A personal history being applied to the surface of the digital board.

The similarities between a lukasa board and a personal computer are amazing. Or you can go further and say that equally amazing are the similarities between a lukasa board and a cell phone. Or if you want to go even further, you can say how amazing the similarities are between a lukasa board and a multi-user collaborative video game.

But what is a lukasa board?

Lukasa, or memory boards, are hand-held wooden objects that present a conceptual map of fundamental aspects of the culture of the Luba people, the largest ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They are at once illustrations of the Luba political system, historical chronicles of the Luba state and territorial diagrams of local chiefdoms. Each board’s design is unique and represents the divine revelations of a spirit medium expressed in sculptural form.

If you want to see one, go to the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at the Georgia Institute of Technology to the “Mapping Place: Africa Beyond Paper” exhibit, which opens on Friday, Feb. 28. It comes from the Royal Museum of Central Africa located in Tervuren, Belgium, which is partnering with Georgia Tech on the exhibition.

Lukasa boards are pretty small and vary from about the size of a small laptop or iPad to the remote control of your television. But it’s not made of metals and rare minerals like the electronic equipment, though you might come across a small pin or two.

They usually have an hour-glass shape, are mostly made of wood and often are curved like a tortoise shell. On the inside, you can see a collection of cowrie shells, beads and perhaps a few small metal pins.

Here’s a connection to the modern world. Much like a computer’s memory board, lukasa boards also function as a sort of archive. Personal computers today through their “cloud” connections have virtual access to almost the full extent of human knowledge. Over the years the lukasa boards have performed a similar service for the Luba people.

There are differences, however. The information in and on a lukasa board has to be interpreted. It serves more as a memory aid or a mnemonic device rather than as a storehouse of documents.

To understand the meanings of all the shells and designs contained in a lukasa board takes training. Those who are trained become credentialed in a way that a university historian or a clergy person is credentialed today.

The lukasa boards stimulate the recollection of important people, relationships and events as court historians narrate the origins of the Luba’s rulers. And not unlike the work of the modern revisionist historians, they enable conjecture about what happened and new interpretations more suited to their immediate circumstances.

So like the personal computer, they are a store house of information; like a cell phone, they are a means of communication and like a video game…well, like a multi-user collaborative video game they bind people together and stimulate their imaginations.

There is a terrible irony about lukasa boards and the modern world. The Luba people, who have made the lukasa boards over the years, live in the country where many of the minerals are located that go into the computers and cell phones being manufactured by the millions and used around the world.

These minerals include the “three Ts,” (tin, tantalum, tungsten) and gold. Profits gained from the trade of these minerals is one of the main motives for armed groups on all sides of the conflict in eastern Congo to conduct the horrific war that goes on there today.

The money earned by these armed groups enables the militias to purchase large numbers of weapons and continue their brutal violence against civilians.

The exhibition at the Paper Museum also contains an array of maps ranging from hand-drawn and colored 16th century paper maps to 21st century geographic information system (GIS) maps. The exhibition will be remembered for its technological response to the materials on view. Due to the spirited imaginations of a dozen people, the lukasa boards have inspired a digital platform that will enable the museum’s visitors to create their own story lines electronically.

Teri Williams, the museum’s director, traced the origins of the project to a farewell party that was thrown for Benoit Standaert, the former consul general of Belgium in Atlanta, who was reassigned to Cuba in the summer of 2012.

Ms. Williams told Global Atlanta that a lengthy conversation she had that evening with Carol Thompson, the Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art at the High Museum of Art, and Lubangi Muniania, a Congolese scholar and former director of education at the Museum of African Art in New York, was key to inspiring the exhibition.

Mr. Muniania described the importance of the lukasa boards to the Luba people and from that moment on, Ms. Williams said, the idea of using technology to provide an insight into Luba culture took off.

The idea fell onto the fertile ground of Georgia Tech’s Synaethetics Laboratory, better known as the “Synlab,” which the university established to explore opportunities provided by new media and to support creative practices that bridge the physical and digital words.

A team of Georgia Tech professors and students  began to discuss the potential of implementing some of the traditional uses of the lukasa boards technologically.

Among those involved were: Kenneth J. Knoepsel, the professor of engineering and liberal arts; Yves Abrioux, director of the PhD program in humanities at the University of Paris 8, Vincennes-St. Denis and Ali Mazalek, who was director of the Synlab before moving to Ryerson University in Toronto where she is the Canadian research chair in digital media and innovation.

It wasn’t long before they had the idea of developing a digital platform with an application enabling the making and telling of stories electronically. Instead of gawking at the lukasa board or at the maps on display, visitors will be able to transmit their own experiences and memories onto the platform reminiscent of how the lukasa boards have been used traditionally.

While the lukasa board is to be on display and has been seminal in providing an insight into a particular tribe’s culture, the variety of maps also will enable visitors to explore the ways that the changing representation and projection of space has shaped perceptions of Africa.

It will include examples of European representations of Africa on paper maps from the late 16th to the 20th century, along with African artifacts and paper objects pertaining to the scientific, administrative commercial and military exploitation of the continent by European and North American interests.

Visitors will also see examples of GIS mapping technologies used for reviewing mining resources in the Congo as well as examples of the ways that underprivileged inhabitants in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, have begun to map the space in which they live.

The exhibition is part of the Africa Atlanta 2014 program that has been organized by Jacqueline Royster, dean of Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, and Geneviève Verbeek, consul general of Belgium, the current consul general of Belgium in Atlanta.

To learn more about the exhibit, click here, and for more information about Africa Atlanta 2014, click here.