Context and History

screenshot of the author’s slide dek

Developed out of Dr. Kim Christen’s research and field work with the Warumungu group of Australia, the word Mukurtu is derived from the Warumungu word for “dilly bag,” or a safe-keeping place for sacred materials. The Mukurtu (pronounced “MOOK-oo-too”) content management system (CMS) was developed to empower indigenous communities to share and preserve their cultural heritage through their own cultural context. This CMS provides a common platform for indigenous people to manage and narrate their historical ephemera while working with legacy institutions to dictate the terms of access outside of their own communities.

Dr. Christen’s research continues a legacy of work within radical cataloging that intends to correct the wrongs of a knowledge organization framework that reflects the dominant-culture perspectives of its catalogers rather than reflecting the heritage from which cultural ephemera was (often) violently taken. There is extensive, thorough, and thoughtful further research from scholars and practitioners in the library and information fields. The information gathered to create this website contributed to the presentation of a related student project at the Pratt Institute. A link to those slides can be found here.

Within Library of Congress classes, for example, all Native American subject headings are listed under the E Schedule, or “Antiquities.” At best this is a misnomer, but at worst, this classification presents Native Americans as relics of history, and not as living, active, and contemporary communities. This framework, typically defined as colonial in nature, is pervasive across the information professions. Underrepresented communities such as indigenous groups suffer the indignity of misidentified ephemera that often lacks cultural narrative or context. In the case of sacred objects, sometimes protocols would be violated by displaying the object to communities beyond its intended audience.

The outcome of Dr. Christen’s research with the Warumungu in the early 2000s was the first iteration of Mukurtu in 2007. She’d not yet developed Traditional Knowledge Labels, but this first iteration included metadata fields for Cultural Narrative and Protocol. More important, Mukurtu gave administrative access to the indigenous group, which allowed them to dictate terms of access and add textural narrative to their objects.

From the outset, Mukurtu was designed open-source to enable other indigenous communities to use the CMS for their own purposes. Through a series of grant cycles, Mukurtu has proliferated in the past decade to serve several other indigenous communities.

Mukurtu CMS and its use of Traditional Knowledge Labels are not a silver bullet for the larger issue of colonial perpetuation in the archive, however Dr. Christen’s work has moved the needle towards more empathetic and diverse archiving. Her work reflects that of a revisionist—working within the existing archival framework to improve its usability and access to built a more inclusive community.

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