About this platform

The platform “Namibia 1953-54” is a project designed by the Visual History Lab 2020 at the University of Basel. It is a platform that offers insights into the Ernst and Ruth Dammann collection in the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Switzerland. The primary concern is to generate access to this colonial archive which is difficult to navigate. Hoping to function as a door-opener, “Namibia 1953-54” provides:

  1. A list of names of all persons who figure in the collection and who can be searched by name
  2. Index cards for each individual with information on the quantity of images, sound recordings and written records.
  3. Profiles of nine individuals or couples with samples of visual and acoustic material

About the collection

In 2000, the Africanist scholar and theologian Prof. Ernst Dammann (1904–2003) donated to the Basler Afrika Bibliographien an extensive collection of diaries, manuscripts, audio tapes, photographs and albums, negatives and slides related to his and his wife’s research in Namibia and Southern Africa. Further donations of additional documents, such as letters, magazines and newspapers, were made over the course of the following years.
Central to the collection is the written and audiovisual documentation of an expedition that Ernst and Ruth Dammann undertook to Namibia in 1953/54. The goal of their research was to document African languages and literature – i.e. orality in its widest sense – as they were spoken and recited in the 1950s. In the decades that followed, the numerous tape recordings were transcribed and translated by Namibian translators.
Given its material richness and its multi-mediality, the Dammann collection is one of the most interesting and complex collections on Namibia in Basel.

The number of images and recordings listed for each individual on the platform is based on the current state of knowledge available at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien. These figures may be inaccurate since they rely on the information given in the collection itself. They will need to be confirmed or updated by family members who might be able to identify the names of unknown photographic subjects and recorded voices or make corrections.
The titles to the sound recordings are those given by the Dammanns themselves. There are numerous discrepancies and mistakes: titles often deviate from the content of the recordings, and the identifications of the speakers involved may be incorrect.
It is important to note that the situation in which the recordings took place was shaped by the conversation and negotiation between the Dammanns and their interlocutors – as well as audiences who joined the recording session. These encounters, which involved the use of technological equipment and took place in an apartheid setting, were not without problems. The sound recordings that we access today are part of intricate processes of speaking and listening, translating, transcribing, editing and archiving. All these interventions on the material shape the ways the recordings acquire meaning today.
The Dammann collection is housed at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien in Basel, Switzerland. Electronic copies of the sound recordings are also stored at the National Archives of Namibia in Windhoek.

About the Visual History Lab

The Visual History Lab (VHL) is a weeklong seminar offered by the Center for African Studies at the University of Basel and takes place yearly. The VHL is a learning format for students from different academic backgrounds that allows them to work intensely on a particular topic and towards a public event.
The Visual History Lab 2020 focused on the Ernst & Ruth Dammann Collection at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien. Students at the University of Basel worked with researchers from the Centre for African Studies, archivists at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien and with colleagues from the Museums Association of Namibia. The group explored questions about language, identity and colonial power, as well as issues about media and mediation and colonial knowledge production. In the course of their work with the material, the group grappled with the colonial framework of the collection while also facing challenges with regards to accessibility of an archive. The resulting Namibia 1953-54 platform is an attempt to address these concerns in a practical manner, by opening this particular collection for Namibian audiences.