Digital Heritage, Knowledge Networks, and Source Communities: Understanding Digital Objects in a Melanesian Society

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  • digital heritage, knowledgenetworks, and sourcecommunities:Understanding Digital Objects in aMelanesian Society

    GraemeWereuniversity of queensland


    This article investigates digital heritage technologies from

    a Melanesian perspective. It exploresin the context of

    New Ireland, Papua New Guineathe types of values

    placed on digital surrogates as a means to engage critically

    with recent debates on digital or virtual repatriation. It

    raises the question as to whether digital knowledge

    resources such as 3D digital objects are really seen as sec-

    ondary or second best to the original or whether digital

    technologies reproduce, in new form, an economy of

    objects that sustains knowledge and revival practices. As a

    way to address this, the Mobile Museum pilot project was

    launched in January 2012 to help support the Nalik people

    of New Ireland reconnecting with and researching their

    cultural heritage in Queensland museums. This article

    demonstrates, in contrast to recent calls for an ideological

    return to the status of the museum object as put forward

    by Conn (2010), how ethnographic objects should be

    understood in terms of their performativity, mobility, and

    virtuality, which render them operative far beyond the

    physical realms of museum institutions. [digital heritage,

    digital repatriation, ethnographic collections, cultural revi-

    talization, Melanesia]

    Increased accessibility to digital technologies and

    mobile telecommunications in rural and remote loca-

    tions has radically transformed the ways in which

    source communities access and engage with ethno-

    graphic collections for the purposes of cultural revi-

    talization (Phillips 2013; Srinivasan and Huang

    2005). The transfer of ethnographic collections into

    digital formats together with the launching of digital

    platforms such as interactive websites, virtual exhibi-

    tion walkthroughs, and online catalogues and

    archives has made hundreds of thousands of objects,

    films, photographs, sound recordings, and archival

    documents available online and on demand to those

    with access to a computer and the Internet. While this

    reflects the participatory culture of current museum

    projects (e.g., Ames 2003; Herle 2003; Phillips 2013;

    Weil 2007), and in some cases leads to a sense of

    completeness through the recovery of lost objects

    (Rowlands 2004), critics argue that digital heritage

    technologies simply replicate the dominant power

    structures of collecting institutions and of technology

    whereby curators control the release of digital content

    and the original objects remain firmly within the col-

    lecting institution.

    In this article, my concern is to investigate these

    assumptions through an exploration of the new econ-

    omy of digital heritage objects in rural and remote

    areas of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea (Figure 1),

    and reveal the dynamics at play.1 Using my involve-

    ment in a digital heritage project as a focus, I discuss

    the values placed on digital surrogates as a means to

    engage critically with recent debates on digital or

    virtual repatriation. I ask whether digital knowl-

    edge resources such as 3D digital objects are really

    seen as secondary or second best to the original or

    whether digital technologies reproduce, in new form,

    an economy of objects that sustains knowledge and

    revival practices. I will show how, among the Nalik

    people of New Ireland, 3D digital objects provide a

    resource to re-create a sense of order, one situated in

    localized discourses on modernity, development, and

    governance. This article demonstrates, in contrast to

    recent calls for an ideological return to the status of

    the museum object as put forward by Steven Conn

    (2010), how ethnographic objects should be under-

    stood in terms of their performativity, mobility, and

    virtuality, which render them operative far beyond

    the physical realms of museum institutions.

    Digital Technologies and SourceCommunitiesThe rapid growth of affordable, portable digital imag-

    ing technologies, such as 3D scanners and high-qual-

    ity digital cameras, has redefined the way museums

    provide access to and engagement with ethnographic

    collections that may otherwise have remained con-

    demned to life in the controlled environment of a

    museum storeroom. Digital technologies allow for

    new ways of knowing about cultural heritage, offering

    opportunities for education, regeneration, and com-

    munity empowerment (Christen 2006; McTavish

    2005; Ngata 2012; Parry 2007; Simpson 2009). The

    museum anthropology

    Museum Anthropology, Vol. 37, Iss. 2, pp. 133143 2014 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.DOI: 10.1111/muan.12058

  • recoding of the museum, according to Parry

    (2007), signals not just an institutional shift that is

    inclusive of digital technologies, but it significantly

    reframes the museum as a site for the digital encoding

    of cultural works.

    According to Ramesh Srinivasan (2012), critical

    studies of digital technology use among source com-

    munities remain largely underdeveloped. This could

    be due, as Abungu (2002) explains in relation to

    Africa, to the lack of digital connectivity in rural and

    remote areas. This appears to be changing quite rap-

    idly, however, as is suggested by an expanding body

    of literature within anthropology, museum studies,

    and information studies that has begun to explore the

    creation of digital archives, virtual museums, and dig-

    ital knowledge resources by source communities to

    safeguard their cultural heritage (cf. Basu 2011; de

    Bruijn et al. 2009; Hennessy 2009). These studies

    demonstrate how source communities are appropri-

    ating digital technologies to support cultural self-rep-

    resentation by creating and managing websites, video

    projects, and so forth (Srinivasan 2009a, 2009b). One

    of the most well-known examples is the Reciprocal

    Research Network (RRN) in Canada. The RRN, co-

    developed by a group of First Nations groups and the

    University of British Columbias Museum of Anthro-

    pology, facilitates online access to and research of

    museum collections originating from First Nations

    people from the Northwest Coast and British Colum-

    bia. It has enabled stakeholders to build their own

    collections, collaborate on shared projects, record

    stories, upload files, hold discussions, research

    museum collections, and create social networks. This

    collaborationdescribed as a Partnership of Peo-pleshas established a system of governance thatensures the needs of the source communities as well

    as museums are taken into account at all stages of the

    development (Phillips 2013; Rowley 2010).

    Critics have questioned the capacity of digital

    technologies to adequately encode the complexities of

    cultural forms. Some, such as Brown (2005), cite

    issues of governance as problematic: the Internet may

    infringe on community values and access protocols as

    it is built on the Western liberal ideology of open

    access for all. Others question the cultural compati-

    bility of digital technologies to indigenous knowledge

    systems. Verran and Christie (2007) raise this issue in

    their discussion of the performative dimension of

    knowledge among indigenous Australians. They

    claim that Aboriginal narratives about the landscape

    do not transfer easily into digital formats because

    indigenous knowledge has to be performed in order

    for it to become operative. This, they assert, poses

    challenges for digital technologies that are structured

    as representational systems. These cases raise obvious

    questions about the constitution of indigenous

    knowledge, how digital technologies codify knowl-

    edge, and the manner in which such knowledge is


    Other scholars view digital technologies in a more

    positive light. They stress that through community

    collaboration and consultation, museums are able to

    design digital platforms that are respectful (Chris-

    ten 2011) to cultural protocols by taking into account

    gatekeepers and managed access to knowledge (cf.

    Harrison 1992). In elaborating on her own research

    in the Great Lakes region of North America and the

    establishment of the Great Lakes Research Alliance

    for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures (GRA-

    SAC), Phillips claims that digital technologies offer

    new opportunities for research and cultural revitali-

    zation and mitigate the separation of people from

    heritage and the enforced losses of traditional knowl-

    edge that continue to have serious consequences for

    Figure 1. Map of Papua New Guinea with New Ireland to the northeast of

    the mainland. (Source:

    New_Guinea_map.png, accessed March 27, 2014.)

    digital objects in a melanesian society


  • Aboriginal identity (2013:295). Such approaches

    characterize the collaborative and community-needs

    driven approach of digital heritage technologies that

    set out to meet the requirements of indigenous and

    source communities. Kimberly Christen (2006)

    describes how, in Australia, a digital archive was

    established in collaboration with Pitjantjatjara com-

    munity members who were living in dispersed loca-

    tions. Through a consultation process, the archive

    was designed to operate within cultural protocols for

    the viewing and circulation of objects and images in a

    manner that satisfied the needs of the community

    who wanted to gain access to historical photographs

    and images of museum objects. For example, Chris-

    ten (2006:58) describes how varying levels of access

    and editing rights are assigned to community mem-

    bers. Using a password, knowledgeable people can

    add, edit, or delete informational units considered to

    be particularly sensitive. Christens work emphasizes

    how digital archives and websites are considered

    accessible and adaptable to remote locations and

    culturally appropriate for the digital return of some

    cultural material held in museums. Digital repatria-

    tion, proponents claim, can help safeguard cultural

    heritage for future generations, especially when it is

    unfeasible to return physical objects. Moreover, Phil-

    lips (2013:287) explains how digital repatriation is

    not intended to replace the physical transfer of the

    original object. Rather, digital return supports new

    knowledge and understanding of cultural heritage

    through the first-level repatriation of image and


    Ironically, the rise of interest in digital heritage

    technologies on the part of source communities raises

    important questions about the status of museum

    objects and their primacy in terms of originality and

    authenticity. In many parts of Melanesia, the attitude

    toward physical objects housed in museums is often

    deeply ambivalent if not fearful, especially if an indi-

    vidual has physical or visual contact that is considered

    too close (e.g., Kingston 2007; Wright 2008). In these

    contexts, digital objects as a form of digital simulacra

    may not be seen as a poor substitute for the authentic-

    ity of the real thing but as an independent source of

    potential potency manifested through their capacity

    to be transformed into physical objects through acts

    of remaking. Although digital heritage technologies

    intend to impart a life-like experience of the actual

    object with their use of high-resolution photography,

    3D environments, and image handling tools to pro-

    duce a kind of total documentation (and thus can

    be distinguished from photographs), this experience

    is perceived as being different, in a beneficial way,

    from that of engaging with the tangible object itself. I

    argue that among the Nalik people of New Ireland,

    3D digital objects are perceived in a distant and less

    threatening manner than would be shown toward the

    object because the digital objects cannot be touched

    or sensed in the same way as tangible objects. This

    distancing, I argue, allows the possibility for the

    image to be internalized and hence facilitates the rec-

    lamation, recovery, and reintegration of cultural

    knowledge. Moreover, given that New Ireland is an

    image-based society in which cultural knowledge and

    political rights are transacted through the managed

    display of ritual images (Kuechler 2002), the return

    and reintegration of ancestral images in digital for-

    mats has added value and effect. I show how renewed

    access to images offers tangible opportunities for the

    Nalik people to re-create a new social order, one that

    is embedded in localized discourses about develop-

    ment, modernity, and governance. I demonstrate this

    through an analysis of the Mobile Museum pilot pro-

    ject, which I have been involved in with the Nalik


    The Nalik People of Northern New IrelandThe Nalik people of northern New Ireland are a group

    of around five thousand Austronesian speakers who

    live along the coastal region of the island. Nalik soci-

    ety is organized around an exogamous matrilineal

    clan system named after local species of birds. The

    region is famous for a complex set of funerary rites

    known as malangan that may take many years to

    complete. These rites involve feasting and competi-

    tive exchanges to honor the dead. As well as referring

    to funerary rites, the term malangan also denotes the

    carved wooden sculptures and woven effigies that are

    displayed during the culminating period of ritual

    events. The sculptures and effigies are believed to

    arrest, contain, and release the souls of the deceased

    toward the ancestral domain and are thus perceived

    to be instrumental in finalizing the work for the dead

    (see Kuechler 2002; Lewis 1969; Were 2010). The

    carvingsthrough the integration of locally recog-nizable forms and totemic emblemsalso make

    digital objects in a melanesian society


  • mnemonic reference to clan histories and the land-

    scape and are crucial to rights of succession and the

    transmission of cultural knowledge.

    Specialist carvers (aitek) in the communities are

    commissioned by land-holding clans to produce the

    malangan carvings for use in mortuary ceremonies.

    The carving appears to the carver in the form of a

    dream, which he then reproduces frommemory while

    in ritual seclusion. The finished carving is kept in a

    secret location until the final events of the mortuary

    feasting cycle, when carvings are revealed to partici-

    pants who have congregated in the village hamlet to

    partake in the ritual events. Once the carving is

    revealed from behind a specially constructed leaf

    enclosure, people walk toward the carving, inspect its

    design, and lay shell money at its feet. At no point do

    they touch the carving. Susanne Kuechler (2002)

    describes how the revelatory act is seen as the sym-

    bolic death of the carving because after its display, the

    carving is removed from public display and then left

    to rot or is burned. Kuechler (1997) states how the

    carvings were also sold to Western collectors as

    another way to kill the carving, explaining the large

    number of malangan in ethnographic museums. The

    ritual killing of the figure leads to the shedding of the

    image as it is internalized by those present as a record

    of social events and clan relationships. The carving

    may be revealed again later, when it is remade and

    displayed at another mortuary feast. Significantly,



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