Traditional cultural knowledge from indigenous communities has long been treated as being in the public domain, all over the world. Objects created by indigenous communities often hold sacred and spiritual importance, yet existing Anglo-American copyright law lacks consideration for these cultural values, and legally these artefacts are deemed to be in the public domain.
As new technologies are enabling the reproduction and digital accessibility of cultural objects, and with more heritage institutions opening up their collections under the OpenGLAM philosophy, it is more important than ever to consider the ethical and cultural perspectives that may apply to museum collections worldwide.
In New Zealand there is currently no specific framework to ensure that cultural institutions are treating reproductions of Māori or Pacific objects ethically and with respect. Despite this, many New Zealand heritage institutions have some form of community consultation process they consider when reproducing culturally significant objects from their collections. Issues have been raised at a government level to consider the importance of acknowledging Māori traditional knowledge within current intellectual property law. The most well known is the WAI262 claim, brought against the Crown in 1991 by members from six iwi across the country. The claim seeks rights for taonga, including indigenous flora and fauna, intellectual property rights over cultural ideas, designs and language, and more specifically control over how heritage agencies support the transmission of matauranga Māori.
In 2011, the Ko Aotearoa Tenei report on the WAI262 claim was released by the Waitangi Tribunal, calling for an establishment of a Māori-Crown partnership and to ensure that New Zealand heritage institutions are co-ordinating and collaborating with Māori representatives to give iwi the right to define how taonga is cared for and managed according to their tikanga.
To date there has been no formal response from the Government to the WAI262 claim. Despite this lack of legislation, heritage institutions across New Zealand already consider themselves to be kaitiaki of Māori collections and have policies in place to ensure these collections are accessible and cared for appropriately as per the iwi’s wishes. One positive change to New Zealand legislation that does take Māori cultural values into consideration is the Trade Marks Act 2002, which has a provision where if a trade mark is found to be offensive to Māori, it cannot be registered.
Our Australian colleagues across the Tasman have also started to engage with indigenous communities and integrate indigenous culture and practice as part of their core business.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services has been developed to guide staff working with indigenous collections in heritage institutions, and Annelie De Villiers has written an enlightening piece titled Is Your Collecting Institution Culturally Appropriate?. She encourages Australian heritage institutions to start rethinking their practices when working with indigenous collections, placing particular importance on upskilling and education around how to engage with indigenous communities effectively.
In April this year I was invited to conduct a workshop at the Sharing is Caring Extension conference in Hamburg, Germany, and share Auckland Museum’s approach to reproducing culturally significant objects that depict, or relate to, Māori or Pacific communities. The Sharing is Caring concept is based on the OpenGLAM principles that knowledge and culture belong to everyone. The conference presented a great opportunity to talk on behalf of the Museum and frame a discussion around considering ethical and cultural perspectives when opening up indigenous material for reuse using current and new technologies.
As part of the workshop, titled ‘Reproducing cultural material: a challenging topic’, I introduced Auckland Museum’s approach of kaitiakitanga and presented our copyright framework and principles that guide the Museum when reproducing images of Māori or Pacific material online. In order to ensure appropriate use of culturally significant collections, the Museum has developed a cultural permissions process for objects and images related to Māori or Pacific communities, in consultation with key stakeholders. Guided by the Museum’s He Korahi Māori and Teu le Vā policy frameworks, the cultural permissions process ensures that where appropriate, images of objects of Māori or Pacific significance are available to view online, but they cannot be downloaded and reused. All reuse requests must go through this process, with further consultation initiated with community groups where necessary, to determine if the images can be used as requested. If the requester has direct whakapapa to the collections the Museum ensures access to both physical collections and digital reproductions wherever possible.
The workshop was facilitated in conjunction with two German artists, Nora Nelles and Nikolai Al-Badri, who were behind the ‘The Other Nefertiti’ artistic statement. The iconic bust of Nefertiti, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, was found in 1912 by a German explorer and has been in Germany’s possession ever since. Egyptian authorities have been demanding its return to Egypt since 1924. The bust has become an icon of Berlin and is closely guarded while on display, with a strict photography ban, although plenty of Nefertiti themed merchandise is available to purchase in the museum shop. In 2016, Nelles and Al-Badri covertly scanned the bust of Nefertiti using a handheld scanner hidden in a scarf, gave the resulting scans to an anonymous friend, and released a high resolution 3D scan online freely available to download and print by anyone, anywhere in the world. The artists then exhibited a life size replica of the bust in Egypt, before eventually burying it in the desert. The artist’s intent was to spark a counter narrative and to “[...]activate the artefact, to inspire a critical reassessment of today’s conditions and to overcome the colonial notion of possession in Germany.” Making use of the available technologies to them, the artists were able to liberate a commodified cultural object and return it to its rightful resting place after all these years, while stirring a long overdue conversation around who owns cultural material and how it is reproduced.
The workshop focused on discussing The Other Nefertiti and Auckland Museum’s cultural permissions process as examples of the intersection between new technologies and cultural awareness when reproducing culturally significant material. The key questions put forward by the participants included: How should we balance cultural respect vs. the advancement of science? How do museums involve communities meaningfully? Who decides what's appropriate to be made available online? If we repatriate all the objects, then will we have empty museums?
In attempting to unpick some of the questions, Nelles and Al-Badri mentioned the Danish geneticist Eske Willerslev, Director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen. Willerslev has been conducting in-depth gene testing on ancient DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 years of human history. When testing DNA from Aboriginal Australian hair samples, Willerslev found that the living Aboriginal Australian community were greatly offended that he had not asked them for consent first. Ever since, these cultural protocols from the Aboriginal community have been brought to his attention, he seeks permission first when working with samples with indigenous origins from living cultures. Willerslev gets to the heart of the matter when he says “just because it’s legally right doesn’t make it ethically right.”
The artists also discussed other ideas they are working on, including their current project of working with Tanzanian communities to research over 11,000 objects in the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum as an example of involving communities in a meaningful way. Participants were also very interested in the Pacific Collection Access Project at Auckland Museum and from both examples wondered how they could start rethinking their own practices and include communities in future projects. The group also discussed examples of repatriation of human remains and artefacts from museum collections and wondered if the future would see a mass repatriation of culturally significant objects back to their rightful owners, leaving an empty museum. The idea of having 3D printed replicas of objects in their place was raised and a lively conversation ensued posing the question: does virtual repatriation solve this issue instead? The workshop put forth many different perspectives and planted a seed that will hopefully generate a change in future museum practice.
Other projects aside from the conference that have started to take the lead in creating safe spaces online for indigenous communities include Murkutu, the open source software which has been developed specifically to allow for communities to share and preserve their cultural heritage using modern technology. An adjacent archive platform provides tools that can be adapted to suit cultural values and link into heritage institutions collections. Murkutu also uses the TK (traditional knowledge) labels or licences which have been developed by the Local Contexts organisation in collaboration with indigenous communities. These are used to navigate the ethical considerations and the public domain status of heritage collections.
All of these conversations, both in New Zealand and overseas, are important in offering a variety of viewpoints and anecdotes on how to cater for indigenous communities and how these communities might want their objects cared for or reproduced. With these in mind, we can see that the wider GLAM sector has the opportunity to engage with Māori and Pacific communities using new technologies, such as the Murkutu archive platform, and create safe spaces online, if they haven’t already done so. Furthermore, these conversations demonstrate that implementing the WAI262 recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal and acknowledging Māori knowledge within current intellectual property legislation is paramount in moving this long overdue recognition forward. New Zealand has an opportunity with the upcoming copyright act review to take a global lead in caring for traditional knowledge of indigenous communities, and we should be welcoming it with open arms.