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.




This is a student-made, instructional website resource for the content management system, Mukurtu. Borne out of research with the Warumungu group of Australia, Mukurtu represents a collaborative effort between indigenous groups, cultural heritage institutions, and academic researchers to design a content management system that more accurately represents the cultural legacy of groups that historically have been misrepresented.

Among the innovations to come out of developing Mukurtu has been the introduction of Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels into the indigenous cataloging lexicon. Created by researchers Dr. Kim Christen of Washington State University and Jane Anderson of New York University, TK Labels empower users to assign a level of access to non-community users through a metadata field called Protocol. Giving the access settings back to the original creator empowers them to share their cultural on their terms. TK Labels provide a framework for equitable participation for both the indigenous users, and the the institutional cataloger.

Despite its developments to bring users and researchers closer together, however, Mukurtu has encountered problems with usability. Its user base of indigenous groups sometimes lack access to frequent, reliable, and fast Internet connections, which has exposed a digital literacy gap among users. Researchers currently are addressing this gap in the current grant award cycle, which finishes later this year. Called the Hubs and Spokes model, this current grant award cycle has built-in digital literacy training modules into its framework. The intended outcome is to educate, inform, and empower its users to use Mukurtu .

This website will also include detail from current practitioners as well as Mukurtu’s various iterations narrated through a framework of published research, news stories, and project proposals.

This website is designed as an educational resource for researchers and students who are interested in potentially implementing Mukurtu in their own institutions or for their own cultural heritage. This site, however, certainly isn’t an exhaustive resource on all things Mukurtu, and this writer has no affiliation with the CMS.

More information on Mukurtu can be found here.

Transforming Mukurtu

In 2007, the original Mukurtu was a browser-based, standalone project developed collaboratively by the Warumungu and Dr. Christen’s team of academic researchers. This alpha version introduced embedded community protocols around the sharing, creation, and narrative around objects and ephemera unique to the Warumungu.

This initial iteration was called The Mukurtu Wumpurrani-kari Archive, and its successful integration of community input and institutional support began to attract the attention of other indigenous groups. In 2009, Dr. Christen was approached by the Indigenous Peoples of the Northwestern Plateau to develop a working archive for their cultural heritage. While the Wumpurrani-kari Archive had the foundations for an indigenous, user-centered content management system, it could not be a direct solution for other groups. The Mukurtu team decided that it would have to develop a CMS that could be more broadly applicable to other underrepresented groups. It would reach out to grant-funding entities such as the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) for institutional support to build upon the alpha version of Mukurtu.

Writing reflectively in a white paper in 2012 at the conclusion of a grant cycle, Dr. Christen emphasized the need to “create a beta version (of Mukurtu) that would be accessible for testing within indigenous communities globally.” This point in Mukurtu’s history represents a key decision to expand the project from a one-off website for one group, into a global-minded project intending to affect a geographically diverse indigenous population.

Upon completion, the Mukurtu Archive transformed into the Mukurtu Content Management System. Its developers migrated its code into Drupal-7, created a metadata field for Traditional Knowledge Labels, linked data sets to present objects holistically, and made the CMS available for download through the web portal.

This period in the Mukurtu history represents a transformation from an academic project into a commercial product. The creation of a Youtube channel and a formal product website at this time signify the team’s intention to grow their one-off archive into a remixable, iterative CMS for multiple groups.

The Mukurtu Youtube channel

A later NEH-funded grant award in 2016 saw the project developing its CMS for mobile devices because research indicated that indigenous communities accessed the Internet through mobile devices. This grant supplied mobile devices to indigenous communities, and provided in-person digital literacy training to teach groups the functionalities of mobile Mukurtu. Another grant awarded at this time, from IMLS, wrote-in digital literacy training as well.

The spirit of each iteration of Mukurtu ultimately has emphasized the user of the platform. The project leads consistently have backed their proposals with research about indigenous communities and their Internet usage habits. Current roadblocks around digital literacy represent a much larger institutional problem regarding broadband Internet access in underserved communities.

It is instructional, then, that Mukurtu and its team continues to work with a revisionist lens—working with the existing framework to meet the needs of its users where they are.

Mukurtu in Practice

The Plateau People’s Web Portal front page

The response to Mukurtu from practitioners has been overwhelmingly positive, especially in regards to its use of Traditional Knowledge Labels. There are some criticisms regarding the present scope of the platform, which is not well-suited hosting multimedia, according to some users. In general, however, Mukurtu users highlight the commitment to inclusivity and representation as key improvements over existing knowledge organization systems.

Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Erin Hughes provides support as a Hub manager, overseeing Mukurtu training to tribal and non-tribal archives in the Midwest. She writes, “the ability to apply cultural protocols to materials and the knowledge surrounding the materials has been missing from the information technology landscape.” Writing from personal experience, Hughes is able to contextualize Mukurtu as a user on the institutional side, advocating further. “It is giving me the opportunity to help empower indigenous communities and lets me discuss how museums, archives, and libraries can better serve this communities,” she says.

Elsewhere, the Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels introduced by Mukurtu has spurred several instructional write-ups from the academy regarding what they are and how to use them. While the Mukurtu team has published its own schedule, it is instructive that TK Labels have inspired further advocacy tutorials regarding their use. Writing from the University of Illinois iSchool, J. Kirby begins his TK Label explainer by saying that “Fans of Mukurtu CMS, a digital archaeology platform, as well as intellectual property nerds may already be familiar with Traditional Knowledge labels and licenses, but for everyone else here’s a quick introduction,” before launching into a thorough and invigorating explanation.

Mukurtu does have critics in the academy, however, who have pointed out that it currently lacks substantive support for the cataloging of multimedia digital ephemera such as audio and video. In a 2017 review of Mukurtu, Michael Shepard of the University of British Columbia writes that the platform is “best suited for print media, such as images and documents, not audio and video.” He continues, “the CMS has great potential for innovative use in language preservation, but at least in the present version, the functionality limits its efficacy.”

While response from the academy could be found easily, response from indigenous groups virtually is nonexistent beyond blurbs on the Mukurtu main site. There could be several reasons for this. More than likely this reflects a lack of reliable Internet access in geographic areas where indigenous groups live. Presently, however, this lack of an indigenous voice in the public-facing spheres reflects a problematic underrepresentation of non-dominant cultures already endemic to the archival professional field.

What can be done to remedy this? The contemporary Hubs and Spokes model intends to decentralize the platform and empower regional managers to advocate for the CMS and train local practitioners. The ever-present conundrum of outreach is addressed through digital literacy training. However, no present narrative from the indigenous group point of view has been cataloged. The Hubs and Spokes grant award cycle completes this year in 2019, and the white paper produced from the project should reveal some input from trainees and users. At the very least this would help close the loop on the inclusive spirit that Mukurtu champions.

Hubs and Spokes

a screenshot of the author’s slide dek

As a publicly funded project, Mukurtu operates on a series of grant cycles, meaning that in order to continue existing service, the Mukurtu team must demonstrate a commitment to and understanding of institutional goals. The practical outcome of this model is a CMS that must innovate and improve its services to win further grant awards. Other pages on this website have tracked Mukurtu over its project lifespan. This page intends to look at Mukurtu as it exists today.

Mukurtu’s current iteration takes the form of the Hubs and Spokes model that it proposed in 2016 to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). In an effort to decentralize work from Washington State University, where Dr. Christen works, the Hubs and Spokes model designates participating institutions as regional hubs. The tools, services, and support they provide to regional tribal and non-tribal archives are spokes. The participating institutions are University of Hawaii’s Department of Linguistics, the Alaska Native Language Archives, the University of Oregon Libraries, the University of Wisconsin—the Wisconsin Library Services, and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This WordPress cites a dispatch from a regional hub manager at the University of Wisconsin on this page.

Along with a grant awarded from NEH in 2016, this IMLS grant reflects the Mukurtu team’s commitment to user-centered improvement and operations. While the NEH grant included funding to provide mobile devices to indigenous communities, the IMLS grant includes funding and support for regional hub managers to train indigenous groups in basic to advanced digital literacy skills.

Research has suggested that given a lack of reliable broadband Internet access in places that indigenous groups live, there is a significant digital literacy skills gap. This means that, even though Mukurtu is designed to address their needs and protocols, it all comes to nothing if the end-user is unable to understand and navigate the software.

Beyond the proposed hubs and spokes model, however, there has been organic spillover regarding digital literacy training by institutions for their service populations. Voices of Amiskwaciy runs on the Mukurtu CMS, serving as a digital portal for indigenous groups in Edmonton, Canada. Significantly, the portal is hosted by the Edmonton Public Library. While previous iterations of Mukurtu were hosted by universities or cultural memory institutions such as archives and museums, Voices of Amiskwaciy represents a public library entering the digital indigenous heritage conversation.

As reliable and consistent centers for Internet access, and with a service-oriented mission (not to mention programming often explicitly includes digital literacy training), public libraries are natural partners for cultural heritage preservation. It will be interesting, then, to follow the next iteration of Mukurtu and see whether or not public libraries are included in the grant proposal.

The Hubs and Spokes grant cycle ends this year, in 2019. As grants go, there will be a white paper published that narrates the activities, outcomes, and findings of the cycle. This website may include updates to reflect new research.

Traditional Knowledge Labels

Traditional Knowledge Labels

Developed by Dr. Kim Christen of Washington State University and Jane Anderson of New York University under a project they call Local Contexts, Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels provide a framework for indigenous groups to dictate the terms of access for their cultural ephemera. Because Western cultural memory institutions typically treat indigenous cultural heritage as part of the public domain, anyone is allowed access and remix indigenous ephemera. This structure denies marginalized groups any agency or ownership over items that originally belonged to them, which further scaffolds a problematic and colonial frame of reference.

Cited as the standard to consider when working with any cultural heritage created by marginalized communities, TK Labels allow indigenous groups to reclaim control over their ephemera by designating access through a Protocol metadata field. Through another metadata field called Cultural Narrative, indigenous groups are empowered to educate non-community users about how to incorporate their digital heritage objects in culturally sensitive and appropriate ways.

metadata fields

TK Labels operate similarly to Creative Commons licenses for original work. Because indigenous groups do not own digital content that contains their namesake, their cultural heritage is accessible, legally, through the public domain. “Ownership” is defined differently by Western legal standards and indigenous groups, further complicating the issue of access regarding culturally sensitive materials.

While some institutions are doing the work of returning ownership of items that sometimes were taken forcibly, or without permission, the topic has been the subject of increased debate over the past year. Given a tricky, often slow, and sometimes stagnant process of determining ownership, TK Labels give a semblance of ownership back to marginalized groups, however they are not a silver bullet for what appears to be a long, ongoing debate.

By redefining (and more important, revisioning) the All Rights Reserved copyright, TK Labels give control to indigenous groups regarding how their material is shared, circulated, and reused. Their use recognizes that indigenous groups have different levels of access in regards to their knowledge and cultural material. TK Labels designate objects with special permission and appropriate acknowledgement for reuse by non-community members.

Most important to the process is the fact that only indigenous groups are given access to the metadata fields that govern TK Labels. The outcome, then, is that non-community users are asked to understand and respect that some indigenous materials are sensitive, they may have restrictions, and they may not be free for reuse, all depending on the TK Labels assigned.

TK Labels democratize an archival process that has not always favored marginalized indigenous communities. While they certainly do not solve the larger problem of pervasive colonial attitudes towards indigenous groups, their very existence has sparked a conversation that continues to gain steam.