Indigenous Communities are Using an Empowering Tool to Reclaim Their Histories in the Digital Space

Heritage Stewardship

Indigenous Communities are Using an Empowering Tool to Reclaim Their Histories in the Digital Space
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation November 2020
Dr. Kimberly Christen talks about Mukurtu, a grassroots, open-source community access platform that allows for respectful sharing of cultural heritage.

Sharing may be the currency of our open-source digital age, but in some cultures, not everything is meant to be made public. For Indigenous communities, viewing a ritual object, even in reproduction on a website, might be strictly reserved for tribal elders who fully understand its meaning. And because of sacred beliefs, some objects may simply not be available for non-Indigenous people to access at all. A grassroots effort to create a tool to address those concerns resulted in Mukurtu, a community access platform now used by more than 600 communities globally.

“All of Mukurtu’s features and functions come directly from the communities who use it,” says Kimberly Christen, professor of digital technology and culture at Washington State University in Pullman. In 2007, Christen helped create Mukurtu, and she now leads the team that maintains the platform at WSU’s Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation. Mukurtu is a practical tool, but also “a social tool,” says Christen, and “a place where respectful use of traditional knowledge begins through people.”

We spoke with Dr. Christen about how this free and open-source platform has empowered Indigenous communities to reclaim their cultural heritage and add their expert voices to the public record:
Can you explain the origins of Mukurtu and what the word means?
The platform was developed in 2007 in collaboration with the Warumungu, an Aboriginal community in Central Australia I had been working with since 1995. The Warumungu wanted to create a community archive of songs, dances, and other cultural traditions along with thousands of photographs they had received from missionaries, teachers, and researchers who had visited the community, and Mukurtu provided the infrastructure for that. The name comes from Michael Jampin Jones, a member of the Warumungu community, who told me that elders would keep sacred items in a woven dilly bag or mukurtu, which means a safekeeping place. Mukurtu CMS is meant to provide the same sense of protection.

How does Mukurtu empower Indigenous communities to manage and protect their cultural heritage?
The software has evolved since its first iteration for the Warumungu, but the heart and soul of the platform remains the locally adaptable sharing protocols that facilitate different levels of access to cultural heritage, knowledge, and information. For example, a large selection of images of tribal artifacts and documents on a website might be available to the public, while reproductions of culturally sensitive places, ancestors, or sacred objects can be accessed only by community members.

“The process of shared curation builds relationships and trust that serve as the basis for ongoing collaborations and the production of new knowledge.”
—Kimberly Christen