Digital Return: Cultural Heritage and the Ethics of Circulating Indigenous Knowledge

Date: February 28, 2013 Time: 7:00 p.m. Location: Olin 130

Kimberly Christen lecture poster

Kim ChristenIn the last twenty years collecting institutions have heeded the calls of Indigenous activists to integrate Indigenous curatorial models and knowledge systems into mainstream museum and archive practices. Web 2.0 technologies grounded in user-generated content and bottom-up exhibition and display modes have aided in producing a dynamic platform for sharing materials. This newly animated digital terrain, however, poses both possibilities and problems for Indigenous peoples as they seek to manage, revive, circulate and create new cultural heritage on their own and in collaboration with collecting institutions. While digital technologies allow for objects to be repatriated quickly, circulated widely and annotated endlessly, these same technologies pose challenges to Indigenous communities who wish to maintain traditional cultural protocols for the viewing, circulation and reproduction of their cultural materials. In these cases it is precisely the celebrated ease of circulation and lack of control that intrudes on and erases many Indigenous models for the circulation, reproduction and preservation of cultural knowledge and materials. Librarians are especially attuned to the nuances of collections materials as they seek to make resources available for multiple publics with oftentimes-divergent interests. Issues of access are paramount to librarians as they seek to make collections available in both physical and digital form. This presentation engages with engrained assumptions about the de facto “public benefit” of making collections accessible and the ethical dilemmas facing information specialists as they seek to negotiate the variances between Indigenous knowledge systems and their professional imperative to make collections open to the public. Specifically, I will discuss the production of Mukurtu CMS an open source digital archive platform and the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, a reciprocally curated online archive of Native collections and its collaborative curation approach housed at Washington State University’s Library in the Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections division. The talk will emphasize the ethical underpinnings of these projects and provide a framework for ethical information models and practical digital asset management in collaboration with Indigenous communities more generally.

Kimberly Christen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies and the Director of Digital Projects at the Plateau Center for American Indian Studies at Washington State University. Her academic research focuses on the intersection of digital technologies, archival practices, cultural heritage movements and intellectual property rights within indigenous communities and the global commons. Dr. Christen is currently directing the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal (, an online collaboratively curated site for Plateau cultural materials and Mukurtu CMS ( a free, open source digital archive and content management tool specifically designed to meet the needs of indigenous communities as they manage and share their digital cultural heritage. More of Dr. Christen’s work, including publications and projects, can be found at her website: and you can follow her on twitter @Mukurtu.