Review Essay: “After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge”

This critical examination of the 2013 double issue of Museum Anthropology Review (MAR), entitled “After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge,” (volume 7, numbers 1-2) was written by our spring 2014 class on the Anthropology in and of Museums, as part of the Museum Studies MA Program at New York University.  Contributors included Brittany Darrow, Christina Fernandez, Mary Kate Gliedt, Houda Lazrak, Jacqueline Masseo, Maria Montenegro, Edward Ovadek, and Laura Williams; and the project was overseen by our professor, Dr. Sabra Thorner (who facilitated class discussion on the journal issue and its broader context in Anthropology and Museum Studies, and had a final editorial role over the contents).  We’d like to collectively thank Barbara Mathé, Museum Archivist and head of Library Special Collections at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, who planted the seed for this idea and participated actively in several conversations about this issue’s contents and significance; and Jim Enote, Director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center at Zuni, New Mexico, who was a guest speaker in our class during the process.

In this review, we address the issue’s prominent themes and discuss the collection’s contribution to the field of digital repatriation and return. Our first concern was to define terms and unpack metaphors, and we found anthropologist Haidy Geismar’s concluding commentary to be our most helpful guide (see her essay, “Defining the Digital”).  She outlines three defining characteristics of the digital.  The first is that digital objects are born digital, and thus, their production and preservation depend on constantly changing forms of hardware and software.  The second characteristic involves translation into and out of binary code; through minute changes in coding, very different objects are created.  Thirdly, as metadata is permanently attached to digital files, the distinction between an artifact and the information about that artifact is increasingly difficult to discern.  Geismar emphasizes that the digital is a process rather than a fixed materiality; as such, digital collections present a unique set of circumstances, issues, and solutions, for museums and source communities alike.  These qualities were central to the case-studies addressed in this review.

The study of digital collections emerges originally from the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that endowed native tribes and communities with the right to request return of human remains (and associated objects) held in publicly-funded U.S. institutions, but more importantly, ushered in a sea-change in museums’ commitment to more collaborative and inclusive engagement with “source communities.”  Digital collections emerged as a possible solution to repatriation—increasing source community access to objects and knowledge in contexts when analogue repatriation was perhaps impractical or impossible.  Images, films, objects, and texts have been digitally “repatriated.”  With this in mind, this issue of MAR examines how digitization influences methods and forms of knowledge production, and how digital objects move within and across different cultures of knowledge management and preservation.  Scholars, activists, community members, and museum professionals are together investigating and analyzing what digital repatriation means in terms of ownership, access, the production of knowledge, the maintenance of personal and collective identities, and the negotiation of power relations.

As objects and knowledge become increasingly inseparable, some scholars raise concern about the blurring of boundaries between originals and their copies.  Philosopher Walter Benjamin argued for the aura of a unique, original object (see his 1931 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”)—a sensation or atmosphere that it constructs, emanating from its singularity and its relation to the genius or divine inspiration of the maker.  Applying the notion of the aura to Indigenous objects held in public museums, source communities make claims to have their objects returned because these objects make their cultures, languages, knowledges, and lifeways, tangible.  The creation of digital surrogates raises important questions about the significance of original artifacts.  Many of the articles in “After the Return” acknowledge these complexities.

“Collaboration” is one of many strong themes in this issue: in its simplest form, pointing towards the working together necessary to achieve a larger goal.  Collaboration can be an effective strategy to improve both museums’ and Indigenous communities’ access to objects and information.  Yet it is important to remember that collaboration is an ongoing process, not a fixed destination: it must be striven for via listening and respect; it can also go awry when goals are understood differently by different parties.  “Contact zones,” is perhaps a more helpful metaphor in understanding the coming together of different peoples or communities, to establish ongoing relations amidst legacies of colonial power relations, including inequality, conflict, and/or coercion (see Clifford 1997).  We argue that every example of “collaboration” might be rethought as a negotiation between multiple viewpoints.  In the “contact zone,” struggle and negotiation may in fact be productive, enriching communities’ access to their objects of cultural heritage, and/or improving museum collections at the same time (see Srinivasan, Enote, Becvar, and Boast 2008 for an example of a “contact zone” in action).

One successful example of this in the MAR volume is the FirstVoices Initiative (see the article by Smith, Wells, and Brand), in which the provincial government of Vancouver Island endowed the Ehattesaht Chinehkint community with legal property rights to the contents of a digital language archive (see also Leopold, Sarkar, this volume).  Yet collaboration also occasionally breaks down, as evidenced by the article by Shankar and Hooee on the return of cultural heritage materials to the New Mexico pueblo of Zuni from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.  In this example, Zuni elders refused a proposal to raise funds to acquire the infrastructure and tools needed to store the Doris Duke Storytelling Collection, resulting in no increased access to tapes imagined by project coordinators to be important in a language revitalization project.

These examples illustrate that “repatriation” is not an uncomplicated or inherent good; nor are communities necessarily unified in their desires/needs for further or reinstated access to artifacts originating from their homeplaces or made by their forbears.  Collections and their (potential) processes of return are so contested precisely because Indigenous communities and museums have had conflicting structures, systems, and strategies for accessing (and controlling access to) knowledge.  For many Indigenous peoples, objects are alive and therefore, must be treated with respect.  Different communities have different restrictions for the access to and use of traditional knowledge—based on the nature of the object or knowledge (if it is sacred or secret); and/or the age, gender, initiation status, or cultural origin of the person wishing to have access.

Putting objects, photographs, and other culturally-significant materials online challenges native communities who are often striving for more control, and/or reinstated ownership or custodianship, as they try to devise strategies of sharing and privacy consistent with traditional protocols (see the article by Anderson and Christen for an innovative strategy on this front).  In the Introduction to this MAR issue (see Bell, Christen, and Turin) the editors favor the idiom of “return,” rather than “repatriation,” as a linguistic emphasis on the processual nature of shifting relationships between public institutions and source communities.  “Return” is not a conclusion of a relationship or a solution to a concrete problem, but rather, an initiation of decentering the authority of museums and other holding institutions, an impetus to develop strategies of shared custodianship of objects, and value for other ways of storing and transmitting knowledge.  As Jim Enote argues in the Introduction, digital return is not just about sending copies of material culture home to communities of origin, but also about reinstating their legal control and enabling their cultural oversight over Indigenous ways of knowing.

Control can be shared between a museum and a community; it can also be ceded by an institution to an original source community.  In their article “Sound Returns,” authors Reddy and Sonnenborn mobilize four case studies in which musical recordings were returned to communities all over the world, in various ways, in order to illustrate successful transfer of power from the Smithsonian archives to local hands.  This labor can strengthen fragile communities—as they regain access to cultural forms that may no longer have been prevalent or current—and, in some cases, provide specific financial boon (in the form of royalties) to the original sources of these musical forms.  These efforts of return have also inspired dialogue about what is appropriate for public access, and what should be restricted (how, and under what terms).

In other examples, it is debatable as to whether power is being returned to communities in any meaningful way, or rather, if a particular project perpetuates community dependence on institutions.  For example, the Tlingit-Smithsonian collaborations via 3-D digitization technologies (see the article by Hollinger et al) illustrates a successful coming together of a national museum and a native community, in which original artifacts were returned to the Pacific Northwest, and replicas retained by the Smithsonian.  While this article celebrates the positive outcomes, for our class, this example in particular raised important concerns and questions.  The infrastructure required to conduct three dimensional scanning and printing is expensive and owned by the National Museum of Natural History: does a project like this reinforce the power of the Smithsonian, as native communities remain dependent on the national institution to use (and/or benefit from) this technology?  If original objects were damaged or destroyed, the replica would still exist in museum collections; yet what are the implications of this on long-term power relations between the community and the museum?  Thinking through this collectively, we return to Zuni elder Jim Enote’s words once again: a digital replica is not equal to an original; and technologies such as these might in fact reinforce the colonial power relations of old, allowing museums to retain originals and return aura-less surrogates to communities.  Enote’s caution illustrates that while one technological innovation—3D printing—was an exciting development for one “source community” (Tlingit), it was something to be suspicious of for another (Zuni); there is no singular solution to return (whether in the form of digital surrogacy, or shifting ownership) for all Indigenous peoples whose objects currently reside in museums.

Several digital repatriation projects outlined in this volume bear witness to the advantages of digitally returning culturally significant material to Indigenous groups.  However, hardware and software developments may also impede the successful return of tangible and intangible culture.  Hooee and Shankar’s experience with the Doris Duke Zuni Storytelling Collection illustrates that outdated hardware and information systems can prevent access to language revitalization resources.  Although audiocassettes containing Zuni story recordings from the 1970s are physically present at Zuni, the obsolete playback technology is too outdated for the community to listen to the tapes.  The current information system at the Zuni Public Library also lacks the infrastructure to store a digitized version of the recorded stories.  In this context, digital return is not a uni-directional process, traveling only from museums to source communities, but rather involves the flow of knowledge and representations in many directions and via multiple technologies.

Indeed, greater emphasis on the diverse set of challenges posed by digital technology is needed.  Colonial legacies embedded in collections; the expense of hardware and software maintenance and migration; geographical remoteness of many communities from urban centers; Indigenous restrictions of access to traditional knowledge; and the limited digital literacy of many in these communities represent just a few of many challenges in implementing digital “return.”  Several essays in this volume fail to acknowledge these social, political, and economic conditions, embedded in and central to the projects they describe.  For instance, how are Indigenous representations altered in a museum when 3-D objects are exhibited hand in hand with original ones (see Hollinger et al)?  Do colonial legacies subtly recreate power structures in the relationship between Smithsonian professionals and Inuvialuit culture-bearers as they produce a virtual exhibit of the MacFarlane Collection (see Hennessy et al)?  Should digital surrogates of objects provided by the NMAI to native groups be used to create local community exhibitions (see O’Neal)?  This volume presents a collection of success stories.  And while these are important to acknowledge, equally important to recognize is that each collaborative project between Indigenous groups and large public institutions is faced with a unique set of challenges (see Dobrin and Holton, for an example).  These limitations should be addressed in scholarly publications to prepare the stakeholders of future initiatives to creatively problem-solve, fully aware of the efforts that have gone before them.  Native communities’ needs must be considered on a case-to-case basis.

Further, the title of this special issue, “After the Return,” leads one to believe that the heart of the issue will be to discuss the effects that digital return has had on these communities.  However, while the majority of articles discuss a specific digital repatriation project, not much attention is given to what actually happens after the return.  How are Indigenous communities integrating, rejecting, adapting, contributing to, and responding to the advent and proliferation of new digital technologies?  For example, in the article “The Inuvialuit Living History Project: Digital Return as the Forging of Relationships Between Institutions, People, and Data” (Hennessy et al), the authors focus on the process of creating a digital archive, emphasizing the importance of the relationships forged during the project.  If the topic of this particular issue of MAR was to discuss what happens after the return, this article, among many others, falls short of that task.  Too much emphasis is given to how these digital repatriation projects came to be, not interrogating what their role has become within the relevant Indigenous communities.  The focus was on process, not on outcome, and indeed perhaps, as the authors of the Introduction assert in their favoring of “return” over “repatriation,” the emphasis on process was quite purposeful; nonetheless, there is something here that leaves the reader unsatisfied.  We can only begin to know the importance of these digital repatriation projects through studying how effective and useful they actually are to the communities going forward from the moment of “return.”

This special issue of MAR discusses the implications of digitally (and otherwise) returning objects, knowledge, and other forms of cultural heritage from museums to the Indigenous communities from which they originated.  This is a significant effort in a defining moment in Museum Anthropology and related fields.  “Contact zones,” take many forms: efforts that have improved various stakeholders’ access, such as the international collective Reciprocal Research Network (see Rowley), or using a 3-D printer to reproduce Tlingit artifacts for museums when originals have been returned to their source communities (see Hollinger); and some that have illustrated how complex access can be as a goal, such as Zuni recordings held in the Library of Congress with limited accessibility both in the Library and in Zuni (Shankar and Hooee), or the Smithsonian Folkways recording process and its concern for degrees of knowledge within Indigenous communities (Reddy and Sonneborn).

Overall, the articles in this volume illuminate the complex nature of digital “return.”  Museum anthropologists have only just begun the investigation into its practice and possibility.  Their attempts have been innovative and intriguing, and the future of the field can be glimpsed in their successes and failures.  The digital mediation of our social lives, as Geismar tells us, is no longer emergent, but rather, already well-established.  Taken as a whole, the articles in this issue of Museum Anthropology Review (2013) prove that “return” is both a metaphor and a genre of social relations worth examining, one that wields the potential to revolutionize both the future of museums and the representations of Indigenous peoples, ushering in partnership, respect, power-sharing, and collaboration as foundational to all future endeavors.

Works Cited

Bell, Joshua, Kimberly Christen, and Mark Turin, eds. “After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge.” Special Issue, Museum Anthropology Review 7, nos. 1-2 (2013).

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1931.

Clifford, James. “Museums as Contact Zones.” In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. 188-219. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Srinivasan, Ramesh, Katherine M. Becvar, Robin Boast, and Jim Enote, “Diverse Knowledges and Contact Zones within the Digital Museum.” Science, Technology & Human Values 35, no. 5 (2008): 735-768.


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