Digital archiving project receives prestigious Mellon grant

Washington State University researchers have received a $555,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support development and evaluation of a unique online platform for gathering, curating and sharing Native American library and archive collections nationwide.

This three-year grant follows a $69,500 grant by the Foundation to WSU in 2015 for the project-planning phase. It is part of a larger Mellon initiative supporting community-based archives and collection building.

The new support will enable the expansion of Mukurtu CMS, a free, open-source content management system developed at WSU, to create Mukurtu Shared, a culturally responsive online platform and process for ethically curating Native American materials within cultural, linguistic and social protocols.

Kim Christen

“Mukurtu Shared will connect tribal and national repositories and enable Native and non-Native curators to responsibly, respectfully and reciprocally manage and share cultural heritage materials and encourage others to engage with the materials,” said Kimberly Christen, director of digital initiatives for the College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator on the grant.

“By providing a standardized, replicable workflow and shared online platform, Mukurtu Shared will, in essence, change the way federal repositories curate their Native American collections, promoting collaboration at all stages, and it will give repositories of Native culture a new model for collaborative curation.”

Mukurtu Shared will be hosted and sustained by WSU so other institutions and communities will not need to maintain the platform or switch from their existing infrastructure.

The project promotes collaborative curation between tribal archives, libraries and museums (TALMs) and federal repositories partnering on the project, and it incorporates the Mukurtu Fellows program to provide training and support.

It seeks to fill gaps in the scholarly and cultural record while advancing WSU in its Grand Challenges commitment to promoting an informed and equitable society, Christen said.

A complete picture of U.S. history, for example, requires the cultural belongings, images and stories held in numerous TALMs. Mukurtu Shared will help ensure that digital history includes indigenous heritage, stored and accessed in culturally responsible ways driven by Native communities’ goals.

“The ability to participate in the Mukurtu Shared project is an exciting opportunity that will provide for meaningful access to precious materials of times past to current and future generations,” said Amelia Wilson, executive director of the Huna Heritage Foundation, one of seven partners in developing the project.

“Mukurtu Shared will bring historical and cultural treasures, held in repositories and specific to our people and community, full circle and into the hands and hearts of those to whom they mean the most—our community.”

Grant support underscores national significance

Development of Mukurtu CMS began in 2007 in response to the needs of both indigenous and non-indigenous collecting institutions as they sought to share materials. The system is managed through WSU’s Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation, which Christen directs.

The CDSC, a joint center of WSU Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences, promotes collaboration between community members, students, faculty and researchers on digital projects and scholarship that crosses academic boundaries and public–private distinctions.

The center and associated Mukurtu CMS projects have brought almost $3 million in external funds to WSU in the past four years to promote ethical curation and training in the lifecycle of digital stewardship.

Professor teaching classroom students
Christen, standing, leads a tribal cohort discussion.

This fall, the CDSC, based at WSU Pullman, received a $450,000 grant  from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services to continue its national award-winning Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program with new emphasis on collaborative curation and training for TALMs professionals in using Mukurtu CMS to manage and sustain their digital cultural heritage.

“The Mellon Foundation’s support and other significant national funding and recognition underscore the CDSC’s place as a national leader in developing and delivering educational programs, advancing technological research, and promoting equity and diversity,” said Trevor Bond, CDSC co-director.

Fulfilling WSU’s land-grant mission

CDSC staff assist a member of a tribal stewardship cohort with a digital curation project.
CDSC staff assist members of a tribal stewardship cohort with their digital curation projects.

“This type of work is central to WSU’s Grand Challenges initiative to advance opportunity and equity,” Christen said.

“In particular, this work is at the heart of our 21st-century land-grant mission played out on a global scale,” said Todd Butler, chair of the Department of English and one of five initial campus leads for the Grand Challenges program.

“It provides a clear example of how major research institutions can partner with—and, most important, learn from—indigenous peoples worldwide. Through the CDSC, it helps provide new opportunities for our faculty and students to pursue the sort of sophisticated, publicly engaged scholarship that the times demand.

“That Dr. Christen and the Mukurtu project have received this recognition testifies to the deep and continuing impact of their work,” Butler said.

Community-based technology
Mukurtu CMS began as a grassroots project to manage digital materials of the Australian Warumungu Aboriginal community, using their cultural protocols for sharing, circulating and stewarding cultural heritage. It differs from other tools by allowing Indigenous communities to define circulation and access of their materials based on their cultural systems. At the same time, it allows scholars to engage with local communities through the exchange of content and metadata and encourages creation of deep records through layered narratives.

The sustainable, scalable software platform is now used around the world. Users include the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, which employs Mukurtu CMS for the exchange and curation of collections from diverse repositories across Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho; and the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center (AFC), which uses a Mukurtu labeling system in its records and discovery system for Native American collections.

“This effort has great promise for the co-curation of these important collections with their communities of origin,” said Elizabeth Peterson, director of the AFC, also an institutional partner in developing Mukurtu Shared.

Other partners include the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives and National Museum of the American Indian; the Ziibiwing Center of Anishanabe Culture and Lifeways; the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center; and the Penobscot Nation.

This work advances WSU on its Drive to 25 by supporting innovative teaching and research, community engagement and global outreach.

–By Adrian Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences