A Different Kind of Museum Conference: ATALM 2016

On October 9-12, 2016, I was privileged to attend the annual International Conference of Indigenous Archives, Libraries, and Museums, hosted by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums in Phoenix, Arizona. I participated in two days of workshops and an additional two days of conference sessions, learning so much about what is happening in the world of indigenous museums, and the exciting examples and opportunities for collaboration with Native communities and cultural institutions.

Image courtesy of Cathy Short, Lizard Light Productions
ATALM conference attendees show solidarity with Standing Rock. Image courtesy of Cathy Short, Lizard Light Productions

Mukurtu and TK Labels

One of the day-long workshops I attended focused on the Mukurtu content management system, and how to use this free, open source system. Mukurtu is different from most museum content management systems in that it was developed specifically to meet the needs of indigenous communities, originally in Australia. It is now being used by communities in several regions of the world, including the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Mukurtu (MOOK-oo-too) is a grassroots project aiming to empower communities to manage, share, and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways. We are committed to maintaining an open, community-driven approach to Mukurtu’s continued development. Our first priority is to help build a platform that fosters relationships of respect and trust.

There are many aspects of Mukurtu that make it different, but I want to focus on three. First of all, it is designed to be able to collect and manage a wide range of cultural knowledge. This includes traditional museum collections and archives, but it is also used in indigenous communities to collect and preserve traditional knowledge, landscape data, language, and other intangible aspects of culture and heritage. It is a wonderful example of modern technology being used to preserve the knowledge of past and present generations for future generations.

Image courtesy of Lotus Norton-Wisla
Image courtesy of Lotus Norton-Wisla

Another important aspect of Mukurtu that makes this kind of complex information management possible is its use of digital communities and cultural protocols. The system allows users to create culturally-specific communities of users, say, for example, elders, or women, or language speakers, and then to control access to sensitive information and knowledge to the appropriate communities and individuals. This gives indigenous communities the opportunity to collect and manage some information for internal, specific use only, while other information can be shared more publicly. This is really important to people whose cultural knowledge has so often been inappropriately co-opted and shared, but who also want the rest of the world to gain a better understanding of their culture and history.

The third aspect of Mukurtu that really got my attention is the TK (traditional knowledge) Labels. Built into the content management system, TK Labels are an indigenous alternative to the use of copyright and trademark to describe who “owns” knowledge and information. For example, under Western copyright law, the rights to control access to and use of a photograph belongs to the photographer – the person who took the picture. But in many indigenous worldviews, the people and culture whose image has been captured should have equal right to control how that image is used. Communities using TK labels create their own definitions linked to a series of labels to make this clear to people accessing the content online.

Image courtesy of Lotus Norton-Wisla
Image courtesy of Lotus Norton-Wisla

Here at the Abbe, we are excited to find ways to use both Mukurtu and TK Labels to share authority in how we manage and share our collections with the people whose culture and history they represent. With both the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe using Mukurtu, it will be quite easy for the Abbe to upload our collections information to the tribal Mukurtu sites, making that content much more accessible to the Wabanaki communities. It will also be a way for Wabanaki community members to collect and document traditional knowledge about the pieces in our collection, and then share back with the Abbe however much or little they decide is appropriate. In addition, both the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy are defining their own TK labels and we are hoping to find grant support to find ways to include the labels in all of our online collections access points, including PastPerfect Online. Mukurtu and TK Labels are incredible tools to support our decolonizing work around collections here at the Abbe.

For more details, please check out the following resources:

Copyright Act review an opportunity to press feds on Aboriginal issues is an article about how copyright harms Native peoples, with a focus on Maliseet in Canada.

Don’t Buy This Book! Acoma Pueblo vs Peter Nabokov: When the Sacred is Made Profane focuses on when a non-Native academic disregards indigenous cultural protocols and the express wishes of the community of origin.


Julia Gray is Director of Collections & Research at the Abbe Museum. As a non-tribal museum whose work focuses on the Wabanaki (the Native people of northern New England and easternmost Canada), the Abbe is committed to a vision to reflect and realize the values of decolonization in all of its practices, working with the Wabanaki Nations to share their stories, history, and culture with a broader audience. Gray’s work in collections management and care, exhibit development, research, and community outreach has engaged extensively with the decolonizing vision of the museum, most recently in the development of our core exhibit, People of the First Light.

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