Digital Archives: Kimberly Christen “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia”

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In Kimberly Christen’s article “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia” we see how digital archives and communities can work together to overcome problems often associated with traditional archives. Christen starts out the article acquainting the audience with the fact that certain restrictions that surround traditional archives make it harder for people, especially Indigenous peoples, to access archival material related to their communities. Three challenges given are distance, poverty, and education and these are similar to challenges articulated in Jarrett Drake’s article. Christen then goes on to point out that digital archives can overcome these challenges by increasing accessibility, but then shows that there is such a thing as too much accessibility. To combat this Christen shows that community based archives built and curated with the community that archivist work with may be the key to helping share Indigenous artifacts while allowing control to remain with the Indigenous communities, barring stronger measures such as repatriation of artifacts.

To illustrate this point, Christen writes about a project that she worked on called the Mukurtu Project. The goal of this project was to create a digital archive for the Warumungu-kari community in Tennant Creek, Northern Territory Australia that would allow for community based sharing with the Indigenous community and the outside world that was built and controlled by Warumungu-kari community customs. Some of the things that Christen had to keep in mind when working on this project are interesting as they relate to things that we as historians must remember when dealing with communities that have been negatively affected by structural inequality. First, the digital archive website had to be user friendly as the Indigenous community had low literacy levels and low levels of skill with computers. Therefore, simplicity in the user interface was key to making it accessible not just for viewing but for uploading content. Second, the website and archive itself was built to Indigenous community protocols and customs with community stakeholders involved in the entire process. This means that the Indigenous community was able to “take back” control over their history and artifacts by building a space that was dictated by their customs and not those of oppressors.

As a result, the website that was created was built to allow for community participation along community lines. What I mean by this is that the Indigenous communities involved were able to create a space that they could upload, share, and comment on familial artifacts and engage in community preservation of culture and history on their own terms. One thing I found when reading the article is that the user interface requires that an person create a profile that then puts them into a certain status that decides level of participation and viewing based on Indigenous customs. A person could be an community member, traditional owner, or elder. What struck me the most about these levels is that all could participate in uploading and commenting, but the levels decided certain viewing and editing privileges according to the custom of the community. An example of this is that only elders can edit/view certain sacred objects. In addition, men and women are only allowed to view certain artifacts and cannot view artifacts that are identified with the other group. As for non-community members like ourselves we would only be able to view things that are designated as “open” in the archive which means anyone can view the object. The author closes by saying that this has allowed community members to share and engage in dialogue with each other and the outside world.

3 Replies to “Digital Archives: Kimberly Christen “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia””

  1. I guess I don’t know much about aboriginal Australian culture, but the idea of restricting access to material on this site seems counterintuitive. It depends upon the goal of the people running this archive but having a wider audience for one’s culture would seem to be beneficial. How does the restriction within this archive serve the interests of the aboriginal community at large?

  2. Hi Bryce! I think the idea of an Aboriginal archive is a great innovation. I’ve been doing some work with decolonizing history and the issues surrounding the colonial archive with American Indian history. The biggest barrier to studying American Indian history is the more technical skills required to access sources. An Aboriginal archive is a great way for these communities to take back their own narrative and decolonize their history.

  3. Hi Bryce! You did an great job encapsulating Kimberly Christen’s archival approach to the Mukurtu Project. This article was published in The SAA Archaeological Record which I used to read as undergraduate student. when I was a member of Society for American Archaeology. The project itself was very interesting and brings a interdisciplinary approach to working in Aboriginal Australia. A constant theme in our readings were the collaboration between scholars, technical consultants, and the general public. This project had many unique features that I have not seen with other digital projects including the program’s hierarchy and the three status levels for community member, traditional owner, and elders. Also, I loved how the community helped to identify archival materials such as photographs. This is a great use of public history and would love to see there are similar projects on the web.

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