Posted to the Ethnos Project by on September 2nd, 2012


This research project investigates the digital collections from selected heritage organisations, exploring how and if the rights of Indigenous peoples are being protected by policy and protocol documents on the Web. It surveys selected heritage collections across Australia and New Zealand and explores digital collection policies at local and national level, investigating the extent of international pressure, socio-cultural influences, and legislative constraints. This research project uses qualitative methodology in an interpretive way for the collation for data and analysis. The major finding of this research project is that many cultural heritage organisations in the two countries investigated attempt to bridge the gap between Anglo-American development of legislation and Indigenous intellectual property rights by the inclusion of specific policy measures. These organisations thus in the process, are increasingly becoming in effect socio-cultural agents for change. The main themes that emerged from this study are that of cultural, legislative and structural influences. They outline the fundamental characteristics of the policies and protocols of cultural heritage organisations in Australia and New Zealand.


An increasing number of cultural heritage institutions in the Western world are exploring digitisation as a means of preservation and/or improving access and knowledge of their collections (McDonald, 2006). As a number of these institutions hold substantial collections of Indigenous cultural knowledge such as the case in Australia, New Zealand, North America, Latin America and northern parts of Europe, it is essential that these institutions build digital collections in consultation with Indigenous communities, putting in place internationally acceptable guidelines, policies and practices. Some researchers in fact view that heritage organisations have evolved not only to exist within a context but transform into their own cultural context (Macdonald, 1996). Some others describe the digitised item as a “sociotechnical artifact” (Dalbello, 2005, p.392). In this way, cultural heritage organisations can be seen as a social reflection of the de-colonising methodologies which are prevalent in recent literature on Indigenous issues, particularly by researchers in New Zealand and Australia (Nakata 2002; Smith, 1999; Wareham, 2001). This research explores the socio-cultural influences and issues involved with the digitisation of Indigenous cultural knowledge as portrayed through policy documents, copyright information, and/or protocols made available on the Web. Specifically, this research investigates the current climate of how digital collections are being created, and how/if the rights of Indigenous peoples are being protected and if so, in what ways. It surveys selected heritage collections across the Australia and New Zealand and explores digital collection policies at local and national level, and the extent of international influences such as the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) and other international organisations.

The digitisation of Indigenous cultural information presents an interesting dichotomy of cross-cultural relationships between an ideology from a liberal Western ideology which developed from the 19th century (Joyce, 1999), and an Indigenous point of view; this intersection has been called by a leading researcher in the field, Martin Nakata as the “cultural interface” (Nakata, 2002, p.281). Some researchers contest that it is not a hybridisation of Western knowledge systems mixing with Indigenous knowledge systems, (Brown, 2007) rather a natural evolution of Indigenous appropriating convenient technological advances. The history of how items came to be held in heritage organisations can itself be contentious, as the information was often appropriated in the colonisation period when Indigenous people may have had limited control over what was collected and how it was interred and subsequently viewed (Sullivan, 2002). While in some Western eyes, an item may legally be owned by the organisation, there is research which suggests cultural heritage institutions are in the process of decolonising and are often integrating Indigenous concerns into their procedures (Sullivan, 2002; Szeley & Weatherall, 1997; Wareham, 2001). These articles held in cultural heritage organisations are as varied as photographs, oral histories, films, geographic and genealogical information, and flora and fauna.

While there is a number of case studies of particular digitisation projects and also a number of international Indigenous forums which outline the issues, the literature indicates a growing awareness for a need of consistent standards and protocols in digital collections (Nakata, 2002; Nakata et al., 2008). This research explores the digitisation landscape of New Zealand and Australia pertaining to Indigenous objects (Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Māori), investigating the socio-cultural influences in the development of policy, to assess the accessibility of policies on the Web, and finally through analysis of the data collected, to draw some conclusions on the current practices of cultural heritage organisations up to 2008.

Research questions

What are the fundamental characteristics of policies and protocols of cultural heritage organisations in Australia and New Zealand in relation to the digitisation of Indigenous cultural knowledge? We seek to provide some response to this via the following sub-questions:

  • Do heritage organisations in Australia and New Zealand structure digitisation policies that include reference to Indigenous cultural knowledge? If so, how are these termed?
  • What are the socio-cultural issues that are involved in digitising Indigenous cultural knowledge between different cultural heritage organisations in Australia and New Zealand?
  • How accessible to the public are digitisation policies on the Web?
  • What protection exists for the cultural and intellectual property rights of Indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand and is this reflected in organisational policy?

This research probes the gap in the current literature on this topic which is predominately limited to: case studies (Faulkner & Lewincamp, 2003; Wu, 2006), individuals stating their perspective either as a developer of digitisation projects (Janke, 2006), an Indigenous perspective (Nakata, 2002; Million, 2005) or from a macro level from a historical point of view which explores the societal influences over time (Joyce, 1999). This research investigates across different types of heritage organisations, which is another gap in the literature, as the majority of studies are based separately on museums, libraries, and archives not on cross-institutional study. The author of this research project does not attempt to present an Indigenous perspective. Nevertheless, the study hopes to include the main issues that Indigenous people have by consulting works by Indigenous scholars, and exploring Indigenous methodology in particular extensively reading the literature which uses a ‘de-colonising’ methodology.

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