June 17, 2010 | By Rikki King | No Comments »
Categories: Anthropology, Computer science, History, Library and museum studies
Tags: Anthropology, archives, artifacts, Australia, comparative ethnic studies, digitization, grants, humanities, indigenous communities, Kimberly Christen, museums, repatriation, research, Rikki King, software, Washington State University, WSU
Back in 2002, Kimberly Christen took a dissertation research trip to the newly opened Darwin branch of the National Archives of Australia.
She saw troves of cultural artifacts — baskets, photos, music recordings and more, including many from the Warumungu Aboriginal community she had been working with since 1995.
The indigenous tribe had little to no access to the materials housed in the faraway archives, open to the public, seen by whomever.
Moreover, if they viewed the archives, there were items they just didn’t want to see.
In their culture, as in many indigenous communities, the public exhibits violated their cultural protocols. For example, the Warumungu people do not want to see images of dead relatives. Some items are appropriate only for male or female viewers, while others might be limited by viewers’ age or sacred status within the community.
The Warumungu wanted to view their materials on their own terms.
Over time, Christen, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in the Washington State University Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies, began researching ways to create a separate digital archive for the community. The archive would include all of the materials from the museum, but within the software, viewing is restricted along culturally appropriate lines. The two archives are kept separate, so Warumungu people can have their own version aside from the public version.
This is all part of the greater trend of repatriation and bringing back in indigenous voices to tell their own stories, she says. It began in the early ‘90s, when museums were ordered to start giving human remains back to their original tribes. Christen has taken that idea and applied it to a new corner of archival work.
“Digital repatriation has taken off,” she says.
The project launched in 2007, and shortly thereafter, indigenous communities from all over the globe began requesting their own version.
In March, Christen received a $49,606 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a free, open-source software that would work for everyone.
For Christen, such archives aren’t about “correcting” or rewriting the record. It’s expanding the record to include the native experience. It’s history with a conscious, she says.
“These materials are theirs … we took this stuff,” she says. (more…)