Google’s Art & Culture platform updated with documents, artifacts and music from Timbuktu

Google, working with historians from West Africa, has been working to digitize contemporary art, cultural and historic sites about Mali, and the digital library went live on Google Art & Culture (GAC) today, making these items available for exploration by the world.

Known as Mali Magic, the project has over 40,000 assets of digitized manuscript pages, a street view capture of nine heritage sites, and a 3D model and annotated tour of the Djenne Mosqué, the largest adobe structure in the world, initially built in the 13th century.

The catalog also contains an original music album, Maliba, which was exclusively created for the project by Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara to provide information about the country’s cultural legacy.

“[The manuscripts] are more than important historical documents. Central to the heritage of the West African nation of Mali, they represent the long legacy of written knowledge and academic excellence in Africa, and hold potential to inspire global learning from the actions of the past in confronting modern day issues,” said Abdel Kader Haidara, the “badass librarian” known for smuggling the manuscripts out of Timbuktu (a city in Mali) and a collaborator in the Google project.

Timbuktu has always been used as a euphemism for a place that is far away. What most people don’t seem to realize is that the Malian city was a key trading post on the trans-Saharan caravan route during medieval times, a history that made it an important center of learning. This active history made the city a repository of manuscripts, music, monuments and other art forms that provide a sneak view into the history of African trade, education, religion and culture.

“The Malian city of Timbuktu gave birth to an abundance of learning in the fields of human rights, morality, politics, astronomy and literature captured in thousands of manuscripts. When this ancient knowledge was threatened by extremist groups in 2012, local communities raced against time to preserve these treasures. This legacy is now available for people across the world to explore,” said Chance Coughenour, the program manager and digital archaeologist at Google Arts & Culture.

The library is available on the web and via apps on the Google and Apple stores. Launched in 2011 as a digital platform that collects the treasures, stories and knowledge of over 2,000 cultural institutions from 80 countries, Google Arts & Culture has been incrementally documenting museums and heritage sites from across the world.

South Africa’s Robben Island Museum was the first from Africa to make the library, in 2015, followed by Kenya’s Nairobi National Museum in 2019. Nigeria’s African Artists’ Foundation, the Rele Art Gallery, and arts and culture center Terra Kulture were added in 2020, the same year as the Origins Centre of South Africa’s Wits University. The addition of content from Mali brings to over 400,000 the total number of digitized pages written by African scholars across nine centuries.

Aside from acting as an archive of historical documents and artifacts, the Google Arts & Culture platform also has some unique features, including a 2021 update that matches pet photos with artwork in museums.