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Washington State University
CAS Connect September 2013

Empowering cultural preservation

Two new grants expand digital archive abilities

Just thinking about the box of fragile cassette tapes gives Kim Christen chills. While visiting with members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon, she was introduced to some of the last-surviving recordings of the last-known speaker of the Kiksht language.

“All of that important material on those little cassettes,” said Christen, associate professor in the Department of English and associate director of the Digital Technology and Culture Program. “I was so afraid the tapes would be accidentally damaged before they could be more safely archived.”

Kim Christen
Kim Christen

Director of digital projects for the Plateau Center for American Indian Studies at WSU, Christen understands the needs of tribal people to preserve their cultural artifacts, including languages—she also understands their limits in terms of resources and complex cultural sensitivities.

Her intense drive to help indigenous people protect their heritage materials and increase their accessibility and use—while respecting their limits—has led to two new, federally funded grants totaling almost $1 million.

New power to tackle complex challenges

A WSU record-setting grant of $319,331 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and a $499,186 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) will enable Christen, her colleagues at WSU, and their external collaborators to expand the ways they’re helping indigenous communities manage and preserve heritage materials through digital archiving technology.

With half of the world’s languages at high risk of extinction in this century, and vast bodies of cultural knowledge already lost or endangered, preserving important cultural heritage materials is crucial, but it’s not exactly easy.

“Most tribes and indigenous people have materials that are essential to the preservation of their culture, yet so many of these things are very delicate or culturally sensitive,” Christen said. Designing effective, efficient, and culturally appropriate ways to archive diversely sensitive materials is a complex challenge.

Enter Mukurtu CMS and Mukurtu Mobile

The new NEH Digital Humanities Implementation grant will enable Christen and her team to expand the suite of Mukurtu digital archiving software they developed with support of a Digital Humanities Start-Up grant received from NEH in 2010 and an IMLS National Leadership Grant received in 2011.

Mukurtu CMS is a free, open-source, standards-based tool for managing digital content. It is adaptable and enables protected access and culturally driven sharing of heritage materials. The addition of Mukurtu Mobile, an open-source mobile platform for collecting and exhibiting cultural content, is a direct response to the needs of indigenous people across the globe, Christen said.

“Mobile phones are everywhere—especially in low-income communities where young people might never have used a landline,” she said. “This mobile technology allows them to take pictures, video, and audio just about anywhere and automatically upload them within the cultural and sharing protocols of their communities and preserve their heritage continually.”

Mukurtu CMS users include indigenous people, archivists, librarians, curators, researchers and software developers worldwide who are keen on saving and sharing digital heritage—pictures, documents, videos, reference materials, audio clips, museum collections—using cultural protocols developed by each community.

Students at Paschal-Sherman Indian School in Omak, Wash., a Mukurtu Mobile  pilot site, learn in a curriculum that combines science, technology, and  local cultural studies.
Students at Paschal-Sherman Indian School in Omak, Wash., a Mukurtu Mobile
pilot site, learn in a curriculum that combines science, technology, and
local cultural studies.

Because many traditional and tribal groups define access to specific types of heritage materials based on criteria such as age, gender, and clan, accommodating these cultural protocols are fundamental to all Mukurtu tool designs.

Mukurtu Mobile will provide a dynamic new platform for individuals to bring their own knowledge to the common concerns of local, traditional, and indigenous communities worldwide. Offering an interface directly to the Mukurtu content management system (CMS), “Mukurtu Mobile will link the power of a robust, culturally responsive CMS to the direct collection of knowledge on the ground,” Christen said.

Hands-on training takes mystery out of technology

Collecting digital assets is only the first step in the archiving process. Next come presentation, access, and use.

Training is necessary to equip and engage individual users and content providers, including museum and library staff, tribal elders, and members of the community who might have little other direct contact with digital technology. The recent IMLS grant will provide for hands-on training workshops at national conferences and in regional locations. It will also support development of a national registry to connect tribal archives, museums, and libraries with key resources.

Web-based tutorials and multimedia “stewardship kits” will provide step-by-step guides for managing heritage materials, from digitization to curation and preservation to sharing. All will be grounded in international standards-based protocols, incorporating community values and needs.

“For tribal archives, libraries, and museums, the new funding will provide an expanded toolset to continue bringing their cultural heritage materials to the forefront in a sustainable, contextualized way,” said Alex Merrill, interim assistant dean for operations at WSU Libraries and co-PI on the IMLS grant.

“For WSU students, it will lead to a greater emphasis on a side of the tribal story that has been underrepresented, giving them a greater understanding of the breadth of a part of Washington history they might not have ever seen before,” Merrill said.

Helping to keep sacred items safe

Mukurtu (pronounced MOO-koo-too) is the Warumungu word for “dilly bag,” a traditional Australian Aboriginal container. Elders of the Warumungu community in Australia’s Northern Territory, where much of Christen’s digital archive work began, use theirs to keep sacred items safe.

Kim Christen demonstrates digital archiving  to members of the Warumungu Aboriginal community  in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Kim Christen demonstrates digital archiving to members of the Warumungu Aboriginal community in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Built around a growing collection of photographs, videos, and cultural artifacts, the Mukurtu platform is a “safe keeping place.” Already being used by several indigenous groups across the United States and overseas, Mukurtu CMS was built to address the communities’ specific needs.

“From citizen archivists to citizen scientists, Mukurtu Mobile promises to connect local sources of knowledge and data to fuel research hubs and educational environments,” Christen said. It can help unite local communities around important global issues in natural and cultural resource management.

“We’re leveraging technology as a partner for communities, and bringing arts and sciences together to meet their goals,” Christen said. “The really exciting thing about all of these projects is that they all respond to cultural, social, and educational needs identified by communities. And it’s significant that WSU—Washington’s land-grant university—is at the cutting edge of thinking about ethical ways of managing cultural content.”

“Collaborative Stewardship: Providing Sustainable Digital Heritage Training for Tribal Libraries, archives, and Museums” is a three-year partnership among WSU, the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, The California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, and the Center for Digital Archaeology at the University of California Berkeley. IMLS funding for the project is through a Laura Bush 21stCentury Librarian Continuing Education Program grant.

“Mukurtu Mobile: Empowering Knowledge Circulation Across Cultures” is being supported by a two-year NEH Digital Humanities Implementation grant (HK-50120-13).

Christen holds a doctorate in the history of consciousness from the University of California at Santa Cruz. She has been a featured guest on the BBC radio program Digital Planet and is past recipient of a Northwest Academic Computing Consortium grant, an American Council of Learned Societies Digital Innovation Fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and an IMLS National Leadership Grant for Advancing Digital Tools.