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Faculty member discusses cultural repatriation at Smithsonian
Monday, Feb. 6, 2012
By Phyllis Shier, College of Arts and Sciences
Workshop at the Smithsonian. (Photo by Judith Andrews)
PULLMAN, Wash. – A Washington State University faculty member recently co-hosted a workshop at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. about returning cultural heritage materials to indigenous groups through digital images and recordings.
The "After the Return” workshop was sponsored by a $25,038 National Science Foundation grant and a $20,000 Smithsonian Grand Challenges grant.
To document, share and protect culture
Anthropologists have come to rely on digital technology to document, protect and share important traditional knowledge. For example, linguistic anthropologists seek to document and potentially revitalize endangered languages while archaeologists seek local knowledge regarding heritage sites.
Digital repatriation refers to the return to indigenous groups of intangible cultural heritage materials - such as song, music, drama, skills and crafts - through digital images or copies of original recordings. This allows original tangible objects and recordings to remain in museums and other repositories while the digital copies circulate among indigenous community members.
Kim Christen, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies, has used digital repatriation for more than five years as director of the Mukurtu project. This free, open source digital platform allows participating groups to manage, archive and share indigenous cultural materials in accordance with their protocols and cultural knowledge systems.
Christen also directs the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, an effort to digitize and co-curate Plateau Indian cultural materials.
Indigenous community control paramount
Last month, Christen and her colleagues Joshua Bell at the National Museum of Natural History and Mark Turin at Cambridge and Yale University’s World Oral Literature Project hosted a digital repatriation workshop at the Smithsonian.
The "After the Return” workshop brought together scholars, indigenous community members and institutional representatives to examine a broad range of case studies. Participants discussed whether and how making intangible cultural heritage materials available online helps marginalized communities reinvigorate their local knowledge practices, languages and cultural products.
"Participants stressed the need for indigenous involvement and guidance throughout any and all digital return projects,” Christen said. "Emphasis needs to be on sustainability within local communities, with management and control over materials decided collaboratively and in relation to the ethical and cultural concerns of the communities, even if it pushes against standard copyright or other legal regimes.”
Participants noted evidence of linguistic and cultural change alongside technological advances and the use of digital tools and materials.
"It was apparent from all the presentations and discussions that although these (reparation) projects take digital materials as one focus, they must be built on solid foundations of research relationships, institutional commitments and community needs and existing social structures,” Christen said.
Website, journal issue, essays funded too
In addition to the workshop, the NSF grant will fund an edited collection of essays, a dedicated project website and a set of digital white papers with suggestions for best practices, international standards and practical guidelines for researchers, indigenous communities and collecting institutions.
Christen said participants are collaborating on a special issue of the journal Museum Anthropology Review for fall 2012 expanding on themes raised in the workshop.
The existing Digital Return website will be expanded to include the white papers that result from the conference as well as research network and community links to promote discussion and provide resources for communities, institutions and researchers, Christen said.
Christen, Bell and Turin also are exploring further grant opportunities to link cultural materials and digital tools with communities, particularly through the Recovering Voices initiative of the National Museum of Natural History, the Mukurtu indigenous archive tool and the World Oral Literature Project.