Who Owns Digital Culture? An Important Question Museums Must Consider

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

August 29, 2018
The ability to digitize and publish collections online through a collections management system has helped reinvent how museums present their holdings. In the beginning, there was resistance to publishing digital images of collection objects online. This was due to a (now proven false) concern that people would no longer visit the museum if they could view collections online.

In the last decade, museums have come to embrace digitization because providing digital access to collections has helped raise awareness of the collection, encourage tourism, crowd-source information for collection item mysteries, fundraise, engage with the community, and therefore assist the museum in meeting its mission.

Museums and Cultural Property

Digitization and free access to collections online helps to democratize museum content. However, digitization of museum objects with ties to cultural groups has highlighted the need for museums to review past practices and engage with cultural groups represented in the collection. Museum ownership of cultural heritage property is a centuries old issue that has gained increasing awareness in the last decade.

Cultural property can be a cultural heritage place, structure, or object that has inherent meaning to the community that created it. When cultural property is taken from the community that created it, especially if done so without respect, integrity—and most importantly—permission from the cultural heritage group, it is considered another form of colonialism. Museums of the Western world are just beginning to grapple with the complicit roles they play by keeping cultural property without consent from the cultural group. This isn’t to say that cultural groups haven’t previously asked for the return of their cultural property, because in many instances they’ve been asking museums for the repatriation of their property for years, if not decades.

Many cultural objects acquired by Western museums were made available through illicit trade, theft, and other abuses that were commonly employed in the 19th and 20th century. These abuses haven’t stopped. They’ve only been removed out of sight to the black market. Usually museums weren’t knowingly involved in illegal actions, though it is generally acknowledged many acquisitions have suspect provenance. It is because of this knowledge that museums are being called to—at a minimum— reflect on past acquisition practices and review object provenance.

In 2008, the Association of Museum Art Directors published a report and guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials. These guidelines call for museums to revise past practices in the obtaining, keeping, and presenting of cultural heritage objects. This is not the first attempt by organizations to establish guidelines that protect cultural property. The United Nations established conventions in 1970 in an attempt to stop the selling of stolen artifacts and make it easier for countries to file repatriation claims. In the United States, the National Park Service established the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 1990. All three of these efforts to help curb illegal or unethical acquisition of cultural property are a step in the right direction. However, they’ve been mainly ineffectual and don’t go far enough to account for cultural property acquired decades (and centuries) ago. There’s also no reference to who owns digitized cultural property.

The Challenges of Cultural Property Digitization

If having physical custody of cultural property is problematic, then so is the digitization of cultural items. The term Digital (or Electronic) Colonialism has emerged, and is being applied to cases where a museum or organization is asserting copyright ownership of digital images representing cultural property.

Here is the definition of Indigenous Digital Colonialism via Karaitiana Taiuru

  1. A dominant culture enforcing its power and influence onto a minority culture to digitize knowledge that is traditionally reserved for different levels of a hierarchical closed society, or information that was published with the sole intent of remaining in the one format such as radio or print.
  2. A blatant disregard for the ownership of the data and the digitized format, nor the dissemination.
  3. Digital data that becomes the topic of data sovereignty.
  4. Digital and Knowledge workers who consult Indigenous Peoples to digitise [sic] their content and then digitize [sic] the content, but who fail to explain the power of technology and the risks including losing all Intellectual Property Rights.
  5. Conglomerates and government who use their influence to digitize data without consultation.
  6. A colonial view and approach to new Internet technologies such as New General Top Level Domain Names (GTLD) and Country Code Domain Names (CCTLD).
  7. Digital access where an ethnic minority are the majority digital divide stakeholders; often while their knowledge and resources are being digitised [sic].
  8. Commercialisation [sic] of minority cultures CCTLD’s.
  9. Comercial [sic] entities paying translators to create new terminology for software and systems, then claiming ownership of the new terminology.
  10. Manipulation of search engine results to hide or change Traditional Knowledge.

The commercialization of images that represent cultural property is becoming a pervasive issue. One recent example of this discussion is Google Art & Culture’s partnership with Cyark. Both entities are listed as nonprofits, and the stated mission is to record, preserve, and provide 3D images of monuments around the world. This work, and others like it, has profound implications for future restoration, disaster recovery, and education. The issue is determining where ownership resides. Cyark holds copyright ownership to the images, which leads many to ask, “Who owns digital culture?”.

This issue is addressed in the June 2017 meeting of the Photographers’ Gallery London, “Trafficking of Cultural Goods: 3D Modelling and Digital Colonialism.” In the session it’s stated: “Rather than being committed to the preservation of cultural heritage it could be argued these companies are profiting from the reselling of copyrighted files.” When organizations arrive at a community to digitally document cultural property and then present the images as owned by the organization, the community is left to question what right the organization has over images of their cultural property. This can be especially problematic when the cultural group wants to use the organization’s image of their cultural property and have to seek the outside organization’s permission. The Photographers’ Gallery London session goes on to affirm that documenting and copyrighting cultural property in this way is another form of cultural appropriation, and indeed, colonialism.

Finding the Balance

3D imaging of cultural property through LIDAR, RTI, and photogrammetry has a tremendous amount of positive potential. War, politics, natural disasters, climate change, theft, desecration, and selfie-driven tourists are all threats to remaining cultural sites, structures, and objects around the world. Organizations with the ability to 3D image and freely provide digital renderings of cultural property can greatly aid in preservation, restoration, education, and enjoyment of these sites. Technology as a tool to aid museums, organizations, and cultural groups in this work should not be abandoned. Instead, continued dialogue, equitable engagement with cultural groups, and revision of policies should be employed.

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Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

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