In 2022, with the pandemic subsiding, the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, once again served more than 1 million visitors. But thanks to an inventive digital offering, called Searchable Museum, the museum has been able to reach even more.

The searchable replica of the museum, which launched in November 2021, allows anyone around the globe to experience all elements of the museum, even with low-latency internet and inexpensive phones and tablets — a big benefit, especially for those without the means to visit the physical museum, which opened to much fanfare in 2016, including the attendance of then President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush.

“After we opened the museum, the director and curatorial staff were talking about how to how to reach even more people who wouldn’t be able to come to the museum and experience it,” says Jill Roberts, program manager of the Searchable Museum at the Office of Digital Strategy and Engagement (ODSE).  “We wanted a digital platform that would bring the museum to other people in the world.”

Curators and IT experts who designed the digital replica continue to enhance the platform with technologies that make it not only more widely accessible but also replete with fresh, robust content. The project was awarded a 2022 US CIO 100 Award for leadership and innovation.

And it’s working. To date, the Searchable Museum has served more than 1.6 million page views, with more than 65% of that traffic coming from mobile phones, Roberts says. A good deal of the traffic has been driven by a QR code deployed across social media channels and other communications outlets to promote awareness of the digital museum’s existence.

Digital storytelling

To entice a technical partner to build the digital site, the ODSE published an RFP and received 15 qualified IT specialists that wanted to take on the immense task of digitally recreating a multifloor museum.

Digital designer Fearless of Baltimore was awarded the contract to build and maintain the Smithsonian’s first and only digital museum. The startup focused on federal contracts and earned its first contract with the Secret Service in 2017. Today, it employs more than 200.

John Foster, COO of Fearless, says the project goes beyond the term ‘searchable’ to provide instead a digital storytelling of the African American experience as depicted in the physical National Museum of African American History and Culture.  

John Foster, COO, Fearless


The digital version’s first exhibit on the site, “Slavery and Freedom,” is a foundational aspect of the physical museum followed by 10 additional exhibits found in the physical and digital museums.  

To develop the project, Fearless leveraged Smithsonian’s APIs to access a massive catalog of digital content, including 3D models, videos, podcasts, and imagery not available in the physical building in order to create an immersive, rich experience that rivals a walk-through.

“From the beginning, we challenged ourselves to follow a more audience-centered, data-informed approach to its design and development,” says Adam Martin, CDO of the museum. “Together with our partners, the museum engaged in an iterative process to reimagine and transform the in-person visitor experience for online audiences.”

Adam Martin, chief digital officer, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution

NMAAHC, Smithsonian Institution

For instance, the History Elevator transports visitors to the early 1400s using images from various centuries, narrated by Maya Angelou, as well as digital displays and statistics of the 40,000 slave ships of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as a feature on the domestic slave trade that displays authentic excerpts of bills of sale of human beings and slave auction lists of names. The “Paradox of Liberty” exhibit depicts Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of 609 slaves, as well as Sugar Pot and Tower of Cotton artifacts that depict the “juxtaposition of profit and power and the human cost” of slave production.

The Searchable Museum also features content not available in the physical museum. For instance, while the museum features a replica of the Point of Pines Slave Cabin, one of two highly protected slave cabins on Edistro Island, S.C., only the digital Searchable Museum offers a 360-degree look inside the cabin.

Fearless software engineer Avery Smith agreed that leading-edge technologies ushered in by the metaverse might one day be able to transport a museum visitor digitally using virtual reality and augmented reality technologies but he — and all those involved in Searchable Museum — insist they want to prevent making the digital museum inaccessible. A VR/AR experience requires the use of headsets that can often cost hundreds of dollars, he reminds.

The primary aim of the Searchable Museum, after all, is to lower the barrier to entry for all and make it widely accessible globally. To date, visitors from nearly 50 nations outside of the US have accessed the Searchable Museum. Foster is proud that his team accomplished its mission without shortchanging any of the experiences or content in the building.

“I can experience that story on my laptop as well as on my phone,” Foster says of the digital replica, which mimics the multifloor building, starting with a darker tone for the slavery exhibit on the bottom floor and progressing to brighter tones as the viewers ascends through the stairs of African American history.

 “As you go through the history, the higher you get, the feeling of lightness should come about because you see some of the progress being made in the African American story,” Foster says.

The technology behind the Searchable Museum

The Searchable Museum runs on Amazon Web Services and uses APIs created by the Smithsonian IT team to access all the metadata available in the massive catalog of artifacts, images, video clips, 3D objects, and other components that reside within the 11 inaugural exhibitions in the building.

Fearless designers also employed unique technologies to ensure viewers have a speedy, rich experience regardless of the device they use. Many of these technologies are time-tested frameworks and tools that don’t get a lot of publicity but are known platforms that have evolved and aged well. Fearless chose Gatsby, a JavaScript framework for fast web page creation, and Craft CMS, which provides a speedy yet robust reach into the museum’s sizable catalog of metadata stored in AWS S3.

The Gatsby static-site generator scaffolds the front end of the website, enabling developers to build ultrafast web page rendering, while the headless CMS fetches and renders the metadata stored in the back-end cloud systems at high speeds.

“Gatsby takes all that processing that used to happen in real-time and runs the processing before the website is deployed,” says Smith, of Fearless, about the pre-rendering framework. “I advocated for its use with React instead of JavaScript because of my experience working with the Small Business Administration. I learned with Gatsby how clever it is and how it allows for a very, very, very fast web experience … and those speed gains are important for an image-heavy website.”

Avery Smith, software engineer, Fearless 


Smith also notes that the Smithsonian’s APIs provide access to 3D images in various resolutions that are immensely helpful for the curators designing the content and to the IT experts delivering on their vision. “Technology doesn’t need to be super complex to get the job done,” Smith says.

The Searchable Museum continues adding compelling content such as a special exhibit on Afrofuturism in March and its technology partners are exploring technologies such as geofencing, which will allow students to play games and learn along the way. But the most important aspect of the Searchable Museum, all say, is accessibility — and Fearless deployed unique, not bleeding-edge technologies to deliver on that dream.

“Technology doesn’t need to be super complex to get the job done,” Smith says.

CIO 100, Digital Transformation, Government IT

Despite an evolving internet penetration rate of 47% in 2020, according to Internet World statistics, the social use of ICTs remains the main cause of digital illiteracy in Africa. Irrespective of the various ways of learning, and the abundance of information and knowledge, “use of digital in Africa remains basic and likely to favor digital acculturation to the detriment of cultural enhancement and an intellectual revolution,” according to the Gefona Digital Foundation, a research NGO on digital issues.

This reality can be seen in how Africans react toward certain digital innovations such as e-currencies, whose implementation, according to experts, is slowed by the lack of digital education.

“The continent has not yet laid the foundations of the digital economy to impact the perception of digital money,” says Armand Ngueti, a technical specialist in computer science and president of the Blockchain Association of Cameroon (BAC), launched by the Cameroonian government. “People still equate IT with bureaucrats. They don’t know that digital changes create many jobs. This is a serious problem that prevents people from understanding the ins and outs of innovations.”

This educational gap is also driven by some companies exploiting the system, perpetuating a lack of inaccurate information and confidence of populations.

“Most Africans don’t understand digital currencies and some of the companies that came first have done a lot of scams, causing misinformation and mis-education, all of which make adoption more difficult,” says Cho Rimsky Che, CIO member of the BAC and manager of Flexybank Cameroon, a mobile payments company.

He discovered digital currencies in India in 2012 and has since been fascinated by them and has worked with them to understand what lies ahead.

“I have always surrounded myself with digital currencies to understand the futuristic needs in Africa,” he says.  

Moving toward digital currencies is a great opportunity for some, but its use is also hindered by inadequate digital education within companies. And this is where CIOs can help alleviate the issue.

In order to make these benefits of digital currencies understood and at the same time facilitate their adoption, the contribution of CIOs is generally championed by stakeholders.

“With a currency that will be distributed over the internet through multiple channels and an incredible volume of data, the role of the CIO becomes crucial in terms of anticipating, reading the big picture and going beyond internal design,” says Ngueti.

He sees the CIO as “the light” that enables the translation between the external and internal environment, and puts in place the information systems that support the large-scale understanding of potential uses.

Also adding to the momentum, Che believes that the CIO’s strength in this context is their mastery of the big picture.

“They have a better understanding of technology, information and people,” he says. “They understand how to connect these three elements. Technology comes as a solution to implement digital currency. It’s the CIO’s role to study the market, understand the needs of the people and provide the right solution that meets those needs.”

However, from different views, they can’t do it alone and they need to work collaboratively with other players to maintain the adoption chain.

For Gildas Pambo, CIO of Digicom, an IT engineering company in Gabon, the CIO is also able to align or promote information strategies in projects.

“But we need to rely on the CISO to take into account risk mapping,” he says. “We need to accompany the C-suite to align their strategies, otherwise we’ll be misunderstood and our proposals will be rejected.” He also highlights the difficulties CIOs face in the African context, including being misunderstood by people unsure of the technologies or their issues. “False rules of governance are also a barrier,” he adds.

CIOs address the learning curve of digital implementation

Digital currencies are on a long and uncertain road as the strategies CIO should support are not yet established in most countries.

“The remaining challenge in adopting digital currency is to worry about its process and lifecycle,” says Mbassa Donald Gavis, CIO and core banking systems consultant. “The interface with certification bodies is rigid and complicated and this prolongs the implementation of such projects. Technical constraints also arise due to lack of foresight, technical skills, standards control and safety, among others.”

Amon Mocé Rodolphe Bazongo, a computer scientist and big data management expert working for the African Union (AU) actually had to give up integrating them into his business plan because it was difficult to convince his partners and shareholders to use them. “With some partners, we decided to adopt digital currency as one of our payment methods,” he says. “This has been beneficial for account tracking and even for settling account errors. One of our employees once used his digital wallet to show that an error had been made in calculating company shares, but he still needed to provide proof. But over time, several employees lost the instructions for their wallets, and their difficulty in mastering the technology was creating hassles, so we decided to drop the digital currency.”

He observed that people don’t understand how it works or how to choose the right blockchain. “In other cases, people are opposed to it because they think everything about digital currency is a scam,” he says.

However, this trend of digital illiteracy has not stopped some African countries from moving to digital currency.

Nigeria is the first to launch national digital currencies by the central bank (CBDC) in October 2021. As of November 2021, its central bank has declared under 500,000 consumer wallets and 78,000 merchant wallets, and a total of about 38,000 transactions amounting to NGN 209 million were recorded within that first month after launch.

Other countries like Ghana have gone live with the pilot phase of their CBDC. The Ghanaian authorities hope that the eCedi pilot project launched in June 2021 will stabilize the local financial system. Bank of Ghana’s governor Ernest Addison said the eCedi roadmap encouraged Ghanaians to jointly support the project for a stable, digitally advanced and innovative future financial system for the country.

Also, the Central African Republic launched ‘Sango’, its local cryptocurrency, as a national digital currency in July 2022. With 210 million Sango coins put on sale in July, 12.1 million have found takers in three days according to the Central African government.

Eswatini has also launched the pilot phase of its CBDC while Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Zambia and others are still researching.

Experts say that a digital currency launched by local institutions is beneficial for the local economy and reassures the population.

“When central banks are involved, people have the opportunity to better understand and adopt this type of currency. It’s also a response to the breakthrough of cryptocurrencies,” says Bazongo.

For others, it’s comforting because it has a very secure and reliable official framework.

These strengths are considered by Lassina Fofana, a specialist in information science and related services, and CEO of Biwari, an African blockchain start-up based in Ivory Coast. “The use of CBDCs in a country contributes enormously to making the monetary system more reliable and dynamic,” he says. “And it’s more difficult to counterfeit a blockchain-based digital currency because of the speed, simplicity and affordability of transactions due to users no longer needing an intermediary like a bank or other company to make money transfers.”

Cryptocurrency, Digital Transformation

CIO Africa: What is your sense of the current trade landscape in Africa in light of supply chain issues that arose from the pandemic and war in Ukraine?

Typically in supply chains, there are three parameters that are important: cost, reliability, and length of the supply chain, or the time it takes to connect from one market to another. During COVID-19, all three of these were affected quite significantly by air, sea, and land. Trucks were impacted because of increased restrictions; air passenger capacity basically stopped, which included a lot of cargo, causing a lot of disruption; and on the sea front, a lot of capacity was lost in China with the zero COVID-19 policy, in addition to unions in the US going on strike at Long Beach, which is the largest port servicing that market. So it’s been a difficult time. In Africa, the first major impact came from COVID-19 itself via the restrictions that were brought in by countries in terms of movement. The second came from the three modes of transport being impacted by artificial removal of supply, resulting in massive price increases. Third, now with the war in Ukraine, the basic cost of fuel, which was very low during the COVID-19 period, increased significantly. But things are improving. My view is that China is slowly normalising as global demand is falling sharply because of inflation. So even though the supply problem is not getting solved, we’re starting to see a significant normalisation of rates. What isn’t happening still is the reliability and the aspect of timeliness to reach key markets. These are both still challenges.

Many of those issues feel out of the control of African businesses. What can companies on the continent do to fortify themselves against shocks to the system?

What’s been happening is that many of the large companies who own the infrastructure, like KLM, Air France, ships, and large trucking firms, don’t really operate in Africa. They’re constantly looking for the highest value creation, so they tend to go places that either offer extremely good prices or have the capacity to do large volumes and have extremely good infrastructure that improves their efficiency. So the thing we need to do in Africa is to reduce the friction that operates within the chain. When ships come into a port in Mombasa, for instance, we need to streamline the processes so they don’t have to spend a lot of time sorting out basic processes, which is what happens today. And when a plane lands in Cape Town with cargo, how can we reduce the amount of bureaucracy that is needed? If you do that, you’ll start seeing a lot of traffic, and people will start pricing things correctly. 

Mehul Bhatt

Supply Chain, Transportation and Logistics Industry