My original project proposal from 2010, updated April 2011:
“Making Digitised Collections Useful. What can we learn from current Smithsonian work with source communities?”
This fellowship project proposes to study the Smithsonian projects “Sharing Knowledge” (Artic Studies Center, Anchorage/Washington) and “Recovering Voices” (NMNH, NMAI and CFCH, Washington) in order to learn how museums can enhance the reception and use of digitised collections in source communities. This will make digitised collections more useful and help reaching the exciting potential of digitisation.
This is a timely question as digitising has become so important for keeping up with the possibilities of technology that most museums have so far had to focus more on completing the digitisation process than exploring how the digitised collections can and will be used. Such explorations could be inspirational and give museum employees better motivation in the face of seemingly endless digitisation processes.
As a museum anthropologist I am also concerned with how source communities perceive the difference between virtual and physical access to museum artefacts, and how they feel about the tentative, and already disputed, concept of “virtual repatriation”. Though virtual access to museum objects would seem better than no repatriation or access at all I suppose this virtual presence might, as a visual reminder, actually trigger a physical feeling of absence and the need of touching, owning and therefore reclaiming the object. At the same time, I think digitisation opens up for more teamwork among museums and their communities, and that this will benefit all.
The ongoing “Sharing Knowledge” project of the Smithsonian Artic Studies Center (ASC) seems to be an inspiring example of good collaboration with source communities and has already resulted in a very interesting database. In May 2010 the artefacts that so far have been virtually accessible through the database were deposited and put on display in the exhibition “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage” at the new ASC branch in Anchorage –and thus these artefacts are now physically closer to their source communities. This is a good opportunity for studying how participants in the Sharing Knowledge project and visitors to the new exhibition in Anchorage compare digital access to the physical, and how they feel about this project so far.
A similar, and wider, project is initiated at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. This new project, called “Recovering Voices: A Learning Archive for Endangered Languages and Indigenous Knowledge”, will ask how to sustain the diversity of indigenous languages and knowledge and what science can learn from them (Bell 2009:45). As “Recovering Voices” is in its initial stage of planning it is also a good moment and opportunity to study how the participants at the different museums envision the project and what they have learned from the “Sharing Knowledge”-project.
By studying these Smithsonian initiatives this fellowship project hopes to inspire other museums in how to collaborate and make their collections useful for source communities and the general public.
Scope and discussion of the topic:
The theoretical starting point of this proposed fellowship project can be retraced to the Walter Benjamin article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1968) and his argument that copies lack the aura of authenticity of the original. He saw authenticity as the “essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (ibid: 221). The aura of original museum objects is still considered important to attract visitors to the museum, yet at the same time digitisation and technology that can allow people to touch objects virtually might seem as a solution to the ethical paradox that museums should both conserve the object and make it accessible to the public (ICOM 2004).
At the University College London anthropologist Graeme Were (2008) did an experiment called “E-curator” where objects scanned in 3D were presented to students for object handling analysis. The student responded with descriptions including sensations of both weight and smell of the digital objects and Were concluded that the real and the virtual are intertwined in complex ways that should be further investigated (ibid:133). When it comes to digitisation of film, photographs and music recordings it has become almost impossible to tell the difference between copy and original, but artefacts are still different.
However, this virtual access to museum collections has tentatively been called “virtual repatriation” (see f.ex. Tolva 2005), and even though many now avoid using this term (pers.comm. J. Bell, NMNH) many museums probably hope it can become an alternative to physical repatriation. In the third edition of “The Return of Cultural Treasures”, Helen Greenfield (2007) added a chapter on “virtual homecomings”. Here she argues that digitisation and social technologies can create new alternatives in the ethical debate of repatriation of cultural property to originating communities. Some digitisation projects, like the one of the Lindisfarne Gospels held by the British Library and of the earliest Danish law code (Jyske Lov) held by the Royal Library in Stockholm, have been results of repatriation claims (ibid). On the other hand, many cases of so-called “virtual repatriation” or repatriation claims may become unintended side effects of museums trying to keep up with technology.
When digitising their collections museums are improving their collection management as well as making the collections available to the general public online. This public is increasingly including people from originating communities around the world, depending on their degree of Internet access and interest. Instant visual access to photos of museum objects and their contextual documentation opens up for new uses of the collections and has by some been described as a way of or a tool for virtually repatriating cultural property to their originating communities. However, concerns are being raised as to the ethics of digitisation and the relevance of the concept of virtual repatriation. Anthropologist Kate Hennessy calls for more cooperation with originating communities in the digitisation process as she fears that the possibility of sensitive material circulating freely online without the community’s consent can create distrust between communities, museums and researchers (Hennessy 2009). Her experience of creating a virtual exhibit (http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Danewajich/, Last accessed Feb12, 2010) with the Doig River First nation in Canada and a team of cooperating researchers seems to be a good example of how digitisation of cultural heritage can facilitate and stimulate both local intergenerational debate and participatory research (Ridington and Hennessy 2008).
An example of an interesting digitisation initiative that has not reached its potential is the “Recalling Ancestral Voices. Repatriation of Samí Cultural Heritage”, a project organised by Samí community museums in Finland, Norway and Sweden in 2006-07. As most Sami artefacts are held in museums outside the traditional Sami area of these countries the primary project goal was to “repatriate knowledge of the material culture heritage to the Sámi in the form of a database” (http://www.siida.fi/heritage/english/projekti.html, last accessed Feb5, 2010). By gaining access to the different museum catalogues about 12000 catalogue cards (only some with photos) were made accessible through the three national subdivisions (Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish) of the database (http://www.samicollection.org/netsovellus/he/he0n_default.aspx), but with little or no new documentation added. Unfortunately, the database has not been further developed since the funding ended in November 2007 and its project manager confirms that it seems to be little used (e-mail Harlin 2009).
The proposed fellowship project will add knowledge to the topic of museum digitisation and source communities by focusing on two specific digitisation project (the “Sharing Knowledge” and “Recovering Voices”) and bringing the personal and institutional experiences of those projects into the general and theoretical discussions. This will produce both new theoretical insights and practical advice for museums.
Plan of action, methodology, preliminary questions and dissemination
The research methodology will consist of participant observation, web content analysis and interviews in participant institutions in both Anchorage and Washington DC over a period of five months from April 8 to September 22, 2011.
The two projects to be studied will be approached by theoretical and practical questions like:
- How have these projects evolved and what have been the main challenges?
- What is the potential of digitised collections to become cultural resources in source communities and what factors can influence their reception and use?
- How to avoid digitised collections being seen as so called “virtual repatriation” and an easy option for museums to deal with repatriation claims?
- How can museums and source communities work together on digitised collections in mutually beneficial ways?
Mid-April to late-June will be spent at the Artic Studies Center in Anchorage, observing, interacting with and interviewing visitors to the new exhibition and available project participants and organisers. The director of ASC Aron Crowell plan they will be working with Inupiaq, Dena’ina and Athabascan speakers to document and create language learning tools by using artefacts from the collections, and this will be very interesting to observe.
Mid-June to mid-September will be spent in Washington DC interviewing people in the different participant institutions of the Sharing Knowledge and Recovering Voices projects, as well as people of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies and museum visitors.
As a museum anthropologist with experience from making web exhibitions and ethnographic documentary, and as this goes well with the topic of digitisation, I propose to accompany the written outcome of this project with digital and visual aids. From the beginning to the end of the fellowship I will use a project blog connected to my profile in the international museum network “Museum 3.0” (http://museum30.ning.com/, currently two thousand users) to keep people updated on my thoughts and experiences as they evolve, and to hopefully get useful feedback. At the end of the study I plan to disseminate the result of my project by posting a digital video story and an accompanying article on the blog. I will also present the article to the Museum & the Web conference 2012 and for publication in Museum Management and Curatorship or another relevant journal. To be sure to “repatriate” the results of my project to the local public in Anchorage and back in Norway I propose to do personal presentations of my digital story and blog.
Literary and visual references:
The literature on repatriation and source communities is extensive, so only a few are mentioned here (Brown and Peers 2003, Conaty 2008, Gabriel and Dahl 2008, Greenfield 2007, Mihesuah 2000). However, when it comes to digitisation teamwork with source communities there is still little written. Kate Hennessy (2008, 2009) is currently writing a PhD-thesis on the topic and has published a few articles. Joshua Bell (2009) has written a short comment on the establishment of the “Recovering Voices”- project. Conference papers and discussions related to digitisation are also found on the website “Archives & Museum Informatics” (http://www.archimuse.com/) and on the social network “Museum 3.0” (http://museum30.ning.com/). And so far some of the most interesting sources are the projects themselves as presented on the web, like the database of “Sharing Knowledge” (http://alaska.si.edu/index.asp) and the “Recalling Ancestral Voices” (http://www.samicollection.org/index.htm).
Books and articles:
Bell, Joshua. 2009 Recovering Voices: A New Smithsonian Initiative, Anthropology News, November 2009: 45.
Brown, A. and L. Peers 2003 Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader, Routledge: New York.
Benjamin, Walter. 1968 The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Illuminations, New York.
Conaty, G. T. 2008 The effects of repatriation on the relationship between the Glenbow Museum and the Blackfoot people, Museum Management and Curatorship, 23: 3, 245-59.
Gabriel, M. and J. Dahl 2008 UTIMUT – Past heritage – future partnerships, IWGIA/NKA: Copenhagen.
Greenfield, H. 2007 The Return of Cultural Treasures, 3rd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harlin, Eeva-Kristiina. 2008 Projektets Interreg IIIA slutrapport, http://www.siida.fi/heritage/svensk/Loppuraportti/Slutrapport.pdf, Consulted May 28, 2009.
Hennessy, Kate 2009 ”Virtual Repatriation and Digital Cultural Heritage. The Ethics of Managing Online Collections”, Anthropology News, April 2009: 5-6.
ICOMs museum ethics, http://www.icom-norway.org/icom_regel_web.pdf
Mihesuah, D. A. (ed) 2000 Repatriation Reader. Who Owns American Indian Remains?, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London.
Ridington, Amber and K. Hennessy 2008 “Building Indigenous Agency Through Web-Based Exhibition: Dane-Wajich – Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land”, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted May 21, 2009. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2008/papers/ ridington/ridington.html
Tolva, John 2005 Recontextualizing the Collection: Virtual Reconstruction, Replacement, and Repatriation, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at http://www.archimuse.com/mw2005/papers/tolva/tolva.html. Consulted Feb 8, 2010.
Were, Graeme 2008 “Out of Touch? Digital Technologies, Ethnographic Objects and Sensory Orders” in Chatterjee, H. (ed) “Touch in Museums. Policy and Practice in Object Handling”, New York / London: Berg Publishers, pp 121-134.
Archives & Museum Informatics, http://www.archimuse.com/
Dane-Wajich – Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Danewajich/
E-Curator Research Project, http://www.museums.ucl.ac.uk/research/ecurator
Museum 3.0, http://museum30.ning.com/
Recalling Ancestral Voices, http://www.samicollection.org/index.htm
Sharing Knowledge, Alaska Native Collections, http://alaska.si.edu/about_this_project.asp