A Behind-The-Scenes Look at the Digitization of the Black Cultural Archives

By Google Arts & Culture

Established in 1981 and situated in its iconic building in Brixton’s Windrush Square since 2014, Black Cultural Archives is the only national heritage center dedicated to collecting, preserving and celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain.

In 2019, the BCA enters a brand new era, as its collection now opens to anyone, anywhere, through a new online experience. To celebrate Black History Month, Google Arts & Culture partnered with the BCA to celebrate and preserve Black British heritage by digitizing thousands of objects in its archives.

Black Cultural Archives, Black Cultural Archives, 1980, From the collection of: Black Cultural Archives
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How was the archive digitized?

Some of the gems of the BCA's collections are its artworks; from ink drawings by Ras Daniel Heartman and Everton Gordon, to paintings by Rudi Patterson. This type of archival object was digitally captured using the Google Arts & Culture Art Camera.

The Art Camera is a robotic camera, custom-built to create gigapixel images faster and more easily. A robotic system steers the camera automatically from detail to detail, taking hundreds of high resolution close-ups of the painting. To make sure the focus is right on each brush stroke, it’s equipped with a laser and a sonar that – much like a bat – uses high frequency sound to measure the distance of the artwork. Once each detail is captured, the software takes the thousands of close-up shots and, like a jigsaw, stitches the pieces together into one single image.

Photo of the Art Camera
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Country Village by Rudi PattersonBlack Cultural Archives

Part of the beauty of the Art Camera is the ability to look at masterpieces in ultra-high resolution through “gigapixel” images that allow you to explore and study paintings, inch by inch.

The Art Camera acts like a digital magnifying glass and goes beyond what you could see even if you visited these artworks in person.

As well as the artworks, Google Arts & Culture also digitized over 4000 artifacts from across the BCA's collection of magazines, pamphlets, and documentation. This was done using a scanner that captures a wide variety of archival materials, like drawings, letters, photos, magazines, and even coins or small flat objects.

The digitization of the Black Cultural Archives
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To digitize such a large quantity of documents and artifacts, the team sent the scanner, along with a dedicated operator, to stay at the archives for several months. Each day, they would work together with the BCA's archivists to select objects, unwrap them from their protective casings, carefully position them on the scanner, and capture the perfect image.

The end result is 1000s of objects being brought out of the archive for anyone in the world to access, marking the beginning a new research project for Google Arts & Culture and the BCA.

The digitization of the Black Cultural Archives
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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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