A Review of the Nelson Mandela Foundation: The Prison Years Gallery

The Nelson Mandela Center of Memory: The Prison Years is one of thirteen online galleries developed to promote Nelson Mandela’s life’s work and use his past to catalyze future social change. The website can be found at: http://archives.nelsonmandela.org/exhibit/nelson-mandela-prison-years/gR… .

The website is created by the Nelson Mandela Organization, which was founded by the organization’s namesake immediately after his presidency. The initial goal was to provide the infrastructure to further social initiatives. Rather than retiring, he led the fight against HIV/Aids, improving access to education and promoting social equality. Though, by 2005 the organization evolved its mission to focus on the message and legacy of their founder. The foundation is now run by a board of successful South African professors and businessmen and women and is primarily funded through an endowment, royalties and donations. Interestingly, last year’s incoming royalties nearly matched private donations. 

Its new core mission is to use the past experiences and history of Nelson Mandela to promote social causes and dialogue. The mission page heavily emphasis remember all of the pasts voices, remembering those who were marginalized and forgotten by their contemporaries.      

There are three lines that critically define the design of the web project. The first is social justice, essentially a continuation of his mission. The second is “providing an integrated public information resource… [leading to] convening dialogue around critical social issues.” This outlines the broad target audience of this website, which is reflected in its broad appeal. Finally, and most interestingly, is the work of finding “sustainable solutions to critical social problems through memory-based dialogue interventions.” Two factors that are often missing in public dialogue is the lack of maintaining and evoking societal memories in shaping discussion. Imbuing the memory in the public with education efforts is complemented by a strengthening of public discourse surrounding these issues. Past history and experiences hardens theoretical points, providing meaningful context and emotional attachment to high minded ideals. Mandela’s personal charisma, sacrifice and struggle insured that his message resonated much more deeply than a normal activist’s. His personal trial in fighting discrimination is what gives his message of reconciliation and fairness so much weight. Combining all these various components provides a much stronger impact. Memories without discussion fail to spread and wither without enacting much social change. His actions as a role model serve to catalyze a discussion that can then mature and develop to the point where it can effect the direction of social change, encouraging grater conciliation between different people. Consequently, this project is one component in a multifaceted effort to continue Mandela’s legacy and mission.

Out of the thirteen galleries, I chose to focus on his prison years. The research and curation was handled by the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory Staff with photography provided by Ardon Bar-Hama and Mathew Willman. In terms of search engine optimization and accessibility, the website and galleries are the top results on a quick Google search. Importantly all the information and documents are open access. This keeps with the universalistic mission of Nelson Mandela. One missed opportunity is that the galleries tend to be insulated from a wider discussion to be had. They do not really link out to any third party website, nor have many direct ways to participate in active social movements or generate substantial user engagement. The internet is a phenomenal communications platform and this website should embrace that. A second generation version should build features that encourage conversation, activism and engagement with the audience

There is a fundamental question in product design when transitioning across different mediums. What elements should we keep and persist to remain functional versus what should be kept or cut? The first generation of designers usually simply port the existing medium forwards. A relevant example is how the first newspapers from both visual design and functionality standpoint were literally copied from paper into HTML with little thought about what rich new possibilities (and downsides) a digital medium like the internet and a dynamic screen enable. Over time new websites and companies figured out how to incorporate rich videos, pictures, galleries, links, interactive graphs etc. Later came algorithmically generated lists articles where each individual was given a personalized home page. With all these new tools. The underlying content evolved and expanded to fully utilize the new tools made available. In many respects, an internet native news organization now looks very different than your newspapers of yore. A lot of these similarities carry over to how the virtual exhibit was designed, created and is used.

This metaphor holds for the Nelson Mandela exhibit website project. It almost feels like the site creators ripped off the walls of a museum exhibit and glued it back together with a generous dose of HTML and JavaScript. Imagine yourself strolling through an exhibit dark lighting interrupted by displays and blown up copies of original documents and iconic pictures accompanied by short descriptions providing historical context. Pretty much every museum exhibit of a famous person. Well this website is no different! Like a museum, the website caters to widest possible target audience. It would be incongruent for a mass movement activist’s legacy be targeted for a select group of scholars since large scale engagement was his primary tool of action.

An issue with the current design is that it does not take full advantage of being a digital medium. The website is essentially an extended gallery where I can flick through the various sections by swiping across my trackpad. One drawback of the design is the lack of digital affordances. For example, scanned typed documents are displayed in a thumbnail sized format, and when clicked upon are still too small to read. As a user I feel like I am fighting the document UX to get to these great primary sources, and I fear a casual observer would be dissuaded from ever going further. Additionally, as if the webpage is a wall at a museum, the actual content only takes up about a third of the page at ‘eye level?’ The page real estate could be more effectively allocated to improve readability issues and make important documents standout.   

Crucially, this rich archive chock full of rich primary documents, stunning photos and interviews has fairly comprehensive search. One of the most immediate advantages of a digital medium is the ease of search, manipulation and indexing of data. A quick entry of ‘prison’ brings up three displays, 74 documents, a list of dates, places, related persons, media types, a word frequency by data. This is a fantastic way to quickly yet thoroughly research and gain a comprehensive understanding about a specific portion of his life. Easily being able to find his smuggled prison letters rather than reading about them on a website provides a such more impactful experience. The rich imagery further recreates the ambiance that a museum would have. The search feature fully embraces the digital nature of the project by exposing the underlying database in a user friendly UX. Furthermore, all the documents are transcribed in plain text and tagged with metadata. Being able to see the transcriptions along with the original documents overcomes some of the barriers of reading old, handwritten pages or grainy pictures. What makes the documentation and curation of primary documents so great is that it is not aping a previous generation project, but fully taking advantage of the new qualities of a digital platform. In doing so, it makes accessible resources that required traveling to dusty archives and museums and flipping through large, daunting books reserved for academics. It is a great example of how technology democratizes knowledge for the general public.

I found it surprising that a civil rights leader like Nelson Mandela who dedicated his life to causes had a memorial the provides few options to participate in social activism. Legal inequality, racism and other civil rights abuses are still issues that are going to take continual activism and effort to rectify. The internet has been a wonderful platform to kick start efforts that eventually impact the real world, and no greater gift to his legacy would be to use it to continually fight for the goals he dedicated his life to.   



“Nelson Mandela: Prison Years.” Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Nelson Mandela Foundation, n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. <http://archives.nelsonmandela.org/exhibit/nelson-mandela-prison-years/gR….