Indigenous Protocols: Kim Christen at the Kluge-Ruhe

Kim Christen was at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection this weekend, delivering two lectures within five hours on her experiences building a digital archive of cultural and historical material with the Warumungu people of Tennant Creek. Christen, an anthropologist and assistant professor at Washington State University, is the author the forthcoming Aboriginal business: alliances in a remote Australian town, soon to be published by SAR Press. She also writes Long Road, a premier blog on issues Indigenous. And she is the architect of the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive, an Indigenous archive tool, that was the subject of her talks.

The first lecture, “Culture at the Interface” Digital Archives and ‘Social’ Rights Management in Aboriginal Australia,” was actually given in the high-tech Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library to an audience interested in Christen’s work from the point of view of “digital rights management” and the possibilities for encoding intellectual property protocols into software.

The second, “A Safe Keeping Place: Shifting Museum Spaces and Embedded Aboriginal Protocols,” appealed to the Kluge-Ruhe’s dedicated lecture audience interested in Aboriginal art and culture. In her presentation examined the ways in which the Warumungu not only keep their culture alive but are working to integrate their sense of themselves and their traditions into the ongoing adjustments of black and white in a multicultural community. Tennant Creek in on the Stuart Highway smack in the middle of both traditional Warumungu country and Australia’s Northern Territory.

Christen has been working with the Warumungu in Tennant Creek since 1995 in a variety of capacities. At one point in her career she accompanied a group of people from the town to the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. There they were able to inspect thousands of artifacts that had been removed from Warumungu country since contact with white people began during the construction of the Overland Telegraph line in the middle of the nineteenth century. 

A subsequent trip to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory was much less fruitful at first. Only three artifacts in MAGNT’s collection were recognized by the visitors from Tennant Creek. They did, however, receive copies of about 700 pages of written material from the NT Archives relating to activities in and around Tennant Creek. These includied extensive records from cattle stations in the area that provided documentary evidence about the Indigenous people who worked in the area for the station owners.

But on the way back down the highway towards home, the group stopped to visit at the home of a former missionary who had lived in Tennant Creek. There they were shown dozens of boxes containing thousands of photographs taken in the latter half of the twentieth century. Many people still living in Tennant Creek, and many of their deceased family members were included in these photos. The former missionary had already scanned about 500 of these photos into digital images, which Kim loaded up on her laptop and took back to the community.

Inspired by this find, the community began contacting other people who had passed through Tennant Creek, and soon they had an extensive collection of letters, photographs, and even motion pictures. Kim continued to load much of this material onto her computer, sharing it with her Warumungu friends in the form of iPhoto slide shows. But she noticed as she did so that people often shied away or left the room as images of deceased family members or photographs depicting sensitive performances or site in the countryside were shown.

Christen’s sensitivity to these cultural protocols, taken together with the delight that the Warumungu people obviously took in seeing and possessing much of this historical material, led to a series of conversations with the members of the community. The challenge was to devise ways in which this wealth of information might be shared with all who had the right to see it, while protecting those who did not. From this came the fusion of technical and cultural expertise that is now known as the Mukurtu Archive.

In her presentation at the Scholar’s Lab, Christen noted that we in the west, when thinking of intellectual property management, are conditioned by a corporate and legal frame of mind that aims at creating proprietary systems that embrace centralized control and power. This tends to give the concept of “digital rights management” a bad name, especially in the United States. And indeed a discussion of the Mukurtu Archive appeared on the “news for nerds” website Slashdot back in January. The commentary quickly became quite heated, with allegations that “superstition mumbo-jumba gets in the way of progress.” (The discussion was occasioned by an interview with Christen that appeared on theBBC News and is available as a podcast on Long Road.)

But as Christen eloquently stated, in both of her lectures in Virginia this weekend, what she, some American technologists and, most importantly, her collaborators among the Warumungu have done is to encode something approaching the lived social fabric of behavior and access to knowledge. This is a protocol that is appropriate to the community in Tennant Creek, that is flexible enough to respond to changes in attitudes and beliefs among the people it serves, and at the same time permits people to preserve and enjoy a record of recent and contemporary culture. The Mukurtu Archive sets out content via the Warumungu’s own dynamic cultural protocols. Along the way, it provides the rest of us with an opportunity to rethink the notion of access restrictions and to gain an understanding of different cultural systems.

Once a photograph (for example) has been uploaded to the Archive, the “owner” of the photo can identify the subject and the names of the people depicted, and can associate the names of family, country, and skin. She can also note whether any of the people in the photograph are deceased. All of this information can be selected from drop-down menus, and can be easily modified at a later date. There is also an opportunity to set down a “story” related to the content of the photograph. In this way, the Warumungu people themselves get to annotate images of their culture in a way that is usually only available to curators or anthropologists.

Someone who wishes to view material that has been archived must first create a personal profile, a process that is doubtless familiar to anyone who is reading this blog, who has ever shopped online, or who has taken part in online discussion forums. In the case of the Mukurtu Archive, the viewer supplies information about gender, skin, family, country, as well as father’s family and country and mother’s family and country. Then when that person attempts to view the archive, she is only presented with information that is deemed appropriate to her role and position in Warumungu society.

(Two points of clarification here: I am using feminine pronouns simply as a rhetorical strategy to avoid infelicitous constructions like “when one views the archive, they see…”; information is accessible to all members of the community, male and female alike. Secondly, the archive, although it uses the technology of the web, is not online. It is available only in the part of Nyinkka Nyunyu that houses the community centre, which is currently accessible only to the Warumungu. Tourists who visit on their way through from Darwin to Alice Springs are admitted only to the shop and the museum in the building. Future development may allow some access to public, unrestricted images from a kiosk in the museum.)

There are a host of other features available. Viewers may leave comments, enhancing the story as told by the original depositor or owner. They can build their own collections of selected images, and burn those images to a CD, a feature that promises to allow for future sharing of some material in school presentations. One-click printing is available. A viewer can report offensive material, or note if she comes across the image of a person who is now deceased. 

One of the most interesting features of the archive’s implementation of Warumungu cultural protocols has to do with images of the departed. Fifteen years ago, Christen pointed out, there would have been no question that viewing images of the deceased would be inappropriate. Today, however, some people feel more relaxed about such matters. They recognize that it can be a question of personal choice. So instead of automatically suppressing such images, the program instead presents a pop-up window when someone clicks on a thumbnail or a category that contains a photo of a person no longer living. The pop-up warns the viewer and gives her the option to continue or not.

Another feature of the Archive that members of both audiences remarked on was the fact that all the written information is in English. As Christen explained, Warumungu was only written down in the past couple of decades. Most people speak Warumungu and the local pidgin, but those who read, read English.

In her evening lecture at the Kluge-Ruhe, Kim covered some of the same territory, but also provided us with some history of the creation of the Nyinkka Nyunyu Cultural Centre and some slides of the kind of visual presentations of Warumungu culture that are available in it. The Warumungu built en dioramas (roughly two by three foot) that present important stories from the people’s history, including contact history, stories of cattle droving, and material from the NT Archives. Another exhibit explains the skin system, orpuntu, through the use of large painted self-portraits. These bold images are wonderfully expressive of the individuals who incarnate the relationships embodied in puntu today. They are a far cry from the abstract information about kinship usually presented in tables in anthropological textbooks.

There are several ways that you can experience the brilliance of Christen’s work for yourself, although unfortunately none of them come packaged with Christen’s own wit, eloquence, and enthusiasm in quite the same way that we got to experience them this weekend in Virginia. (It was quite wonderful to see her adapt her presentation and her responses to the audience to the different concerns that each group brought to her presentation, and to gain therefore a deeper appreciation for the intelligence and commitment that informs her work.)

First, there is a demo site of the Archive that you can visit. It provides background information about the encoding of cultural protocols, and offers a few collections (mostly drawn from Kim’s own family and friends here in the States) to browse and search. More information about the whole project is available from the online journal Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, where Christen and Chris Cooney have built a fascinating website called “Digital Dynamics Across Cultures.” This website offers a taste of Warumungu culture in photographs and audio recordings and information about the history of contact in Warumungu country. Most importantly, is cleverly designed to force the viewer into experiencing something of the appropriate cultural protocols for herself.

Christen’s work has already proven invaluable in providing a means to preserve a slice of Indigenous culture in one part of the Territory. It has the potential to serve, through the technology that has built the Mukurtu Archive, as the foundation for many other treasuries of indigenous knowledge. And although what we saw this weekend is the culmination of years of work, it was incredibly exciting to feel that we were present at the start of an entirely new chapter in the preservation and presentation of cultural history.

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One Response to Indigenous Protocols: Kim Christen at the Kluge-Ruhe

  1. Pingback: Margo Smith, AM | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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