Liberia needs a history that will be called ‘history after the settlers’

liberian journeys

In 1926, following the granting of a 99-year lease to the Firestone Tire Co. by the Liberian government, a group of Harvard scientists and physicians traveled to the West African nation to conduct biological and medical surveys.  One Harvard medical student named Loring Whitman recorded the expedition as its official photographer and gathered a database of some of the earliest media available on Liberia.  Whitman’s photograph and films, along with documents related to the expedition, form the source base for A Liberian Journey:  History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation.  Funded by the National Science Foundation, A Liberian Journey is the result of a collaboration between the Center for National Documents and Records Agency in Liberia, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Indiana University Liberian Collections, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  In gathering together the records of the Harvard Expedition, this collaborative project provides “a view of Liberia shaped by the white privilege and racial attitudes of American scientists,” as well as “glimpses of the peoples, cultures, and landscapes of Monrovia and Liberia’s hinterland at a time of rapid economic, cultural, and environmental change.”

Dr. Greg Mittman, a professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, placed this expedition in historical perspective at the launch, pointing out that the 1926 expedition team “included some of the best minds in medical entomology, tropical medicine, botany, mammalogy, and parasitology,” including Max Theiler who, on this trip, “began his research on yellow fever, work that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize for the development of yellow fever vaccine.”  In addition to the scientific achievements of the expedition, Mittman also explained that the expedition built a significant archive during their travels, “documenting medical conditions, plant and animal species, and the life and culture among the different ethnic groups of Liberia.”  These important discoveries are available to all users and can be navigated through three different gateways.  Users can explore the collections contained in the site through the Map, which uses LeafletJS to plot out key points referenced in the collections’ materials.  Users can also browse the exhibit focused on Chief Suah Koko, a female chief and key figure in the history of Liberia.  Finally, the collection can be browsed according to the item type, from photo to documents to historic films (some of the oldest available on Liberia) and stories.  This collection boasts nearly 600 photographs, more than two hours of motion picture footage, oral histories, and documents related to the expedition.  All of these items are easily accessible, even on mobile devices due to the choice to build the site on the Omeka platform, in order to “ensure that anyone can access the site especially in areas of Liberia with limited internet connectivity.”

And this is a project meant for Liberians, first and foremost.  Attending the launch of Liberian Journeys at the Center for National Documents and Research Agency, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf envisioned the potential of this project to make Liberian history accessible to all its citizens.  “By that,” President Sirleaf explained at the launch, “it will make all Liberians to know about their true history and roles their forefathers played in the past in bringing all of their children up to this point.”  Dr. Joseph Guannu, a leading historian of Liberia and one of the featured interviewees in the Stories section of the site, has long been an outspoken advocate of the need for Liberians to recapture their history.  “We need a real history that will be called history after the settlers,” Guannu argues, “because a country that does not know its past or where it’s heading, is not a country.”  And Liberian Journeys provides a new direction for Liberian history, gathering together important historical artifacts and making them available to anyone through the click of a button.

Users are also encouraged to interact with the site by sharing their own memories of Liberia.  You can contact the site administrators with any questions via this link.  As always, feel free to send me suggestions in the comments or via Twitter of sites you might like to see covered in future editions of The Digital Archive!

Liz Timbs

PhD Candidate in History at Michigan State University, Studying precolonial Zulu history. Advocate for Digital Humanities.

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