Digital repatriation is the return of items of cultural heritage in a digital format to the communities from which they originated. The term originated from within anthropology, and typically referred to the creation of digital photographs of ethnographic material which would then be made available to members of the originating culture. However, the term has also been applied to museum, library, and archives collections, and can refer not only to digital photographs but digital collections and virtual exhibits including 3D scans and audio recordings.
Digital repatriation is becoming increasingly relevant as more cultural institutions make their collections available online. This increased access is sometimes at odds with the desires of the originating culture, since it limits their ability to curate and define terms of access to their cultural materials. Many cultural institutions are making efforts to involve communities in collection display and description.
Proponents of digital surrogacy argue that it can offer benefits to originating cultures, scholars, and educators. For originating cultures, digital surrogates can make cultural objects accessible to dispersed populations, reunite collections of physically scattered objects, or provide access to objects for which physical repatriation is challenging. Digital surrogates can provide an interactive experience for community members and inspire new community engagement with cultural objects. High quality digital surrogates can aid with preservation of the original objects, provide documentation for collections management, and give scholars access to the surrogates for continued study regardless of where the original artifacts are located. However, scholars caution that digital surrogates are alternative representations of an object, rather than replacements for the original objects.
Repatriation is fraught with ethical and legal challenges regarding ownership of artifacts and materials. Communities within originating cultures seeking to assert ownership over artifacts and materials held in outside institutions may lack the types of documentation that would be accepted in international courts of law and they may have traditions and beliefs which conflict with Western understandings of individual intellectual property rights. While digital repatriation can provide access to objects for which physical repatriation is complicated or unlikely, originating cultures may not be satisfied with this option.
Institutions creating digital surrogates for digital repatriation may retain copies for institutional use. Originating cultures may object to replicating or displaying sacred objects, objections which may extend to digital representations of the objects. Some institutions have chosen to resolve this ethical challenge by requesting intellectual property rights clearance from the communities in question before publishing digital materials and offering control over access permissions and representation of digital materials to members of the originating cultures.
The National Museum of the American Indian (USA) and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa have been particularly active in bicultural co-curation of digital material. The Local Contexts initiative has developed Traditional Knowledge labels, which institutions can utilize in digital collections to allow communities to designate certain material as restricted for access or use. This allows for online access to community materials while respecting the origin culture’s traditions and wishes.
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