Mukurtu: A Digital Platform That Does More Than Manage Content

HUMANITIES, Fall 2020, Volume 41, Number 4

In November 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron pledged to return 26 artifacts housed in French museums that had been taken from the African state of Benin during the early days of colonialism. More recently, Germany adopted a new policy to return items collected under circumstances that would be considered illegal by today’s standards and pledged 1.9 million euros of research funding to ascertain the origins of holdings in its cultural institutions. The British Museum, which has committed to lending out more of its holdings instead of returning them to the nations from which they were taken, faces criticism for failing to confront its role in the continuing damage of colonization.

Even as governments around the world begin to confront their colonial histories, the most visible conversations about Indigenous property rights have centered on the policies, anxieties, and opinions of non-Indigenous leaders. Kim Christen, the director of the Digital Technology and Culture Program at Washington State University, has developed a tool for Indigenous people to recast cultural materials within their own experiences and histories.

Over the past two decades, Christen has collaborated with Indigenous communities to build a tool that responds to their specific needs. Mukurtu, a digital access platform for managing and curating cultural heritage materials, has developed from a decadeslong dialog with community partners about how to build digital tools around well-established expectations for how cultural heritage should be kept and shared.

"Indians Fishing at Prosser Dam"
Photo caption

Mukurtu facilitates collaboration between archives and communities, bringing traditional knowledge and protocols to bear on cultural heritage collections. To the record for this 1918 photo, “Indians Fishing at Prosser Dam,” longtime Yakama Nation librarian Vivian Adams added the following cultural narrative: “Fishing has always been a subsistence task for Plateau people, ever since Brother Salmon gave himself to us for our well-being in the ancient times. And, there’s the ongoing work by the Plateau people through the efforts of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission to revive, restore, and conserve fish runs; always hoping to persuade the dams to build better ladders for the fish to climb.” Adams also supplied text under the rubric of traditional knowledge: “We have annual salmon feasts to honor and give thanks to our Brother in accordance with the laws we were given by our Creator. These days it is difficult fishing because the number of salmon has been decreased by the vast number of dams in our rivers; making it difficult for Brother Salmon to perform his life-required navigation of our waters to the sea and back. Of course, there are also the expensive ongoing court battles Plateau people find necessary to keep White treaty promises valid and to get a fair share of fishing.”

—Washington State University Libraries, Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections

Mukurtu grew out of Christen’s long-term relationship with the Warumungu community in central Australia. Warumungu community members had collections of photographs and other cultural objects they wanted to share, and they partnered with Christen to develop a digital tool that would enable them to do so in culturally appropriate ways. For instance, it was a commonly accepted practice among the Warumungu not to display images of deceased relatives or to provide access to traditional knowledge based on kin relations. Christen and her team spent years working with the community to develop a tool that could meet these standards, and they came up with an alpha version that enabled community members to determine who could see and interact with materials.

From the beginning, cultural protocols—standards indicating who should have access to what information under what conditions—were central to Mukurtu’s design. In the same way that many social media platforms allow users to post publicly or limit sharing to specific groups, Mukurtu’s design allows its users to make decisions about access. Through its customization options, users can preserve generations of shared practices and shades of nuance within communities. A community might set cultural protocols to determine, for instance, the appropriate circumstances under which to display photos of a deceased relative, or the right time of year to play a harvest song. A community might circulate content only to women, elders, or spiritual leaders, or, indeed, they might choose to open records to the public. With complete autonomy to create protocols and approve user accounts, communities themselves determine the rules of engagement.

Nez Perce Tribe saddle
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This Nez Perce woman’s saddle, circa 1830–1845, was part of the Spalding-Allen Collection. Its frame is made of cottonwood and rawhide; its fenders show geometric designs. The item record explains that, in 1836, Henry Spalding and his wife joined another couple in a mission to Christianize the Indians of Oregon County. Spalding sent the saddle along with many other items to his friend and patron Dudley Allen in Ohio. A century and a half later, the Ohio Historical Society sold the collection to the Nez Perce Tribe.

The traditional knowledge content adds a great many details about the design and construction. Quoting Kevin Peters, it says, “Around the world in other museums, I don’t know, there are five or six other pieces that [have] fenders that look like these. I mean, just about identical. So somebody was making a statement at some point in time, in a group, that said this is who we are. . . . It’s a piece of artwork. It’s a very three-dimensional piece of work that . . . would look good hanging just being by itself, it’s beautiful. Doesn’t even need a horse underneath it.”

Nakia Williamson adds, “The cottonwood used for the saddle frame, the rawhide, you know, everything that was used to make those items is mirrored in the landscape. . . . And that’s important because like what our own laws say about who we are is that it’s the earth and this land that defines us. . . . The non-Indian view is . . . almost sometimes the complete opposite. You change everything to suit your needs. Whereas us, we, our law was this land. . . . It’s what informed Nez Perce identity.”

—Nez Perce Tribe

When the Mukurtu team began working with Native American nations in the Inland Pacific Northwest to tailor a new version of the platform, they had to make some major changes. The Warumungu had started with a collection that had been assembled, in large part, from belongings that missionaries and scholars had returned to the community. The Plateau communities they worked with, on the other hand, were dealing with digital and physical materials scattered through cultural institutions across North America. Many of these materials had been, as Christen puts it, “collected under very dubious circumstances.”

Just as the British Museum’s halls are filled with imperial loot, such as the Rosetta Stone and pieces from the Parthenon, many of North America’s most prestigious libraries, museums, and archives have an unsettling history of taking without asking. “We’re talking about the colonial roots of these materials,” says Christen, “These institutions are built and founded on those colonial records, on histories of violence—histories that are based in genocide and erasure.”

The ways that non-Indigenous institutions describe their Indigenous holdings can be problematic, ranging from sparse, to racist, to entirely false. While the Warumungu had developed their metadata—the information about the materials in their collection—internally, the first North American communities to adopt Mukurtu had to contend with a sea of misinformation, says Christen. “Communities were saying, ‘Well this is wrong. That’s not that person—that’s my grandfather.’”

a woven bag or basket for gathering roots
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The record of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture describes this cylindrical root-gathering bag from the Wasco-Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs as made of hemp, cotton, and cornhusk and says its dimensions are 6.5 inches high and 13 inches in circumference. An additional cultural narrative was supplied by three women of Warm Springs. In a video clip they discuss the “Wasco Man Basket” and details such as the natural dye used in the design showing deer and a man. In the clip, Arlita Rhoan says a Wasco man trained to be a good hunter would make a desirable husband.

—Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture / Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane, Washington MAC_10605

Through Mukurtu, communities were able to present objects from their cultural heritage in context, providing rich histories and cultural explanations and, often, revising problematic descriptions from existing records. Many of Mukurtu’s early adopters saw the multiple counternarratives as part of the story. “Nobody wanted to erase those original records, or delete the scholarly record,” says Christen, “but everybody wanted to have a voice and have it be prominent in its display.”

This ability to offer multiple perspectives on the same object is one of the hallmarks that sets Mukurtu apart. “Other content-management systems rely heavily on the notion of ‘the one authority record,’” says Christen. “It’s a way of thinking about the world that’s very Western.” When mainstream libraries, museums, and archives catalog their holdings this way, the privileged voice is rarely the Indigenous one. “Their information, their stories, their narratives, their knowledge gets erased, and the knowledge that is put forward as the authority is the non-Indigenous scholar or collector.”

Mukurtu, in contrast, allows for multiple narratives to exist in tandem. Michael Wynne, digital applications librarian at Washington State University, gives the example of a basket created by a member of the Warm Springs Tribe and physically held at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. On the Mukurtu platform, both the museum and the Indigenous nation have community accounts, and each has uploaded its own record for the object. In the NMAC’s tab, it is called a “root gathering bag” and accompanied by brief information including subject headings, a date range, and a general physical description.

Click the next tab, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs record uses a new title, “Wasco Man Basket,” and cites three expert weavers who, in addition to providing a richer set of key words, have also added three separate textual and video narratives describing the design and cultural significance of the bag. In a video, one of the elder women describes the basket in her native language and then redescribes, in English, its cultural significance. The museum’s description “really doesn’t tell you anything about the basket,” says Wynne. “In reality, when people can tell their own narratives, you get so much more valuable information. There is so much more life in these records.” For Wynne, records created by the tribes themselves reveal active and engaged people. “A lot of dialog around communities is in a past-tense historical,” he says, “but this is so much more of a living object.”

photograph of the potter Earl Lewis holding one of his pieces
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According to the cultural narrative in the digital Catawba Archives, “Earl Robbins was born in Cherokee County, South Carolina, on April 14, 1922. He is the son of Effie Harris and the great grandson of Peter Harris, a Confederate Veteran. The Robbins family moved to the Catawba Indian Reservation in 1935 when Earl was 13 years old. His mother immediately began to make pottery, and young Earl was enlisted to help her. By 1937, Earl was making a wide assortment of small pieces to sell to tourists. Earl stopped making pottery in 1940, when he obtained work. After his marriage to Viola Harris, he would always dig clay and helped his wife burn her wares. Earl returned to pottery making in 1987. Earl is known for his enormous, thin vessels and his rubbing techniques. Earl was one of the few men from his generation that participated in the making of pottery. His pieces can be found all over the world, some are even housed in the Louvre in Paris.” Photograph by Gene Crediford

—Catawba Nation Archives

As Indigenous communities use Mukurtu and cultural institutions have begun to negotiate how to present digital records for Indigenous materials, the conversations over the past five or more years have given way to more nuanced and collaborative discussions about “ethical curation and digital repatriation,” says Christen. Where it was common that transactions were one-directional, with libraries, museums, and archives providing digital copies, now they are “working in collaboration, and communities using Mukurtu can share back information, traditional knowledge and provide updated language.” For Christen, this dialog and sharing are a crucial step in relationship-building between Indigenous communities and cultural institutions. “One of the ways that repair—reparations—can work in institutions is by not only providing those digital materials back, but working in conversation and working collaboratively to update and expand those records and highlight Indigenous attribution and authority.”

In the case of the Ancestral Voices project, the Passamaquoddy Nation and the Library of Congress landed on a solution that worked for both sides. The Library of Congress had acquired the first wax recordings of Indigenous voices in North America—a collection of wax cylinders through which Jesse Walter Fewkes had recorded the voices of members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in 1890. In danger of degradation, some of the wax recordings had since been restored and made available digitally through the library’s online catalog. After the library repatriated the digital files to the Passamaquoddy, the community used Mukurtu to create records with rich knowledge descriptions and traditional knowledge labels indicating attribution and other protocols. “Mukurtu has been situated as a connector in that way. It allows communities to re-narrate and add their knowledge, traditional narratives, and provide those back to institutions.”

photo of Glacier Bay, Alaska, showing the Hoonah fishing fleet
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The two records for this photograph offer different, though, complementary context for this image of the Hoonah fishing fleet in Glacier Bay, Alaska. The National Park Service record notes that close to two hundred vessels came to Hoonah for the Icy Straits cannery, and discusses fishing techniques and other details visible in the photo. The traditional knowledge content, supplied by Hoonah community members, reads, “It was said that if you were a fishermen from Hoonah you were good. No question. Uncontested, it was the way it was. The Hoonah fishermen were tough, competitive and could fish the Inian Islands like no others. The tides were so fierce in the Inian Islands that others who tried to fish the waters inevitably had trouble and could not do it.”

—Huna Heritage Foundation

Hosting a Mukurtu site requires the technical means to host the site as well as the human resources to maintain it, make decisions about how it will be used, and manage the collections. “This is one piece of the puzzle,” Christen says. “The technology is something that launches us into relationships. It doesn’t create the relationships. It doesn’t sustain them. It doesn’t negate the need for labor and infrastructure.”

As universities and cultural institutions of all types look to treat Indigenous knowledge in more culturally appropriate terms, Christen cautions against giving too much glory to the role of technology in these efforts. “I really try to temper any sense of Mukurtu or any digital tool as ‘revolutionary’ or as ‘saving,’” says Christen. “Who’s going to do it are the people who want to do it.”

“I don’t want to tell a story about Mukurtu as a digital platform alone,” Christen says. “I want to tell a story about Mukurtu as a connector, as a relationship builder, as something that provides a stage for ethical conversations and ethical structures. Twenty years from now, Mukurtu might be gone, but these relationships that we put in place are still going to be there.”