Saturday, May 10, 2014

Digital Cultural Heritage Collections: A Postcolonial Account of the Mukurtu Content Management System

Over recent decades, archival theorists have examined the practices of preservation and access of community and cultural heritage collections. Archivists have grappled with the varying, culture-specific interests of Indigenous communities, which may include multiple levels of access, protocols for appropriate use and handling, and issues around rights management. Established archival structures have struggled to develop systems to meet the concerns of communities whose cultural heritage materials are being preserved in archives and museums.

In 2007, development began on a free and open source content management system (powered by Drupal) named Mukurtu – a Warumungu word meaning “dilly bag” and conceptualized as a safe keeping place for cultural knowledge. Mukurtu was built in response to the specific archival needs of the Warumungu Aboriginal community in the Central Australian town of Tennant Creek based on the expressed needs of the community as they sought solutions for preservation of their cultural materials in accordance with their social and cultural systems. As a system focused on the needs of the community whose heritage is being digitally represented, Mukurtu locates itself in the historical, political, and technological intersections addressed by Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies (PCSTS). In this context, the development of Mukurtu is interpreted as a postcolonial attempt at information technology as it deliberately incorporates the communities it was built to represent.

Mukurtu as a Postcolonial Project
A central theme in PCSTS focuses on taking the standpoints of the peoples in non-European cultures and starting off with issues arising in their specific contexts, as opposed to dominant frameworks, in development and research. These projects begin with the experiences and voices of non-European cultures; the contexts in which they are situated; and find resources in collective statements and calls to action by the people themselves. Based on the history of Mukurtu, the system was developed explicitly from the standpoints of the Indigenous communities. The Mukurtu tool is defined as an ambitious project to address a broad range of community users, while being responsive to shifting content management trends and respectfully recognizing that indigenous communities have the understanding of how to manage and care for their cultural materials. Mukurtu’s mission states:

“Mukurtu (MOOK-oo-too) is a grassroots project aiming to empower communities to manage, share and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways. We are committed to maintaining an open, community-driven approach to Mukurtu’s continued development. Our first priority is to help build a platform the fosters relationships of respect and trust.

In order to realize their mission, the Mukurtu content management system’s features include:

Cultural protocols – allows users to determine granular levels of access to digital heritage content based on specific cultural needs. Sharing protocols make it possible to define a range of access levels from open to strictly controlled for groups and individual members of the community.

Traditional knowledge (TK) labels and licenses – the TK license options for Indigenous creators, custodians and beneficiaries to manage their community-owned and generated cultural content with third-parties and external community users. TK labels recognize and have been designed for large amounts of culturally sensitive materials that are in the public domain and provide additional or missing information to help users make informed decisions about the best and most appropriate way of using materials.

Mukurtu Mobile – a way to capture events and stories when users and creators are on the field. Stories can be collected offline then uploaded to the Mukurtu archive later. 

Roundtrip – facilitates the exchange and enhancement of metadata between collecting institutions and communities through importing and exporting capabilities.

Through their development, mission, and features, Mukurtu endeavors to be a site for ongoing dialogue about sharing, making and reproducing materials and knowledge. Ultimately, the goal is to build trusting relationships between the communities and repositories by empowering the communities to manage, preserve, protect, and share their cultural heritage and traditional knowledge using their own social models. The model of PCSTS makes clear that “we must move beyond inclusion to the even more radical project of taking seriously in our own thinking the standpoint of the peoples of other cultures”. Creating Mukurtu from the standpoint of the community it aims to represent brings their voices to the forefront and exposes the ways in which indigenous groups have been made invisible by traditional digital cultural heritage collections systems development.

Information about Mukurtu may be accessed at

Harding, Sandra. "Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies: Are There Multiple Sciences." In Sciences from Below (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

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