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Nelson Mandela's life in a digital museum, courtesy of Google

March 27, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • A screen grab from the Nelson Mandela Digital Archive, which went live Tuesday.
A screen grab from the Nelson Mandela Digital Archive, which went live Tuesday. (Nelson Mandela Centre of…)

For a look at the future of digital museums, check out the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory's new digital archive composed of thousands of scanned documents from the African leader's life.

With the help of a $1.25 million grant from Google, the center digitized thousands of documents and images that illustrate the life and times of South Africa's first black president. But instead of scanning them and dumping them online for scholars to peruse, the center, with Google's support, created a virtual museum experience -- highlighting certain pieces from the archives, putting them in the context of Mandela's life and then enabling a visitor to the site to go deeper if they'd like.

The exhibit is organized by different phases of Mandela's life, such as "Early Life," "Prison Years," "Presidential Years" and "Retirement." As you move through the different sections, you'll find the earliest known photograph of Mandela, scans of the desk calendars where he scribbled notes during his 27 years in prison, and handwritten notes he sent his daughters -- including one written shortly after the arrest of their mother.

Although Google provided money and technical support for the project through the Google Cultural Insitute, Verne Harris, head of memory programming at the Centre of Memory, made it clear that the center is still firmly in control of presentation choices and the material used.

"The Centre of Memory owns the content and individual contributors remain the owners of their copyright," he said in a statement. "Google does not own the material. The project is about public access and the preservation of heritage."

The statement also made it clear that the center is responsible for what information is put on the website, and how.

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