Aboriginal culture preserved online

By Jonathan Ives 28 August 2013
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An ambitious project is taking the world’s largest ethnographic collection global.

THE WORLD’S LARGEST AND most representative collection of Aboriginal artefacts will soon be accessible at the click of a mouse.

The South Australian Museum has undertaken a significant project to digitally photograph and database every object in its Aboriginal Material Culture collection, which is recognised as the world’s largest and most comprehensive.

For the first time, the rich heritage of the world’s oldest culture preserved in the collection will be made globally accessible – from the artefacts themselves to the stories of Aboriginal Australians.

“The key application of the project is to present the collection through the web, so that the objects and their documentation are made available to the Aboriginal communities of origin, to interested researchers and to the public at large,” says Dr Philip Jones, senior curator in the Department of Anthropology at the Museum of South Australia.

The digitisation project will help reinforce Australian Aboriginal identity, particularly in communities fragmented since European contact. Regardless of their distance from Adelaide, relatives and descendants in regional communities can view and download images of the works made by family members.

The collection consists of over 30,000 artefacts from all over the country. “The majority of the artefacts were made and used by Aboriginal people on the frontiers of contact with Europeans,” says Philip.

Connecting Aboriginal Australians with their heritage

While all the artefacts in the collection are laden with personal association and meaning, a proportion of the artefacts were used in ceremonies and not customarily seen by women or children. “These artefacts include head-dresses and ceremonial regalia, engraved stone and wooden objects,” says Philip.

“As awareness of their cultural status grew during the 1960s these objects were removed from public exhibition and stored securely. The digitisation project offers a new way to manage these objects, from the point of view of those traditional custodians.”

To ensure the cultural integrity of these objects is maintained, their digitisation is being undertaken by male staff and the data stored securely. Traditional custodians can digitally access material via codes and passwords.

New model for Australian indigenous collections

Dr Daniel Fisher, an Australian anthropologist now affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, believes the project will greatly expand knowledge of Aboriginal culture.

“This is really at the cutting edge of efforts to repatriate forms of cultural property and to do so in a way that is both culturally appropriate and in tune with local concerns about access,” says Daniel. “There is likely to be a lot learned as particular communities and individuals engage with the digital materials.”

Daniel suggests the collection is, “practically unmatched in terms of historical depth and breadth”. With parents now able to share aspects of family heritage with their children, increased access to this collection can stimulate cross-generational connections.

Philip comments that such an outcome is key for the project, adding that we have a responsibility to preserve a record for future generations.