Mukurtu Project

The Mukurtu Project

Mukurtu CMS is the latest iteration of the Mukurtu project, and is a free, open source, community oriented content management platform and Indigenous archival tool created and designed to respect Indigenous knowledge systems and meet the unique cultural needs for the management and preservation of Indigenous digital cultural heritage materials online and offline.[1] The word ‘mukurtu’ means ‘dilly bag’ in Warumungu, the ‘dilly bag’ being an object that holds sacred items that are accessible by “acting responsibly within the community and gaining the permission of knowledgeable community leaders.”[2] Elders from the Warumungu community, an Aboriginal community in Central Australia named the archival platform, “designating it as a ‘safe keeping place.’”[3]

Mukurtu provides “international standards-based content management tools adaptable to local cultural protocols and intellectual property systems of Indigenous communities, libraries, archives, and

museums”[4] with the goal of producing “socially responsible, culturally responsive technology to meet the needs of diverse stakeholders.”[5] Mukurtu is based on an ethic of respect “for the dynamic social

and cultural systems, relationships, and cultural protocols within which information is embedded.”[6] It also highly values community building and community involvement in each step of the project’s development. The respect for the socio-cultural systems in which particular information lives and an inclusive community focus has shaped and continues to inform the structure and functionality of the project and platform, which can be best understood by looking at its origins and history, which is where this paper now turns.

Mukurtu: Beginnings

The Mukurtu project had its beginnings in Tennant Creek, Australia, the territorial homeland of the Warumungu Aboriginal people and where cultural anthropologist and ethnographer, Dr. Kimberly Christen, spent 20 years collaborating with a group of Warumungu women “to compile a community history text - Anyinginyi Manuku Apparr: Stories from Our Country.”[7] By 2003, the group of women and Christen had amassed over 1,000 photographs of places around and inside of Tennant Creek, video recordings of community members talking about individual and collective experiences in their territorial homeland, as well as performances of songs and dances.[8] In addition, the women’s group retrieved over “600 pages photocopied documents about Warumungu people”[9] from the National Archives in Darwin. The importance of obtaining these documents by and for the community meant that the community could repurpose and correct the archival records (which were made about them, not with or by them), “setting them against their own rememberings” and they could “determine who could and could not view, copy, and exchange” the documents.[10]

Also in 2003, Christensen and the Wurumungu women created a DVD for the digital materials. This DVD could be considered the first iteration of the Mukurtu platform and perhaps the first example of Mukurtu’s ethic of respect for the “cultural protocols” of a community: embedded in the DVD’s design were functions that supported the concerns of the Waramungu women - methods for monitoring access, preserving cultural knowledge, and for reinforcing existing kinship networks.[11] As a result, the DVD had access and viewing restrictions based on “age, gender, and land affiliations.”[12] The respect for and ability to incorporate a community’s “cultural protocols” into a digital archive remains one of the distinguishing features of Mukurtu.

In 2007 the Mukurtu alpha version, the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive, was released. The archive is managed by the Warumungu community and is located at the Nynikka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in Tennant Creek. It is accessible for viewing, adding new content, adding new knowledge to existing content, and for creating new knowledge.

In 2011, Mukurtu CMS released its “Demo” version, a full service content management system built on the community supported Drupal content management system. Mukurtu CMS can be run on a hosted service, a server, or locally offline. The platform supports Mukurtu’s ethic of respect for the responsible sharing of Indigenous materials with the following features (not an exhaustive list of the features): (1) Cultural protocol-based access parameters for defining granular levels of access to content based on a community’s cultural needs[13]  which allows communities to define the sharing and circulation of materials between members of a community as well as with other libraries, archives, museums, and the public;[14] (2) “Traditional knowledge fields customizable for curating content alongside Dublin Core metadata fields”;[15] (3) Traditional knowledge licenses and labels that work with copyright and Creative Commons licenses. These licenses were made specifically for Indigenous cultural materials as Indigenous communities have “different access and use expectations in regards to their knowledge and cultural expressions”and can be added to digital materials to specify conditions of use and/or assist educating people about how to respectfully and ethically treat Indigenous materials according to the particular community’s requirements and beliefs;[16] and, (7) The ability to “enrich, enhance or update” digital items or collections inside the CMS which can subsequently be exported for use in other platforms such as a museum or library database and includes the ability to maintain “complete control over what content can be seen, edited or shared at every step.”[17]

The ability to maintain “complete control over what content can be seen, edited or shared at every step” brings to mind the question as to whether specific cultural protocols embedded in an Indigenous community’s collection are able to be exported to any type of archive, museum or library (i.e. an archive/library/museum that uses mainstream descriptive systems and metadata schema) or only to archives, museums or libraries that use metadata schema and descriptive systems respectful of cultural protocols of Indigenous communities. Sue McKemmish, Shannon Faulkhead, and Lynette Russell address this very issue in the article “Distrust in the Archive: Reconciling Records”:

Mainstream metadata standards are not designed to describe and contextualise records from the perspective of the differing cultural protocols of individual Indigenous communities…Metadata elements are not...designed to express the cultural requirements associated with the handling of secret and sacred material, including requirements that would preclude archivists of a particular gender knowing about or being involved in the management of some records.[18]

This statement indicates that mainstream archival practices, frameworks, and standards have not yet changed to respect Indigenous knowledge keeping and sharing practices, however, change is on the way. The Koorie Archiving System project, which involves the Public Record Office of Victoria, the Koorie Heritage Trust Inc., the National Archives of Australia, the Gunditmijmara community and Koorie communities, are working together to create an archive that among other culturally respectful practices:

enables controls and protocols to be negotiated and established that respect Koorie community, family, and individual rights in records, and requirements relating to the preservation, storage, accessibility and use of content of the cloud archive, including requirements relating to differentiating access, and provides a mechanism for annotations that interpret, correct or provide context for information content sourced from official records.[19]

Mukurtu CMS: The Community

Mukurtu has a substantial number of organizations and individuals involved in the building and maintenance of the platform. The Mukurtu community comprises “a dynamic group of Indigenous communities, archivists, librarians, curators, researchers and software developers actively engaging with the Mukurtu platform to ensure a robust development environment,”[20] which speaks to Mukurtu’s attitude and commitment to broad and intensive community building and involvement.

There are four different types of Mukurtu community members: (1) the “Mook-oo-tooers,”  - user groups who test and comment on the designing, building, testing, implementation, and updates of the platform; (2) the “Partners,” who are “active in the development, research, production, dissemination and sustainability of Mukurtu.”;[21] (3) the “Advisors” who “provide practical assistance regarding the development and application of Mukurtu across multiple and diverse stakeholder groups”;[22] and (4) the “Sponsors” who provide “funding, infrastructure and other capital needs for the ongoing development and sustainability” of Mukurtu.[23]


Mukurtu on the Web

         The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal[24] is one of two Mukurtu based databases available on the Internet. The portal is a collaborative effort between tribal consultants from the Umatilla, Coeur d’Alene, and Yakama nations and the Plateau Center for American Studies at Washington State University. It is a gateway to the Plateau peoples’ cultural heritage materials held in the Washington State University’s Libraries, Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, the Museum of Anthropology and other national donors such as the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution. This website provides the opportunity to experience how Mukurtu’s ethics, philosophies, and attitudes towards the access to, and organization and flow of information are realized in communities and manifested through a database.

The materials in the portal were chosen and curated by the tribes. For materials originating from a non-tribal institution such as an institutional archive, tribal administrators can add their own knowledge, new content (text, audio or video) or tags to the materials. They can edit existing information, decide levels of access, and flag any culturally sensitive materials. As well, tribal administrators have contributed their own cultural heritage materials. Also, all of the materials were organized and classified into nine main categories by tribal consultants and to which tribal members can continually add further specific subcategories.[25] Visitors may interactively use the site by adding tags or comments to the records, and as well, can create and organize their own collections of the materials.

Worth noting at the individual record level is the ability to view simultaneously the ‘Catalogue Record’ (the institutional archival record) and the ‘Tribal Catalogue Record’ for an item. The addition and integration of the ‘Tribal Catalogue Record’, where tribal members can correct or add their own knowledge to the content of an institutional archival record is an important and unique feature of Mukurtu which underscores the way in which content drives and shapes the form of the platform.[26]

Mukurtu is a highly adaptable, flexible, and socially interactive platform that provides the space, tools, and much community support for Indigenous communities to manage the content of and access to their digital cultural heritage according to a community’s particular needs and cultural protocols. Each instantiation of Mukurtu, and the project as a whole, could be considered a “dynamic set of interrelations in constant interaction with the wider world, which nevertheless take their flavor and energy from the locality they help to define.”[27]  The Mukurtu project has created a space for the local flavor and energy of an Indigenous community to interrelate with other Mukurtu community members and the greater public, resulting in a dynamic, continually emergent, and creative space for Indigenous knowledge sharing, creation, and production.



Christen, Kimberly. "Access and Accountability: The Ecology of Information Sharing in the Digital Age." Anthropology News 50, no. 4 (2009): 4-5. doi:10.1111/j.1556-3502.2009.50404.x.


Christen, Kimberly. "Gone Digital: Aboriginal Remix and the Cultural Commons." International Journal of Cultural Property 12, no. 03 (2005): 315-45. doi:10.1017/S0940739105050186.


Christen, Kimberly. "Presentations." In Transition. Accessed November 13, 2012.


Christen, Kimberly. "Projects." In Transition. Accessed November 13, 2012.


"Curation Process." Plateau Peoples' Web Portal. Accessed November 13, 2012.


Folsom, Ed. "Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives." The Walt Whitman Archive. Accessed November 04, 2012.


"Get Mukurtu." Mukurtu. Accessed November 13, 2012.


Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.


Manovich, Lev. "DATABASE AS A SYMBOLIC FORM." DATABASE AS A SYMBOLIC FORM. Accessed November 1, 2012.


"Manual:Traditional Knowledge Licenses and Labels." Mukurtu Wiki. July 17, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2012.


McKemmish, Sue, Anne Gilliland-Swetland, and Eric Ketelaar. ""Communities of Memory": Pluralising Archival Research and Education Agendas." Archives and Manuscripts 33 (May 2005): 146-74.


McKemmish, Sue, Shannon Faulkhead, and Lynette Russell. "Distrust in the Archive: Reconciling Records." Archival Science 11, no. 3-4 (2011): 211-39. doi:10.1007/s10502-011-9153-2.


"Mukurtu Wiki Main Page." Mukurtu Wiki. August 22, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2012.


"Mukurtu Wiki Manual:FAQ." Mukurtu Wiki. August 22, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2012.


"Plateau Peoples' Web Portal." Plateau Peoples' Web Portal. Accessed November 13, 2012.


"Plateau Peoples' Web Portal." Plateau Peoples' Web Portal. Accessed November 13, 2012.


"Top Ten Features." Mukurtu. Accessed November 13, 2012.


"Who Uses Mukurtu." Mukurtu. Accessed November 13, 2012.



[1] "Mukurtu Wiki Main Page." Mukurtu Wiki. August 22, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2012.


[2] Mukurtu Wiki Manual:FAQ." Mukurtu Wiki. August 22, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2012.


[3] Kimberly Christen, "Projects," In Transition, Mukurtu: an indigenous archive and content management tool, accessed November 13, 2012,


[4] Kimberly Christen, "Presentations," In Transition, Digital Repatriation & Reciprocal Curation, accessed November 13, 2012,


[5] "Get Mukurtu." Mukurtu. Accessed November 13, 2012.

[6] Kimberly Christen, "Access and Accountability: The Ecology of Information Sharing in the Digital Age," Anthropology News 50, no. 4 (2009): 5, doi:10.1111/j.1556-3502.2009.50404.x.


[7] Kimberly Christen, "Gone Digital: Aboriginal Remix and the Cultural Commons," International Journal of Cultural Property 12, no. 03 (2005): 316, doi:10.1017/S0940739105050186.


[8] Ibid.


[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


[11] Ibid., 319.


[12] Ibid., 321.

[13] "Top Ten Features." Mukurtu. Accessed November 13, 2012.


[14] Sue McKemmish, Shannon Faulkhead, and Lynette Russell, "Distrust in the Archive: Reconciling Records," Archival Science 11, no. 3-4 (2011): 229, doi:10.1007/s10502-011-9153-2.

[15] Mukurtu Wiki Main Page." Mukurtu Wiki. August 22, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2012.


 [16] "Manual:Traditional Knowledge Licenses and Labels." Mukurtu Wiki. July 17, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2012. Traditional_Knowledge_Licenses_and_Labels.


[17] "Top Ten Features." Mukurtu. Accessed November 13, 2012.


[18] Sue McKemmish, Shannon Faulkhead, and Lynette Russell, "Distrust in the Archive: Reconciling Records," Archival Science 11, no. 3-4 (2011): 229, doi:10.1007/s10502-011-9153-2.


[19] Ibid., 233.


[20] "Who Uses Mukurtu." Mukurtu. Accessed November 13, 2012.


[21] Ibid.


[22] Ibid.


[23] Ibid.


[24] "Plateau Peoples' Web Portal," Plateau Peoples' Web Portal, Home Page, accessed November 13, 2012,


[25] "Curation Process," Plateau Peoples' Web Portal, Curation Process, accessed November 13, 2012,


[26] The addition of a Tribal Catalogue Record alongside the standard archival Catalogue Record helps address a terminology problem found in standard archival description that can result in the misrepresentation of Indigenous knowledge, persons, or objects. The problem is how the term “creator” is used in mainstream archival description; it can be used to describe someone who created or collected an object. An example of this problem is found on the record for “Kateri Club Products” In this example, the Catalogue Record names the “creator” of the objects as Edgar Dowd. In reality, Edgar Dowd was the collector of the objects. The Tribal Catalogue Record corrects this mis-information and sets the record straight as to who created the objects (Felix Aripa and Marie “Irene” Seltice Lowley) and provides information about the context of the objects’ creation and use.


[27] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 185.