Powering cultural preservation: New grants expand archiving of indigenous treasures

photo-totem-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Just thinking about the box of fragile cassette tapes gives Kim Christen chills. Recorded on the thin ribbons was the last-known speaker of the Kiksht language, yet another vanishing treasure of Native American culture.

“All of that important material stored on those little cassettes,” said Christen, Washington State University associate professor of English (http://libarts.wsu.edu/english/) and associate director of the Digital Technology and Culture Program (http://libarts.wsu.edu/dtc/). “I was so afraid the tapes would be accidentally damaged before they could be more safely archived.”

Mukurtu’s Michael Ashley with Terry Point (Musqueam First Nations member) at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, B.C., demonstrating Mukurtu Mobile.

Christen is director of digital projects for the Plateau Center for American Indian Studies at WSU (http://plateau
). Her intense drive to help tribal people protect their heritage materials and increase their accessibility and use – while respecting the communities’ limits in terms of resources and cultural sensitivities – has led to two new, federally funded grants totaling almost $1 million.

New fuel to tackle complex challenges

A WSU record-setting grant of $319,331 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and a $499,186 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) will enable Christen and her colleagues to expand the ways they’re helping indigenous communities through digital archiving technology.

With half of the world’s languages at high risk of extinction in this century and vast bodies of cultural knowledge already lost or endangered, preserving important cultural heritage materials is crucial. But it’s not easy. Designing effective, efficient and culturally appropriate ways to archive diversely sensitive materials is a complex challenge.

Keeping sacred items safe

The NEH Digital Humanities Implementation grant will enable Christen and her team to expand the suite of Mukurtu (pronounced MOO-koo-too) digital archiving software they developed with support of earlier NEH and IMLS grants.

Shawn LameBull works on digital scanning materials for the Yakama Nation.

Mukurtu is the Warumungu word for “dilly bag,” a traditional Australian aboriginal container. Elders of the Warumungu community in Australia’s Northern Territory, where much of Christen’s digital archive work began, use the bags to keep sacred items safe.

Built around a growing collection of photographs, videos and cultural artifacts, the Mukurtu platform is a “safe keeping place” in use by several indigenous groups across the United States and worldwide.

Mukurtu CMS and Mukurtu Mobile

Mukurtu CMS (http://www.mukurtu.org/) is a free, open-source, standards-based tool for managing digital content. It is adaptable and enables protected access and culturally driven sharing of heritage materials.

The recent NEH grant will allow expansion of the Mukurtu platform with development of Mukurtu Mobile (http://mukurtumobile.org/about), a dynamic digital tool for collecting and exhibiting cultural content. The mobile platform is another direct response to the needs of indigenous people across the globe, Christen said.

Michael Holloman, coordinator of American Indian Studies at WSU, showing tribal members a flat twined bag from the Plateau Collection at the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane.

“Mobile phones are everywhere – especially in low-income communities where young people might never have used a landline,” Christen said. “This mobile technology allows them to take pictures, video and audio just about anywhere and automatically upload them within the cultural and sharing protocols of their communities and preserve their heritage continually.

“Mukurtu Mobile will link the power of a robust, culturally responsive CMS to the direct collection of knowledge on the ground,” she said.

Because many traditional and tribal groups define access to specific types of heritage materials based on criteria such as age, gender and clan, accommodating these cultural protocols is fundamental to Mukurtu tool designs.

Addressing community needs

The Mukurtu platform connects local sources of knowledge and data – from citizen archivists to citizen scientists – to fuel research and education, Christen said. It has the power to unite local communities around important global issues in natural and cultural resource management.

“We’re leveraging technology as a partner for communities and bringing arts and sciences together to meet their goals,” Christen said. “The really exciting thing about all of these projects is that they all respond to cultural, social and educational needs identified by communities.

“And it’s significant that WSU – Washington’s land-grant university – is at the cutting edge of thinking about ethical ways of managing cultural content,” she said.

Training critical to expand preservation, sharing

Collecting digital assets is only the first step in the archiving process. Next come presentation, access and use.

Training is necessary to equip and engage individual users and content providers, including museum and library staff, tribal elders and members of the community who might have little other direct contact with digital technology.

The IMLS grant will provide for hands-on training at national conferences and regional locations. It will support development of a national registry to connect tribal archives, museums and libraries with key resources.

Web-based tutorials and multimedia “stewardship kits” will provide step-by-step guides for managing heritage materials, from digitization to curation and preservation to sharing. All will be grounded in international standards-based protocols, incorporating community values and needs.

Thoughtful, standardized management

“Almost all tribal cultural organizations engage in digitizing materials, but few have developed digital cultural heritage management plans,” said Susan Feller, director of the Oklahoma-based Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, a primary partner on the IMLS grant. “This new support will help address the ongoing issues of enabling culturally appropriate access to indigenous materials and maintaining international standards,” she said.

For tribal archives, libraries and museums, the new funding will provide an “expanded toolset to continue bringing their cultural heritage materials to the forefront in a sustainable, contextualized way,” said Alex Merrill, interim assistant dean for operations at WSU Libraries and co-principal investigator on the IMLS grant.

Inspiring students, young tribal scholars

“For WSU students, it will lead to a greater emphasis on a side of the tribal story that has been underrepresented, giving them a greater understanding of the breadth of a part of Washington history they might not have ever seen before,” Merrill said.

Murkurtu Mobile and the digital stewardship projects operate on “vastly different scales to help solve very different but very critical needs,” said Michael Ashley, Mukurtu director of development and chief technology officer for the nonprofit Center for Digital Archaeology at University of California Berkeley, another primary partner on the IMLS grant.

“One of the most important outcomes is to excite young scholars and interested young doers to learn seriously useful skills and bring them back to their communities,” he said.

More about the grants

“Collaborative Stewardship: Providing Sustainable Digital Heritage Training for Tribal Libraries, Archives and Museums” is a three-year partnership among WSU, the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center and the Center for Digital Archaeology at the University of California Berkeley. IMLS funding for the project is through a Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Continuing Education Program grant.

“Mukurtu Mobile: Empowering Knowledge Circulation across Cultures” is supported by a two-year NEH Digital Humanities Implementation grant (HK-50120-13).

More about the researchers

Christen holds a doctorate in the history of consciousness from the University of California at Santa Cruz. She has been a featured guest on the BBC radio program “Digital Planet” and is past recipient of a Northwest Academic Computing Consortium grant, an American Council of Learned Societies Digital Innovation Fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and an IMLS National Leadership Grant for Advancing Digital Tools.

Merrill studied information science at the University of Arizona and has worked with digital cultural material in varied contexts for eight years. He has published and presented nationally on topics ranging from sense of place in digital collections to organizational leadership.




Kim Christen, WSU Department of English, kachristen@wsu.edu, 509-335-4177

Adrian Aumen, WSU College of Arts and Sciences, (http://cas.wsu.edu/index_rotate.html), adriana@wsu.edu, 509-335-5671