Archival Possibilities

There has been some discussion on SM concerning the possibilities and implications of digital technologies in relation to indigenous communities, most notably when Michael Brown was a guest blogger. I mentioned in my first post that the reason I was in Tennant Creek over the last two months was to install a digital archive in the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in town. I’ll just give a brief overview of the project and then discuss the possibilities I see growing from these types of projects.

The Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari archive was developed collaboratively over the last two years by myself, Warumungu community members, Craig Dietrich, Tim Dietrich (software developers) and Chris Cooney (designer). Mukurtu means ‘dilly bag’ in Warumungu. Dilly bags were used as safe keeping places for sacred materials. The archive is thus a “safe keeping place.”

The gist of the project is this: Warumungu community members wanted a way to manage the digital materials they received from a number of sources—mainly researchers, teachers and missionaries who had once worked in the community. How could they store, organize, distribute, and allow access to these images based on the Warumungu cultural protocols that surround viewing and distribution of images and the associated knowledge that goes with them?

Over two years of consultation, we developed a browser-based digital archive (using a MySQL database and PHP scripting language, the archive runs locally on an iMac in a MAMP web environment—Mac OSX, Apache, MySQL, PHP—for those techies out there) using the cultural protocols to drive the technology. That is, the information architecture of the system was driven by the specific Warumungu cultural protocols for the viewing, distribution, and reproduction of images. There is a detailed summary concerning the functionality of the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive on my blog.

Over the last few years of development I have met several people involved in similar projects—mainly in Australia (I’d love to know about others). Finally having Mukurtu installed in Tennant Creek though gave us the opportunity to 1) think of ways to develop it further in the context of Nyinkka Nyunyu as an art and culture centre and 2) reach out to others to find ways to improve and share what we have. We have begun to develop a framework for a flexible system that would allow other communities to customize the system to fit their own cultural protocols–what we need now are more developers! Although at present most of the content in Mukurtu is from personal collections, the goal is to now reach out to museums and begin a process of virtual repatriation of Warumungu cultural materials. The South Australian Museum and the Museum of Victoria have already loaned physical objects to Nyinkka Nyunyu for their museum space. These objects are displayed at Nyinkka Nyunyu and are accompanied by Warumungu narration.

The local archive allows for thousands more objects to be virtually repatriated at a fraction of the cost. Mukurtu allows for the content to be curated by individuals in the community. People can tag the content with restrictions, add multiple stories and recollections, and sort it by culturally relevant categories. People can also print images or burn CDs and thus allow the images to circulate more widely to others who live on outstations or in other areas. In fact, one of the top priorities in Mukurtu’s development was that it needed to allow people to take things with them, printing and burning were necessary to ensure circulation of the materials.

Digital archives—powered by Indigenous protocols and intellectual property systems—have the potential to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the institutions that hold Indigenous materials and the communities to whom they belong. Even if one thought that all objects should be repatriated, most Indigenous communities don’t have the money or facilities to store the objects properly. Many communities want museums to keep their objects safe—they want a voice in the way they are displayed and curated. Digital projects can provide one avenue for Indigenous curation. One great example of this is the Virtual Museum Canada project. The Canadian government has funded many First Nations web based museum projects (see the Dane Wajich project by the Doig River First Nations community).

There is potential, then, for digital archives and other web-based projects (that take seriously and integrate Indigenous protocols) to reanimate the terrain of museum display, curation, and information management and to establish collaborative development projects between technologists, anthropologists and communities. Local archives, “safe keeping places,” that use Indigenous cultural protocols to define access and distribution parameters should not be read as closing down the commons or sealing off information. Instead, these projects give us a way to interrogate the limits of commons-like narratives about information or information freedom. They give us a way to redefine access and control apart from big business models. They allow us to examine different modes of information distribution and reproduction and the ways in which these systems maintain and create knowledge through their specific protocols. These archives are as much about production as they are preservation—in these cases the two are intertwined. Can these systems also inform the larger debate about access to information in relation to digital technologies? They seem poised to do so.