ID: 240

MATHE, Barbara


Barbara Mathe, Museum Archivist, American Museum of Natural History in New York is overseeing a five-year project to survey all the archival collections in the Science Departments and Research Library. Staff and graduate interns are developing an infrastructure to manage minimal and full level EAD and EAC records that will integrate with science collections databases.

The AMNH Image Database has just launched and she is now developing a plan for creating a functional analysis of image databases to accommodate traditional knowledge systems in the hope of enabling local, indigenous databases to grow in number. She has published and lectured internationally on ethnographic photography, and was co-curator of a major exhibition at the AMNH in 1997, Drawing Shadows to Stone: Photographing North Pacific Peoples, 1897-1903. She was also a member of a TDWG working group to develop NCD, Natural Collection Descriptions, a data standard to integrate science archives and specimen collections.


Whose pictures are these? Indigenous Community Access and Control of Digital Archives

Brief summary:

Photography’s early years coincided with growing contact in indigenous communities. Outside visitorscameras literally took photos away to distant archivesoften with mistaken captionswhere they remain as the historical record. Source community management of their knowledge, digitally, will facilitate access and enhance value for all populations.


Inaccurate and incomplete information in archives that hold indigenous cultural materials can be addressed. When digital archives are curated by source communities, expert knowledge may be added and then be shared. Local control provides a system based on traditional knowledge, which allows access to certain items only to specified populations within their people, according to their cultural norms. While in opposition to the dearly held archival concept of equal open access, these culturally opposing points of view can be accommodated with the considered understanding that results from collaborative work.    

The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal allows the cultural materials of five tribes held at various repositories in Washington State and the Smithsonian, to be curated directly by the tribes. It is based on Dr. Kim Christen‘s work with the Waramungu community in Tennant Creek, Australia to develop a knowledge management system that implements cultural protocols (i.e., male vs. female viewing). The end result was the creation of the open source Mukurtu Wumpurrani-kari Archive. and

The Ara Irititja Project began in 1994 with the digital repatriation of archival materials to remote communities in Central Australia. In 2010, 108,000 digital records were migrated from an object-based FileMaker Pro database into a multimedia knowledge management system via a private intranet on the web (adhering to strict Anangu privacy imperatives). It includesprofiles for every person, plant, animal, thing, place and collection in the archive expanding the original software into a comprehensive tool for preserving and reproducing traditional cultural knowledge.”

Scientific contribution:

In this 175th year of photography, affordable and easy to configure systems can allow indigenous communities to represent their own cultural history in the archive without extensive technical expertise or infrastructure. Defined functional requirements will help to develop more systems. The results: digital return to more communities and enhanced information for all populations, respecting the cultural traditions that proscribe specified access to culturally sensitive materials. Guidelines for access will need review by organizations like the Society of American Archivists and the ICA. Ari Irititja’s profiles for entities along with object records points to ISAAR-CPF and by extension EAC and linked data, showing the value of using local ontologies and interoperable standards to enhance control and access to the wealth of indigenous knowledge that may be shared and possibly licensed.


Indigenous Archives; Anthropology and Photography; Protocols for Access; Local ontologies; EAC; Knowledge Management Systems; Cross- Cultural Data Standards