CIRCA:The Archnet Project


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Project Outline: What is Archnet?

Archnet is a joint digital humanities project, open access and intellectual resource focused on architecture, urbanism, environmental and landscape design of the Muslim world[1]. It’s mission is to provide access to unique textual and media material that will assist to facilitate teaching, scholarship and professional work.

This project was initiated by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), Aga Khan Documentation Center (AKDC) and MIT Libraries (AKDC@MIT). Although they have an extensive history, Archnet also has an aim of ongoing projects that will supplement and add materials on a regular basis for a wide range of audience.

The Archnet Home page interface at [2] before its redevelopment phase.


History and conceptualization

Both agencies of Aga Khan, the Documentation Center and Program for Islamic Architecture were established by an endowment from His Highness, the Aga Khan in 1979. In 1985, the Program for Islamic Architecture issued a laser disc, LP-sized (the size of vinyl disc). These discs were collections of images of Islamic art and architecture. They were sent all over the world. After an extensive development period "Archnet" was conceptualized in 1998 during discussion between His Highness the Aga Khan, the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. Then within the next few years in 2003, the Archnet version 1 was released. The main reason for creating this, is the aspiration of His Highness the Aga Khan to reverberate the project and collections in areas where he wanted it to reverberate[3]. The platform we have now in it’s developed version has been redeveloped in 2013. Currently Archnet’s largest user base is India and the second largest user base is the United States of America. The platform has a global reach - users from about 200 different parts of the world access it every month.

Archnet's Content

Archnet has rich archival collections of architects, scholars and photographers. It also offers subject matter expertise, develops and works on its own research projects. For instance, the project on Archives of African Architecture or A3 has been working on development of African architecture. It is one of the collections led by Nigerian architect Baba Oladeji and attempts to create multimedia archives documenting African architecture across the continent. The project focuses on heritage at risk, regardless of time period and cause. The Documentation Center, MIT Libraries has agreed to support A3 with training and a repository for the digital documentation they produce[4]. One of the other fascinating collections is the Jewish Music of Essaouira, Morocco recorded in 1959. Recorded by Paul Bowles at Essaouira, Morocco in August 6, 1959 - these recordings were reproduced and published on the platform in 2015[5]. Mediterranean Postcards is another collection that consists of postcards covering the area between Morocco in the west and Turkey to the east. Postcards were collected before World War I (between 1902-1914). The original captions on the postcards are displayed in the quotation marks within the image caption. The original captions represent social attitudes (colonialist, Orientalist) of their era. Platform captions provide translation and additional narrative. Postcards are displayed in their entirety: their slightly asymmetrical shapes and dog-eared corners are part of their history. Initially collected by a member of the Sinoutre family of Marseilles, the album is now housed at the Harvard University Fine Arts Library.[6]

The platform contains 8,491 site records documented in varying degrees of detail - there is basic and extended description on all of them with majority sites having extended narrative histories; 9,530 publications and 1,136 name authorities.

Please refer to the sample of images. For instance, there is an Interesting story about the cat photo. The Turkish man who had a shop next to the stairs painted them in rainbow color in Istanbul, Turkey. And then the government decided that was gay pride symbol. This poor man had never thought of that. So the government repainted the stairs gray. Then the community opposed to this, because they liked those rainbow steps and they repainted them rainbows again. They have remained rainbow ever since. And it did also become a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community because it was clearly an act of erasure for them. These images represent a wide variety of collections that are covered by Archnet. Collection has very old images including engravings. Archnet restored an active red monastery. There are Byzantine paintings in there. This painting is the detail from it of the Virgin Mary breast-feeding the baby Jesus. The bridge - is the Tabiat pedestrian bridge in Iran that was a recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. You can also find the gardens of Generalife in Spain. National Library of Rabat - mural.


Funding sources and donors of the project

The main donors of Archnet include two Aga Khan agencies Program for Islamic Culture and Trust for Culture, MIT Libraries, Harvard Fine Arts Library and over 640 donors of material. Donated materials are gifts, outright gifts where material has been given to Archnet or licenses that give the right to share the material. The content of the platform is in over 20 languages including Russian, Greek, Farsi, Urdu, Chinese, Bambara, etc. Most of the material is in English, Arabic and French. All materials of the platform are at a resolution that is suitable for on-screen display. Archnet provides high-resolution copies of materials for publication requests.


In 2020 the Aga Khan Documentation Center hired software company - Performant Software Solutions to assist with this question. Performant software company provides web development services solely in digital humanities because of its co-founder’s profile, Jamie Folsom, former digital humanist at MIT. He has an AB in French from Vassar College and a Master's Degree in Technology in Education from Harvard University and has been a teacher, a technology trainer and manager, and a web applications developer for 20 years[7]. The company is working on a complete rebuild of the web page with the goal to provide a new foundation to Archnet and better user experience for the audience. The site has rich metadata of images, video and media files with a very complex data model that backs this site up. But it has been built on older technology - about 10 years old. In web terms this duration is old enough to be difficult to maintain. Company is attempting to bring that technology up to date, make it run faster and more secure. The first group of users are librarians, scholars and teachers who are willing to use the content in their classes. Another point to consider during the rebuild is about users on touchscreen devices, mobile devices on slow bandwidth networks. To address these points, the company will focus on a mobile-first approach to that frontend, for end users and from there build up towards desktop users as a second consideration. One of the main reasons to choose these aspects is to attract more users that can serve a worldwide audience.

The software company along with project managers are collaborating on redevelopment of the platform. This is the snapshot of current Home interface and the platform still being under development as there are several collections that have no archives within yet. The platform's design and updated colours are more welcoming and inviting to users explore and dive into collections. Although as we have mentioned majority of navigations including collections sites are missing.


Critical points

Critical points: since its establishment and further development, the "Archnet" is still facing major challenges including technological delay. Due to high volume of collections the website built on frontend and backend structure has been slow to navigate and maintain. Although the project has hired digital humanities software company and is now in the process of updating its web page and backend database, there is a big challenge for facing issue with inability of technology to store massive data. The project needs continued update to store large collections and metadata, however, how long this will be sustainable considering rapid changes in Software development and technology in general?

Another critical point would be financial sustainability of the project that depends largely on two Aga Khan institutions. Since Archnet is a fully non-profit education platform, they are trying to reconsider this. One of the ideas and ambitions of the Archnet is to become one-stop shopping where people can find as much as possible of what they are looking for. Even if they can’t obtain it from Archnet, the platform will guide or provide a license for the collection/ resource from a second party.

Although redeveloped platform attracts its users and seems to gain new insights, there is big question of how long can project be sustained considering its scale, underneath technology and target audience. Can we consider its sustainability within ever changing technology and how often this sort of platforms have to redeveloped and reconsidered?



  1. "About A3/ Archives of African Architectures Collection". A3 / Archives of African Architectures, Accessed on September 24, 2021.
  2. "About Jamie Folsom." Jamie Folsom, Jamie Folsom - VP for Development - Performant Software ... › jamiefolsom. Accessed on September 24, 2021.
  3. "About Mediterranean Postcards collection." Mediterranean Postcards, Accessed on September 25, 2021.
  4. "About the Archnet 3.0." Archnet, Accessed September 21, 2021.
  5. "Archnet 3.0: Digital Teaching and Research Collaborative Sessions". MIT Libraries, Accessed on September 23, 2021.
  6. Bowles, Paul F. "Essaouira" from Folk, Popular, and Art Music of Morocco. The Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection, Washington, DC: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1959-1962. Accessed on September 23, 2021.
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