Dr. Kimberly Christen (Washington State University), Dr. Joshua A. Bell (National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution), and Dr. Mark Turin (University of Cambridge and Yale University) will convene an international workshop on the impact of digital repatriation on knowledge creation, revitalization, and distribution within Indigenous communities. Digital repatriation refers to the return of digital images of objects and digital copies of recordings by museums and other repositories to groups from which they originated rather than return of the objects themselves or the original recordings. The workshop will bring together scholars from diverse anthropological fields, indigenous communities, and collecting institutions to document sets of best practices and case studies of digital repatriation in order to theorize the broad impacts of such processes in relation to: linguistic revitalization of endangered languages, cultural revitalization of traditional practices and the creation of new knowledge stemming from the return of digitized material culture. Invited participants all have expertise in both applied digital repatriation projects and the theoretical concerns that locate knowledge creation within both culturally specific dynamics and technological applications.

Documenting the process and practices of digital repatriation to indigenous communities globally contributes to a broad understanding of the possibilities and limits of digital repatriation for knowledge revitalization, preservation, and production. The workshop will result in three key products all aimed at broadening the public and scholarly understanding of digital repatriation: 1) an edited collection of essays based on the themes of the workshops panels, 2) a dedicated project website with informational materials, a space for dialogue pre-and post conference and an interactive database aggregating the results of digital repatriation projects globally with a focus on outcomes, best practices and partnerships, and 3) a set of white papers to be made freely available online with suggestions for best practices, international standards, and practical guidelines for researchers, indigenous communities and collecting institutions.

Project Report

, brought together twenty eight participants at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC January 19-21, 2012 for two-and-a-half days of sustained and candid debate about the nature and practice of digital return between and amongst indigenous communities and museums, archives and libraries worldwide. Workshop participants included Indigenous community members from the United States and Canada, and museum representatives, scholars and heritage experts from the United States, Australia, Canada, and India. For the duration of the workshop, the participants discussed both the impacts and practices of digitally returning and circulating cultural heritage materials for projects that were focused on linguistic revitalization of endangered languages, cultural revitalization of traditional practices and the creation of new knowledge stemming from the return of digitized material culture. In broad strokes, participants sought to understand the effects of such technological changes and interventions on cultural needs. In a number of presentations, from Alaska to Australia, we learned that the return of digital collections, including museum objects and documents, spurred on community-wide initiatives related to the revitalization and use of Indigenous languages and cultural practices in a broad set of initiatives from primary school education to local government. Some of the lessons learned about technology were articulated across sectors and regions: namely, that the technology is and will only be as successful as the partnerships on which it is built. The possibilities offered by new technologies were balanced by the need to also respect cultural that relate to how materials should be used and recirculated. In this respect, the key insight was that while the needs of communities are diverse, they generally seek to form lasting partnerships with collecting institutions that will result in a wider use of the materials for the benefit of all involved. In addition, it was suggested that technologists work together with communities to create tools that can be used and re-used so that groups would not have to build these from the ground up. A toolkit for digital return and circulation could be devised to address precisely this need and concern. Our workshop was the basis for a special issue of the online, open-access, peer-reviewed, journal Museum Anthropology Review which will be published in December 2012. The issue has individual and co-authored articles from sixteen of the participants all detailing different aspects of ongoing work that relates to digital return around the world. Workshop organizers and participants also collaborated to expand the website: http://digitalreturn.wsu.edu/ which has now become a network hub for digital return projects in all continents. The website will continue to expand through outreach at institutional and academic meetings throughout 2012 and beyond.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Program Officer
Jeffrey Mantz
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Washington State University
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