Community makers, major museums, and the Keet S’aaxw: Learning about the role of museums in interpreting cultural objects
Charles Zange, The George Washington University, USA
AbstractDigitized images and their underlying objects are in separate spheres of exchange. The objects underlying these assets are of irreducible material: they are physical things with unique meaning to their diverse source communities. With more cultural objects coming online, how are community voices being mediated through the museum space and to the visiting public? Building from anthropology research on the Tlingit Killer Whale Crest Hat, this paper looks at the placement of digital assets within a sphere of exchange between object creators and end users. The goal of this paper is two-fold: first, to take a closer look at a few examples of how museums work with community makers; and second, to begin a discussion that critically evaluates the future of community-driven digital projects.
Keywords: Digitization; Ownership; Community projects
The Smithsonian Institution’s Digital Asset Management System is growing rapidly. The cultural objects underlying those assets are of irreducible material: they are physical things with unique meaning to their diverse source communities. With increasingly more objects coming online, how are the voices, stories, and interpretations of those communities being mediated through the museum space and to the visiting public?
The mediation process depends on the ways that digital assets participate in their own networks. One example that can help dive into this mediation is the story of the Killer Whale Crest Hat. After repatriating this important cultural object to the Tlingit people in 2005, the Smithsonian received permission to digitize the hat and make a replica (Figure 1). The replica, completed in 2012, is on display in the exhibit Q?rius at the National Museum of Natural History (Hollinger et al., 2013). Supporting video and descriptive content accompany this object, which resulted from a collaborative effort with the Tlingit. Yet there is another step to take—further than recapturing the importance of the 3D technology and the repatriation effort, and toward incorporating how the object itself existed and exists in Tlingit society, specifically from the perspectives of community members.
Behind the replica Killer Whale Crest Hat is a collaboration of shared responsibility that directly affects that object’s representation at the Smithsonian. There is an opportunity for communities that make objects to speak through those objects to the viewing public. This would greatly benefit the transferal of object materiality, knowledge, and stories. How this might happen depends on the nature of the museum’s relationship with the community makers and the resources and venues available to feature the media. Community makers are also interested in building and improving digital assets. The Zuni Consolidated Collections System, for example, is an effort to bring together accurate identification for Zuni objects across multiple museums where digitization and database building start locally and grow outward (Digital Return, 2013).
In this shifting landscape, one role that museums can take is to facilitate a connection between community makers and the general public through a stronger link with the products of indigenous digital networks. This paper will look at the placement of digital assets within a sphere of exchange between object creators and the visiting public. The goal of this paper is two-fold: first, to take a closer look at a few examples of how museums work with source communities; and second, to begin a discussion that critically evaluates the future of community-driven digital projects.
The Killer Whale Crest Hat was created by and is in the direct stewardship of the Tlingit, a Northwest Coast community living along the Pacific Ocean in Alaska. Animals that populate the Northwest Coast are represented within the Tlingit clans: whales, wolves, eagles, ravens, and other crest animals are part of the self-identification of clans. The Tlingit divide their lineages into two moieties—Raven and Eagle/Wolf—each an amalgamation of many clans, with each clan possessing one crest animal. These moieties, Raven and Eagle/Wolf, are fluid across regions. The Dakl’aweidi clan that owns the hat are Killer Whales and are part of the Eagle/Wolf moiety (Jonaitis, 1986).
Tlingit clans place their crests on singularized and non-singularized objects. Singularization in this context is the transformation through which an animal crest becomes at.óow and enters into a new sphere of exchange (Kopytoff, 1986). In becoming clan property, these at.óow—especially hats bearing the clan’s crests—are extremely important to the Tlingit (Hollinger et al., 2013). The process that produces at.óow follows many specific conditions on who can create a crest and how that crest can become singularized (see Jonaitis, 1986). Ultimately, the object is signified as at.óow when it is brought out formally as a crest object in the presence of the opposite moiety (Hollinger et al., 2013). It thereafter participates in a sphere of shared ownership and exchange specific to Tlingit culture (Jonaitis, 1986).
The Killer Whale Crest Hat, or Kéet S’aaxw, is an at.óow object that was created specifically for the Dakl’aweidi clan in 1900. The entire provenance of the Kéet S’aaxw, and extensive documentation on the repatriation of this object, can be found in Eric Hollinger et al.’s “Tlingit-Smithsonian Collaborations with 3D Digitization of Cultural Objects” (2013). For the purposes of this paper, only a short summary has been included. In 1904, anthropologist John Swanton acquired the Kéet S’aaxw from a sale that failed to obtain full title in the exchange. The Smithsonian held the object in its collection for a century before it was repatriated to the Shaadeihani (the leader) of the Dakl’aweidi clan, a man named Mark Jacobs, Jr., in January 2005. Mr. Jacobs passed away a short time later, and the role of Shaadeihani and responsibility for the care of Dakl’aweidi at.óow passed to Edwell John, Jr. He and the Smithsonian ultimately collaborated on a 3D replica project under specific conditions of shared ownership and control. The Kéet S’aaxw returned to the Smithsonian in 2010, where it was digitized and then physically replicated with 3D technology. The Smithsonian then presented the replica to the Tlingit at a Sharing Our Knowledge Clan Conference in Sitka, Alaska, on May 29, 2012, placing the replica next to the Kéet S’aaxw (Hollinger et al., 2013).
The Tlingit’s response to this repatriation is documented both in text and in video within Hollinger et al. (2013). For the purposes of this article, the most important takeaways are: 1) the replica of the Killer Whale Crest Hat is not considered at.óow, and this decision was the intended wish of the Tlingit; 2) the replica’s colors and hanging ermine skins reflect the project’s goal to replicate the hat as it would have existed in 1900; 3) the replica is on display in the Q?rius exhibit of the National Museum of Natural History and online through the Q?rius website and the Smithsonian X 3D website; and 4) at the request of the clan, CT scans, photogrammetry files, and point clouds of the 3D replica are not available for download (http://3d.si.edu/; http://qrius.si.edu/).
I met the replica of the Kéet S’aaxw when the Q?rius exhibit opened in 2013. It hangs in Glass Case D, accompanied by five masks from other cultural groups (Figure 2). There are several corresponding digital assets for the replica on both the Q?rius website and Smithsonian X 3D. Consistent across these platforms are descriptions and videos identifying the replica as non-at.óow, highlighting the repatriation and replication process, and showcasing the physical form of the object. These data make the repatriation and replication processes transparent, but there is another element missing: a description, story, observation, or understanding specifically of the Kéet S’aaxw and specifically written by the Tlingit themselves. The short description that is present was reviewed and approved by the clan leader but briefly outlines at.óow and repatriation as a process. In a “Repatriation of the Tlingit Killer Whale Hat” tab in the Q?rius description, there is a helpful link to the American Museum of Natural History’s virtual exhibit about Native Americans, which provides general guiding points for multiple cultural groups in the Northwest Coast area (http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/totems-to-turquoise). There is also a link under “Related Resources” to the National Museum of the American Indian for information on Native American textiles, and a link to the Repatriation Office website (http://qrius.si.edu/). A tab “About Humans and the Environment” has an image of “Baule woodcarvers at work” in the Ivory Coast of Africa. But Tlingit-generated content on this important Tlingit object is lacking.
This observation is easy to make from the perspective of a single visitor. One label cannot say everything about a museum’s collaborative relationships, and one paragraph cannot say everything about an entire culture. Behind this and other museum labels describing cultural property is the meeting of two distinct digital networks. The important question to ask is not “Why does this one label not have more?” The larger, more critical questions include: Are people within the community-maker group looking to talk about their culture? Where are those conversations taking place? What is the role of the museum in connecting those speakers to the visiting public?
3. Human relationships in digital networks
At the basis of this conversation are networks. Networks are obligatory in order for community voice (the stories, inferences, and understandings of a given object by the people who made and interpret that object in real time; e.g., Tlingit stories and descriptions) to get from community makers (the people who make the cultural objects that are placed in museums; e.g., the Tlingit) through the holding institution (the museum) to the viewing public (the 26-year-old grad student standing in the exhibit). Digital assets, like physical objects, participate in networks. Everything travels based on material and immaterial qualities. The differences of those qualities are evident with physical objects. What about a JPEG?
Taking a cue from Tim Ingold (2007), we can better understand the digital after building up from the physical. If you were to place a wet stone on your desk, the rock’s material (some combination of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements) would remain physically unchanged. Its appearance, the “stoniness” of the stone, would change as the wet rock dries. Perception transforms even if the material itself remains static. There exists a unique interplay between the physical object timeline (thousands of years from now, the stone may erode) and the perceived object drying (in less than five minutes, the stone’s materiality can change enormously). Perception is paramount, and the state of matter around a physical object can influence what that object “is,” “looks like,” and “feels like” to the observer. The important distinction between the digital and the physical for this article is the mixing of material and materiality within digital assets in a way that does not exist with physical objects. Within a digital file are data and metadata, the latter potentially including names, descriptions, and keywords. The digital file of the stone has information that affects its “stoniness” built directly inside.
Digital assets, unlike physical objects, can carry information inside their material to tell viewers about themselves. A stone can be engraved with a name once and permanently. Files can be renamed and redescribed ad infitum. Metadata takes many forms, the lowest layer of which is embedded into the byte sequence itself. Sidecar XML files add more layers. Theoretically, typed descriptions that accompany digital files online, and even social-media sharing, reflect the data-about-data nature of metadata. At whatever layer the observer stops, her perception of a given image is affected by underlying descriptive code for that image. Unlike Ingold’s stone locked in consistent composition that negotiates its existence relative to its materiality (2007), a digital asset is materially constructed through interaction with its materiality—designed for perception.
There are two reasons why this analogy is extremely important for this discussion. First, it shows that digital assets are not one dimensional. Though the stone’s chemical and tactile information is translated into zeros and ones, other aspects of its “stoniness” are preserved in one place in a way that is impossible outside the digital realm. The second reason, which is crucial to this paper, is that the person or persons who add metadata, descriptions, and associated information to a digital asset become an integral part of meaning-making. This is especially true for cultural objects in museums. The authenticity of what something “is” and “is not,” as mediated through a digital asset, in part depends on who owns or influences the asset, what parties are involved, and the common or divergent goals they share in the object’s display. This is partially manifested in the object’s participation within a digital network. Permissions—”can view,” “can edit,” “hidden,” etc.—and the placement of assets within various layers of access also contribute to their inherent materiality. There is much to be learned about a digital asset based on where it is, who can see it, and how it is shown. That metadata, if it includes community voice, can transfer materiality directly from community makers to the general public. If that metadata is consistently written by a holding institution independent of the community—or if it specifically has static plain text without links or connections to the community makers underlying the asset—then the digital asset itself risks being perceived based on an interpretation disparate from the community.
Why does this matter for cultural property? The person or group that writes the metadata, sets the permissions for access, and drafts the conditions of display influences, though does not determine, two things: first, how the object is interpreted in exhibited spaces; and second, how that object is interpreted in non-exhibited spaces each time that metadata is accessed outside the exhibit space through download, file sharing, and reinterpretation. There is an inherent power dynamic at play, which is why collaboration is important with digital assets of cultural property, especially concerning living populations of community makers. In the example of the replica Killer Whale Crest Hat, the 3D geometries are not available for download (more on this later). That said, the conditions of display are very important, since the object’s display is as much a factor of its network as it is its ontology.
To restate, the replica Killer Whale Crest Hat is at the meeting of two digital networks built in distinct ways, one moderated by the Smithsonian and another by the Tlingit. The label in Q?rius is only the front door. By looking more at how those networks are established and how they interact, we might be able to learn from their interplay.
4. Learning from networks
Museums (in the Western sense of the word) and community makers have different sets of human relationships that manifest themselves through different digital networks. Those disparate networks form different materialities and, therefore, different interpretations—even if the assets within those networks are identical. Because of this, it is important for institutions to understand community-maker networks in order to learn from the underlying nuances of human relationships.
Kimberly Christen’s work with the Warumungu offers a rich example toward working with this concept. In an article published in 2005, she recounted her experience working with the Warumungu and learning about the access to traditional knowledge within the community. During her fieldwork, Christen collected images that fell generally into three categories: Open with “no limits placed on their viewing,” Partially Closed that “can often be reproduced with permission of those in the recording,” and Closed “only to be viewed by people with proper ritual standing” (Christen, 2005). Difficulty arose when she tried to design a digital interface that could both partition traditional knowledge to be viewed only by permitted parties and make that information accessible enough to promote new cultural discovery. Too much protection would restrict engagement with the materials and make it difficult for viewers to access and be inspired by new knowledge. Too much access would break down the balance of relationships within the Warumungu community.
In balancing access versus protection, Christen worked along similar lines to how a curator might negotiate display for a collection. Curators often face similar challenges in exhibition development, educational programming, and digitization initiatives. Christen consulted with the Warumungu community; through those conversations, it was ultimately decided that a DVD would be locally produced. This DVD would have a partitioned menu system to filter specific content based on the user. The design was intuitive enough to encourage discovery of new content without allowing every user to access every image (Christen, 2005). The DVD itself was Warumungu-partitioned and produced. The digital system replicated a larger system of knowledge exchange in a way that balanced access and protection (Christen, 2005). Permissions operated under a Warumungu cultural paradigm: gender, among other factors, played a role in determining the kinds of content each individual could access.
This system is inherently similar to permissions-based databases in a Western-style museum. The general public accesses and uses content as presented through the museum’s online or on-site distribution. Intellectual property laws add an initial layer of restriction and complication to those digital assets. Further, this subset of accessible content comes from the larger digital collection, masked from the general public in internal databases. Those databases, in turn, have hierarchies of access depending on the user’s position within the staff. Reflecting on their structures, the Western-style museum network and that of the Warumungu DVD are similar, permissions-based databases.
There is one major difference between them. The unique network component that sets the two apart is the rush of digitization that thrusts hundreds of thousands of objects from Western museums onto the Internet at increasing rates. The push for open content through online collections is an accepted dimension of the Western museum’s digital network and a much-celebrated hallmark of engaging the online visiting public. This dimension forms the foundation of countless digital projects of incredible scale and complexity. It is a wonderful aspect of the museum’s network—only it is not universal. The Warumungu designed their DVD to prohibit the distribution of their cultural content in a way that violated a specific permissions protocol (Christen, 2005). That network, like many others, lacks the Western conceptualization of an open-content gateway.
Why? It depends on the culture, the museum/community collaboration, and many other factors. Commercialization is an often-discussed concern. As cited directly in Christen (2005), a 2003 Indigenous Position Paper for the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) defends the intellectual property of indigenous populations from the open-content market that could make singularized objects into commodities: “Our collective knowledge is not merely a commodity to be traded like any other in the market place. We strongly object to the notion that it constitutes a raw material or commercial resource for the knowledge-based economy of the Information Society.” There is an inherent power dynamic in the relationship of institutions holding cultural objects and the community makers whose objects built those collections. The cultural objects in the museum are in a distinct physical network apart from the system of relationships, permissions, and hierarchies within the community itself. This separation of networks is not solved ipso facto by the translation of those physical objects into open digital assets. Rather, this act may in fact exacerbate the discontinuity of those networks by sharing content outside the permissions-based system of that community, threatening the commercialization of otherwise singularized stories and cultural objects.
What does this have to do with the Kéet S’aaxw? This returns to the question of why end users cannot download 3D renderings of the replica Killer Whale Crest Hat from Q?rius or Smithsonian X 3D. According to Hollinger et al. (2013), “The tangible property of the crest objects as well as the intangible property of the stories and songs associated with the crests depicted on the objects are fiercely defended by the Tlingit as the intellectual property of the clans.” That said, there are situations in which that information is shared by the clan with its permission through the museum, including the digital recording of the story of “The Beaver that Overturned the Town” by Cyril George, Sr., Deisheetaan clan leader, which is linked in the Museum Anthropology Review article (Hollinger et al., 2013). In the wider Web, there are many more stories being told. As the next section of this paper will show, there are Tlingit speakers active on Facebook and through independent websites who are producing and sharing art, history, and culture. The broad and multidimensional digital network touching different clans of the Tlingit is productive in terms of generating new content. Museums seeking to enhance connections between the visiting public and community makers may consider adopting a dual role: first in collaborating on exhibits and collections, as is being done and has been done in the past; and second in connecting with the digital products of community-driven projects.
5. Intersections and separations of digital networks
There is a sliding scale of types of collaboration between museums and community makers. The replica Killer Whale Crest Hat is at the heart of one type of collaboration in which repatriation transfers the ownership of one object and shares stewardship over digital assets from that object. At one end of the sliding scale are museums that take action without consultation with the source community. At the other end of the sliding scale is, for the lack of a better term, “full repatriation,” in which the source community fully acquires all ownership and control over an object, and the museum keeps nothing for itself.
Initial concerns that repatriation would empty all federally supported institutions of Native American material culture have been challenged by research. Specifically, an article from a special issue of Museum Anthropology Review points to the reality of the NAGPRA’s effect on museum collections:
Twenty years of NAGPRA negotiations have shown that much of the worry over the draining of national museum collections was misplaced. Instead, what has emerged is a sustained set of negotiations between Native nations and the national collecting institutions (Bell, Christen, & Turin, 2013).
Instead of draining museums of their objects, repatriation laws (the NMAIA and the NAGPRA) changed the relationship between museums with Native American groups, and encouraged exchange.
Collaboration takes many forms. In the case of the Tlingit, like the Warumungu DVD, negotiating a relationship with digital technology includes setting access restrictions. Certain knowledge must be restricted to specific groups, and certain uses restricted to specific objects. Rather than building a single network with an open-access component (see above), digital information on the Killer Whale Crest Hat reflects a partitioned system based on differentiation. Amiria Salmond (2012) discussed a related idea in an introduction for the Journal of Material Culture: “The aim, in short, is to transform a single hegemonic system that dictates the universal forms that digital information must take, as well as the means of its circulation, into multiple systems or ontologies inflected with certain kinds of difference–especially the kinds we are accustomed to calling ‘cultural’” (emphasis in original). The cultural system of exchange is, as previously discussed, influencing the digital system of exchange.
This balance exists because of the advantages of collaboration, not in spite of its drawbacks. Indeed, partitioning information and restricting the distribution of digital copies and protected stories reflects a mutual understanding between both parties that some information must be safeguarded. In practice, this manifests itself through a decision-making chain. A string of individuals, from members of the Daklaweidi clan (principally the Shaadehani, or clan leader) to educators and Web designers in Q?rius, may be involved in working out the language for the replica Killer Whale Crest Hat’s description, the spelling of important terms, and further into on-site programming and physical display (Hollinger, 2015). This collaboration has the advantage of producing exhibit content that protects intellectual property of the Tlingit, but it also faces challenges of exhibit interpretation that may emphasize certain aspects of the replica’s story over a more holistic interpretation, as previously discussed.
This type of collaboration is contrasted by complete transfer of both ownership and control. Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, pointed out some of the problems with partial repatriation at a conference on Digital Return at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, from January 18 to 21, 2012. He observed that repatriation is not complete until ownership of copyright and title has been fully passed: “If it is truly repatriation, then we get the ownership of it” (Digital Return, 2013).
There is a “keeping-while-giving” dynamic at play with repatriation that only covers an object and not its intellectual property (Weiner, 1992). Conceptually in this case, but not legally, the repatriation of an object includes both the transfer of physical ownership and the intellectual property of digital assets. In this regard, Enote drew particular attention to the quality of information concerning non-repatriated Zuni material culture misidentified in museum collections. If an object in a museum has been misidentified, then its metadata is incorrect, and anyone viewing the object will receive incorrect information. Setting the record straight is important not only for the museum’s visitors but for protecting the cultural heritage of the Zuni to ensure that future generations can accurately interpret the significance of material culture. However, some museums he reached out to were hesitant to make the epistemological shift into opening their digital assets to scrutiny and to new content generated by the Zuni. In response to these setbacks, Enote helped start the Zuni Consolidated Collections System (ZCCS) to bring together six different museum collections of Zuni cultural heritage into one system. That database would be owned, operated, and curated by the Zuni to ensure accurate object identification (Digital Return, 2013).
The risk of dual digital networks—one in a museum, one in a cultural community—is that information can end up being split incompletely between them, with both sides only getting one piece. The downside of this would be that end users looking for information may still be directed to the museums holding Zuni artifacts as opposed to the ZCCS itself. But the reality is that replication exists everywhere on the Web. Knowledge comes in forging connections between those individual nodes. In the example of the Killer Whale Crest Hat, there are many different actors from the Tlingit community producing meaning-making and sharing cultural stories online outside the museum space. There are biannual “Sharing Our Knowledge” conferences in Alaska for discussions of art, history, and more (http://clanconference.org/). There are organizations like the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (http://www.ccthita.org/) that have social media presence (https://www.facebook.com/ccthita). Added to the diversity of actors listed here are artists like Nathan Jackson who express their Tlingit cultural identity through their work.
The network of human relationships connecting Tlingit identity is manifesting itself online through organization, museum interpretation, and individual projects. The digital network of Tlingit culture is producing new knowledge, and the community voice is expressing itself online. There is an opportunity for museums to reach out to and form an understanding of the products of this digital network, and thereafter to help connect visitors with the living history of living cultures. The conclusion of this paper will look at possible approaches to this challenge.
The “Background” section of this paper introduced three core questions: are people within the community-maker group looking to talk about their culture, where are those conversations taking place, and what is the role of the museum in connecting those speakers to the visiting public?
Given the examples shown above, the network of digital assets in the sphere of the Tlingit cultural group is productive in the sense that new meaning is being continuously generated. The startling aspect of this balance is not the lack of community voices online—it is, in fact, the multitude of voices outside the museum space. For someone standing at the edge unsure of where to start, this abundance is difficult to navigate in order to get a firm sense of Tlingit culture.
It is in this hypermediated sphere that museums can help guide connections between community makers and the visiting (on-site and online) public. This reflects an expansion of contact between the two distinct digital networks from collaboration in the production of digital assets and into synthesis and interpretation of assets produced outside the museum. There is a richness of community voice being expressed online. Evidence from Hollinger et al.’s observations on other 3D digitization of Tlingit objects (2013), A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center’s Kechiba:wa Digital Collection project (http://www.ashiwi-museum.org/kechibawa.html), and others point to growing networks extending cultural expression into more online platforms. Museums are uniquely capable of helping us navigate and understand the online richness of community voice being expressed.
I would like to thank Dr. Joshua Bell and Dr. Eric Hollinger of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for their guidance.
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