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What is virtual repatriation?


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By David Houghton - Posted on 30 April 2010

The Digital and Virtual

One of the main reasons in the past for the reluctance of museums and institutions to repatriate items taken through colonization and war has been a strategy of avoidance citing the need to refer to the original. They worried about the accessibility and condition of the object. That has and always will be their prime concern when getting involved with issues surrounding repatriation. Small details and study of the original for scholars and experts has to be priority.

Digitization however has opened up the doors for the advances of technology to bring unprecedented access to many items that were in the past out of reach of us mere mortals. The institutions are embracing this technology, and producing portals through which we can view, virtually, downloadable content and even stream video. With all this multi faceted approach we are exposed to multi media experience totally unimaginable twenty years ago.

Having pondered and questioned what virtual repatriation means, is or could be. I come to pose the question what is more important the object, or in fact the information about the object. We have been putting it out there for our people of the North West Coast to get involved and participate in the work that has been done for the launch of the RRN website.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and there is genuine interest in this new concept of reciprocal exchange. This newfound opportunity for the institutions to participate has opened the doors for our oral tradition to be validated.

This knowledge, which is now trickling onto the RRN, brings into focus the originating communities from which the objects were taken in the first place. For our peoples the object is more important, which in many cases is an ancestral link validating our lineage. We have a context; D­lugwe is a gift of special powers in our Kwakwaka’wakw culture. The average person visiting a museum does not have a context or point of reference from which to draw. They can appreciate that there is something magical about aboriginal objects, without knowledge of its context an object is nearly meaningless.

We are in fact creating virtual communities. We are encouraging reciprocal exchange, there are no traditional boundaries; we are working to create a new functionality organically from originating communities. These virtual communities are adding context to the objects available to view. Now we come to the questions surrounding what we can view.

Culturally sensitive objects have and will be identified. The institutions are in a position to engage with originating communities, to come to a consensus on the suitability of certain objects being on view through a medium such as the RRN website. This is an ongoing relationship, which will validate the oral tradition, the rights of certain family’s ceremonial regalia.

A deeper impact of digitization beyond increased access is the people doing the digitizing themselves. Something can be flagged as culturally sensitive; we are denied access to the object. The object has almost certainly been digitized, yet if virtual repatriation is to be more than just a term of reference; we are dealing with what becomes a matter of ownership. Subject area experts are hopefully aware of the complexity of the source materials. They are in a position to make a call on what action is to be taken.

So we ask ourselves what is virtual repatriation? The institution holds the object, holds the digital media and controls the release of the information. This information is what is deemed valuable and significant in the image. When others come with purposes not envisioned in the original strategy, the perspective from which it was produced has shaped the presentation of the image. This will inevitably put us at odds.

Virtual repatriation seems nothing more than lip service to an idealized concept. The reality is it is just a capacity building exercise on the museum side. Repatriating cultural artifacts will stay firmly ensconced with the status quo of the institutions. Capturing and preserving indigenous knowledge is important work. Community based involvement with an increasing recognition of the value and relevance of originating communities is now spurning a whole new branch for museums involving information technologies.