.

  • 29 The project was initiated by Bernard Toulier and conducted in collaboration with architect Marc Gem (...)

27I must confess that I was quite struck when I first discovered the site, as it includes images and texts fragments translated into English that have been directly taken from a research project on the city’s architecture in which I was involved and that led not only to the publication of a book but also to a website ( that was online for a few months.29 The idea behind the website was that the heritage-project we conducted at the request of the French Ministry of Culture would gain if we immediately shared our findings with a larger audience, as it was to be expected that only few in Kinshasa would be able to acquire or even consult the book, due to a lack of a good library infrastructure. In Kinshasa, opposed to what one might expect, access to and literacy of the Internet is quite widespread, with cybercafés to be found even in the periphery of the city (which of course does not mean that everyone has the means to pay to go online).

Figure 7: atlas-page of the no longer active website

Figure 7: atlas-page of the no longer active website

Part of the atlas-page of the no longer active website indicating the location of the highlighted buildings and sites on an OpenStreetMap-platform.

28Hence, the website was conceived as an open source platform using OpenStreetMap to organize an inventory of sites and buildings we deemed relevant for the architectural and urban history of the city. It presented 150 entries with a description of a building’s history, its characteristics, recent photographs as well as documents from local archives, and bibliographic references. Due to a lack of means to update and maintain the website, as well as for a number of copyright related issues, was only online for a short period of time, but evidently long enough for the initiator of the Kinshasa then and now website to draw information from it and include it in his own site. Indeed, he indicated it as a source in many entries of his blog.

29I should thus not be surprised, let alone frustrated that someone used our website as a source, although it remains somewhat unsettling for a scholar like myself to see images that I personally photographed in local archives being included on a website without clear referencing. But then, websites—and the Internet as a whole—operates according to other standards than those we commonly use in academe. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I have also learned quite a lot about particular buildings from the Kinshasa then and now blog, as the author clearly has access to rare published sources and has a sound understanding of the networks underlying the city’s colonial society in the 1950s. So the question is if we, as scholars, should not accept such different norms of authorship. I would argue that we should stop being afraid of sharing information on the www. Maybe it will not give us academic credit in the short term, but I’m convinced that in the long run we can gain a lot by engaging in such forms of what one could call historical scholarship 2.0. I strongly believe it will be a crucial way to arrive at more “inclusive and socially relevant cultural agenda” on heritage that John Schofield is arguing for.

Digital lieux de mémoire. Notes on an Indian perspective by Rachel Lee

Collecting Bangalorean memories and histories

30About two years ago I became a member of the facebook group Bygone Bangalore.30 Motivated largely by my own research needs—I was studying the works and networks of the exiled German architect and planner Otto Koenigsberger in the south Indian city for my doctoral dissertation—I hoped that the group might provide me with some insights into Bangalore’s early-to-mid twentieth century urban past. I was not disappointed. Not only did the group help me clear up some questions and even provide me with additional visual material, by observing and participating in the discussions on the facebook page, my knowledge of Bangalore has increased significantly. This has helped me better embed and position my work within the local context. Without the group’s contributions, I would be ignorant about many aspects of Bangalore’s urban history that extend far beyond my limited research focus. As well as receiving information, the group has also given me the chance to contribute to discussions and share my own knowledge of the city, by recently taking part in a discussion about the history of the development of reinforced concrete balustrades, for example.

Figure 1: The Bygone Bangalore facebook group banner.

Figure 1: The Bygone Bangalore facebook group banner.


31What sets the Bygone Bangalore-facebook group apart from the other websites discussed above, is that it was not instigated by ex-colonial figures, but by an engaged Bangalorean—C. N. Kumar, a management consultant. While there are some British expats and other non-Indians, such as myself, within the group’s ranks, the vast majority of the members are Indian. Even more remarkable is that in less than 3 years, the group has attracted over 5,000 members and new posts of photographs, newspaper cuttings and maps are made on what seems like an almost hourly basis. Although facebook does not provide any statistics on the group, Kiran Natarajan, the group’s administrator, guesstimates that 20% of the members are based abroad, 20% in other cities in India, while the remaining 3,000 members live in Bangalore. Outside of the digital realm the group’s ambitions are also growing: in November 2013 they presented some of their collected images at the “Bangalore - Picturesque” exhibition curated by Surekha at the Rangoli-Metro Art Centre in Bangalore, and recent comments on the facebook page suggest there is growing enthusiasm for creating a permanent three-dimensional home for the treasure trove somewhere in the city.

32On 23 January I posted two questions on the group’s facebook wall: Why do you contribute to this facebook page? What is it that makes it so active and popular? A lively discussion quickly ensued and within 24 hours, 110 comments had been posted. Within the comments, the concept of “nostalgia” frequently recurred. This seems to be rooted as much in the frustration linked with the seemingly uncontrolled, insensitive and rapid development and the simultaneous destruction of heritage that has taken place in the past twenty years, as it does with a yearning for the calm, airy, tree-lined streets of the Bangalore of old. The nostalgia is very likely linked to another reason that was often expressed: to share and compare memories, particularly childhood memories. As Padmaja Challakere points out, what begins as nostalgia can be a gateway to something more productive, “given the scale and pace of urban reorganization, the local/specific history of cities survives only through such social memories. For me, this is history, not just nostalgia. And, yes, this is the Bangalore I have most loved.”31 Other members denied that reminiscing was a motivating factor for their participation; for them, the facebook group was a means to learn more about the history and heritage of their city and a place to meet people with similar interests.

Figure 2: Members of the group discuss why they participate.

Figure 2: Members of the group discuss why they participate.

Source: The Bygone Bangalore facebook group.

An open forum

33Within this particular digital lieu de mémoire, the posted images function as aide-mémoires, instigating animated discussions about the contributors’ memories of particular buildings, for example Otto Koenigsberger’s TB Sanatorium or the Ashoka Pillar, or thoughts about the location of, for example, the Bangalore baselines of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. Beyond recalling fond, or indeed unpleasant memories, these discussions are often far-reaching and insightful, revealing a deep-seated understanding of the buildings and places under examination. Indeed, aside from the wealth of visual information, perhaps the greatest potential that the site offers is the chance to discuss the posted buildings and maps with the passionate members of the eclectic group. Not only did the reaction to the above mentioned TB sanatorium provide me with a new image of the building—an unusual shot in which the building is pictured in the distance on the ridge of a hill beyond the city limits, which enhanced my understanding of the architect’s intentions—it also introduced me to opinions of the architecture (e.g. “What a joyless building on a bleak terrain”) and the landscape planning (apparently it is a nice spot for an al fresco lunch), the various uses of the building (it was used to isolate patients during a recent outbreak of bird flu) and other tuberculosis treatment facilities in the city.

Figure 3: Discussion about Otto Koenigsberger’s Tuberculosis Sanatorium.

Figure 3: Discussion about Otto Koenigsberger’s Tuberculosis Sanatorium.

Source: The Bygone Bangalore facebook group.

Figure 4: Discussion about the Bangalore baselines of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India.

Figure 4: Discussion about the Bangalore baselines of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India.

Source: The Bygone Bangalore facebook group.

34Another huge potential of the facebook group is the access to oral history it promises. The large number of members also opens up the prospect of conducting interviews and surveys, adding a much-needed local perspective on such issues as colonial urban heritage or building preservation. Moreover, instead of first travelling to Bangalore and spending days searching for people to talk to about heritage conservation, for example, by interacting with the group and participating in discussions, it is possible to find potential interview partners and local experts as well as to pinpoint current issues and concerns. It is thus a great way to prepare for a field trip. Furthermore, instead of being viewed as an outsider, as an active contributor to the group, the architectural historian (in this case me) becomes part of a community with shared interests, and part of a network of local knowledge that extends beyond the facebook website and into the urban reality of the city.

35By participating in the group’s discussions, and perhaps even instigating a few, we architectural historians can uncover interesting attitudes to and conceptions of urban heritage that challenge our understanding of the field and force us to think beyond the established categories we tend to work within. This can be illustrated with the example of colonial heritage, a subject that architectural historians and researchers, who often stem from countries with colonial pasts, are particularly interested in. Although there is no denying that Bangalore is a city with a significant colonial history, itdoes not pseemay tolWito particu very important ring in the gro"> Thistory of theRe thed accordinSo the qussions aboutcant coinlonial"en"> abouber of mde aconvincedding ( learntrt a jad othurren,y tolWitographowinghe no lriaps therd urban history of twebsitt welgeservltant. Whs quie-lined ,apsiotivng hsuggewe issf twneighsiory ch figuthat nterviewhad="envend documentdef tree Whs“GarThe Cg theless, Ige ofo.jpg"snducted as colonialdscape pial and, eybaseli abound the f outsries,t many aess, in thn events haabsorbesite and inwith a cwess, spects of Bangalosa’s built envioncercourse doef thetential thguthat nk groupe some Bu ve and pial and, wasiod eddiiative ha often comprs aretextualizer by ng viep="en">Part ork of(sitive an A livapped of !)oloniallevante. Cuthor cftrip. limited ret tha theal hi timexis tgeuildings suchs. So the quly didally xperienesuchldings s“ted as cin 1956” ss tted as cin 1956enich n hea( learwith a cebsite egown na to reive element loniussioner, voidy xperiecan it waive us acaished cateimagesrminanthrhe city.

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Source: The Bygone Bangalore facebook group.

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