University of Cambridge > > Centre of African Studies Lent Seminar Series > The Timbuktu Manuscripts: Economic, Political and Scientific Stakes. Some Reflections about a Media Buzz

The Timbuktu Manuscripts: Economic, Political and Scientific Stakes. Some Reflections about a Media Buzz

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Part of the seminar series: Media and Intellectual Productions in Africa's Pasts and Presents

The media exposure of the Timbuktu Manuscripts during the recent years, still boosted by the recent events in the city after its occupation by armed groups, is a subject that deserves the attention of historians. The current celebration of these manuscripts makes them much more than just heritage resources or tools of knowledge. They become carriers, instruments, of a new myth of Timbuktu. The ‘mysterious city’ has become something of a sacred cave, holding mysterious forgotten texts. It is the revelation of ‘hidden things’, or so supposed, which arouses the public’s enthusiasm. There’s no question here to diminish the interest and value of these documents, but to consider these uses of the past by the media. The origins of this media hype can be traced back to an American television series of the 1990s on PBS , the U.S. public television, where Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of African Studies at Harvard University, presented the ‘Wonders of the African world’, including the manuscripts of Timbuktu. A larger public suddenly discovered historical realities hitherto only known to specialists. Fundraising have increased for the rehabilitation of Timbuktu and its manuscripts, the Ford Foundation having played a major role in this field. The campaign also attracted the interest of the UNESCO , which had already been involved in the past, and that of different states, including South Africa. This media coverage has also lent credibility to ‘fantastic numbers’. Over the press articles and medias, the number of the manuscripts of Timbuktu has known tremendous increases ( from 100 000 to 700 000 and 1 million), with no real base of calculation. The scientific results of these media campaigns are ultimately limited. Talking about the manuscripts, making them promotional items is one thing, making a systematic and rational scientific exploitation of these documents is another thing. Moreover, the scientific work already begun for many years (at Northwestern University especially) do not really interest media, in search of mysteries and dramatization. Do the recent media campaigns facilitate and promote research or act as a diversion ? This will be our final question.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Lent Seminar Series series.

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