Disturbance in the Boundary Layer: An Ecological Approach to Digital Cultural Recuperation


By Haley Bryant

Credit: “Moss (3D Scan RAW MESH)” by 3D scan studio “iris” is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial. https://skfb.ly/6VMO8 To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/.

 

Part I: Moss in the Coolant Tank

In June of 2019 I was invited, in my capacity as Digitization Specialist in the Department of Anthropology of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), to go behind the scenes of an ongoing collaboration between the NMNH Office of Repatriation, the Smithsonian’s Department of Exhibits Central, and the Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan of Sitka, Alaska (Hollinger et al. 2013). At the behest of the clan, the Repatriations Office, with the technical support of the Smithsonian Exhibits Central team, is utilizing 3D scanning and printing techniques to enhance an existing repatriation exchange between the museum and the Tlingit community.

Several sets of Tlingit belongings have been identified for return to the clansome of those have been loaned back to the museum for a period of at least five years so they can be scanned and printed before they finally return home. This agreement serves the clan’s internal cultural education, preservation, and revitalization initiatives as well as the educational program of the Smithsonian, as a set of 3D printed replicas will remain at the Smithsonian for research and display. On the weekday afternoon that I visited the labyrinthine Exhibits Central warehouse in Landover, Maryland, my guides were primarily concerned with the replica of a ceremonial Killer Whale clan hat. The Exhibits Central team had finished their work on one replica of the hat and it was ready for Tlingit artisans to add, among other finishing touches, abalone shell adornments and an ermine-skin tail. Very soon, the hat would be on its way home.

There are many exceptional aspects of this project. At least one 3D replica hat was imbued with spirit by clan elders in 2019 so that it can be danced in ceremony, and several Smithsonian staff significantly involved in the project were adopted into the clan in order to work with the originals and replicas in ways that adhere to Tlingit cultural protocols and expectations. What caught my attention most on the day of my visit was the technique being used to fabricate the hat and some of the other items. In many cases, 3D printing involves an additive processbuilding up a three-dimensional object in successive layers of superheated strands of plastic compound; in this case, the replicas were being milled by a CNC (computer numerical control) machine from large logs of yellow cedar shipped to Maryland from Sitka and stored in a freezer in the Exhibits Central workshop. As I peered into the freezer to examine the logs, I remarked to the exhibits specialist in charge of fabrication that during milling the workshop must smell amazing, as cedar has a notable and evocative smell. He agreed, and explained that the freezer helped keep the wood from rotting, changing hydration level too dramatically, or becoming susceptible to insect infestation. As I leaned more closely to the logs he laughed and said, “But the other day I opened the machine’s coolant tank in the back and it was full of mossjust growing everywhere.”

It is unsurprising that the moss in the coolant tank survived the long journey from Alaska to the workshop in Landover, Maryland. Mosses are very hardy and can go through long periods of dehydration and environmental fluctuations—i.e. 40 years on a dusty shelf in the back of a laboratory—only to spring back to life in the presence of sufficient moisture. The moss on the cedar, which had been harvested many months prior, securely packaged and transported over 2,000 miles from Alaska to Maryland, and kept in a freezer in a climate-controlled workshop, was still very much alive. As water left the coolant tank to wash over portions of the inside of the milling chamber, it had picked up almost imperceptible traces of moss too small to be filtered out. When it circulated back to the tank, the moss was deposited in the warm, moist, enclosed space and began to grow again. The milling process had, by design, enabled a minute portion of the cedar tree’s ecosystem to extend into, and become part of, the institution.

Part II: A Distributed Architecture

I was left to wonder at the moss in the coolant tank for only a moment as we moved quickly across the hall to talk with the technicians in charge of constructing the digital 3D models of the hat, created using a process of laser scanning, which serve as the pattern for the milling machine as it operates. I learned that portions of the scanning and modeling process had been outsourced to a third-party company with specialized capacity beyond that of the Smithsonian team. A technician asked one of my guides if the Kiks.ádi clan was comfortable with the knowledge that this third party company possessed copies of all of the 3D scans and associated metadata (and therefore, potentially the ability to create more replicas of the hat or share the data in internal and external circles) and if they wouldn’t prefer to have control of that data themselves. My guide responded that not only would the tribe not understand what that meant, they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, care.

Current museological praxis acknowledges that Indigenous epistemologies can and should be central drivers of the development, structure, and outcomes of collaborative heritage recuperation projects in colonial institutions (Rowley et al 2018; Kovach 2018; Phillips 2011; Matthews 2010). This collaboration between the Smithsonian and the Tlingit is no exception. In many ways this project exceeds expectations for ethical, collaborative museum work by thoroughly and thoughtfully considering the needs and desires of the tribe, ethical collaborative practices, and Indigenous ways of knowing. How is it that digital data and its attendant ethical requirements were not equally scrutinized? Historian Jennifer Guiliano and Digital Humanities and Museum Scholar Carolyn Heitman explain that, “Indigenous cultural heritage as data troubles the development and deployment of digital tools, methods and research” (2019: 14). In other words, something occurs during the application of digital tools to cultural heritage recuperation work that frustrates otherwise ethically attuned museum-community collaborations: digital tools resist institutionalized protocols for digital data creation, management, access, and circulation.

The fact that the Smithsonian contracted an external company to support their collaboration with the Kiks.ádi clan is not out of the ordinary. In fact, collaborative digital heritage projects of this sort, particularly those employing emerging technologies like 3D imaging or virtual reality, often seek the assistance of an external technology company to fill infrastructural and expertise gaps; for the most part, neither museums nor partner communities have the resources to build and support internal digital initiatives of this type (Magnani et al 2018; Ruthven and Chowdhury 2015). This pluralistic arrangement of knowledge production and sharing creates what Guiliano and Heitman call a “distributed architecture” that “obscures both Native agency in determining the use of community materials as well as the role of technical determinism in proliferating the violence of colonial [museums] on Native communities” (2019: 2). Architectures are by definition inflexible, orthogonal, and more often than not end up mirroring the physical and informational architecture of the museum itself: hierarchical, coded, and proprietary. Uncritical operation within this sort of architecture runs the risk of rendering all other careful efforts towards maintaining community sovereignty and self-determination precarious and, potentially, moot.

In their foundational 1989 article, “Institutional ecology, ‘translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Science and Technology Studies and Information scholars Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer suggest that collaborative knowledge production in the museum happens through a process of epistemological translation facilitated by tangible and intangible boundary objects. In their view, groups of people working together operate with unique and potentially irreconcilable epistemologies—in order for collaborative work to succeed they must reach some common understandings. Boundary objects, such as data collection guides, analytic frameworks, documents, and research equipment, are the media by which common understandings are reached. The authors take up the lens of institutional ecology (Hughes 1971) to explain how some groups or individuals become intellectual gatekeepers, prioritizing some epistemologies over others while still ensuring that collaborative work is carried out successfully.

I suggest that it is possible to take up a set of alternative ecologiesalternative, that is, to institutional ecologythat acknowledges, but pushes beyond, these foundational theories of collaborative knowledge work in the context of museums. Alternative ecologies can open us upas museum professionals, scholars of information, and participants in collaborative cultural heritage enterprisesto more liberatory (Kreps 2003) and laterally mobile frameworks of engagement. Instead of thinking about how distinct epistemologies are or are not reconciled in collaborative circumstances in the pursuit of knowledge, we can consider how epistemic practices performed by institutional, human, and non-human participants co-produce the outcomes of museum-based collaborations. These practices do not hinge on boundary objects, as Star and Griesemer claim, but rather operate in a boundary layer.

 

Part III: Institutional Ecologies & Epistemic Cultures

Star and Griesemer assert that, “Most scientific work is conducted by extremely diverse groups of actorsresearchers from different disciplines, amateurs and professionals, humans and animals, functionaries and visionaries […] [S]cience requires cooperationto create common understandings, to ensure reliability across domains and to gather information which retains its integrity across time, space, and local contingencies” (1989: 387). Consider community-based biological specimen collecting initiatives like those highlighted by Star and Griesemer in their discussion of the early years of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkley, California. Museum-based scientists developed criteria for identifying, collecting, and describing specimens that had to be clear and meaningful to the non-museum based, non-scientists working in the field. Something similar can be said for non-natural science-related cultural recuperation work happening in museums, which commonly manifests as collaborations between museum collections, museum staff, academic researchers, community members, and, particularly in the case of digital initiatives, technicians. These collaborations also pivot on reliability across informational domains and the creation of common understandings, just as with Star and Griesemer’s natural scientists, although they are frequently concerned with creating and maintaining relationships (instead of, or in addition to, information) that retain integrity across time, space, and local contexts.

Star and Griesemer claim that common understandings are reached through a process of translation, which they liken to the concept of interessement developed by Latour (1987; 1988), Callon (1986), and Law (1986)a French word that in English corporate parlance means incentivization or profit-sharing. They see translation as a means by which to encourage diverse stakeholders to invest their time, energy, and expertise into the knowledge-creation work of the museum. If the methods and results of a scientific endeavour are unclear and incomprehensible to certain integral parties, those parties will not be motivated to work to ensure its success. This process of interessement establishes some participants as knowledge gatekeepers, or obligatory points of passage. Even if the institution recruits a diverse set of collaborators, one figure or group of figures inevitably must gather together all the data and produce a final, synthesized interpretation of the work in the form of scientific analysis and reporting.

Star and Griesemer (1989) clarify that this model does not accurately reflect the nature of museum-based knowledge creation enterprises and explain that their proposed managerial structure is slightly more dispersed, web-like, and multidirectional. The authors suggest that in order to gain a full picture of this multi-directional translation at work one must take an ecological perspective. They draw from Everett Hughes’ (1971) definition of institutional ecology as that environment which the institution has gathered about itself through such acts as sourcing funds, sourcing clientele, and sourcing personnel. Although Star and Griesemer suggest that taking such a perspective “does not presuppose an epistemological primacy for any one viewpoint” (1989: 389), Hughes’ institutional ecological perspective assumes that these sorts of collaborative museum initiativesof either the natural scientific or cultural heritage typeare rigidly hierarchical and fundamentally driven by institutional prerogatives.

The fulcrum around which Star and Greismer’s (1989) museological interessement rotates is the boundary object—an entity which, “both inhabits several intersecting social worlds and satisfies the informational requirements of each of them.” Within their framework, “[b]oundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (1989: 393). Boundary objects can be tangible things, like museum collections items, scientific instruments, data collection forms, or physical locations, and they can also be intangible knowledge organization mechanisms like data collection guidelines and stewardship protocols. Importantly, “their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation” (1989: 393). This allows valuable work to be done with and around those boundary objects and for outcomes of that work to be mutually intelligible and valuable to all stakeholders.

Star and Griesemer’s interessement views mutually exclusive epistemologies as being brought into line and made mutually intelligible through processes of translation. In theory, if these processes of translation do not proceed satisfactorily the success of the project is compromised. The off-hand comment made by my guide as we scrutinized digital models that afternoon in the computer lab at the facility in Landoverthat the tribe would neither know nor care that they did not have exclusive control over the digital data being produced in the course of the collaborationillustrates that there was some communicative and translational gap in project planning. While I have no insight into the technical know-how of members of the Kiks.ádi clan and whether they understand the process of data creation during 3D scanning, modeling, and printing, it is disingenuous to suggest that its members are uninformed and uninterested in information and data sovereignty and how those issues shape Indigenous self-determination within socio-legal frameworks in the United States. Regardless, clarity on these points could only have come through intentional discussions between Smithsonian staff and Tlingit partners, conversations intended to explain the data capture and share protocols of the Smithsonian and of the external company assisting with the project. Interessement is more of a theoretical ideal than an operational reality of collaborative knowledge work in the museum, especially complex, multivalent digital heritage work. The creation, management, and preservation of digital data in the course of the Smithsonian-Tlingit collaboration was largely the jurisdiction of the Exhibits Central technicians and the external tech company. Had that work been translated and explained to the Tribe in the way that Star and Griesemer suggest that it should be, the structure, progress, and outcomes of the project could have been radically different.

In the case of digital cultural heritage collaborations, such as the one described in the opening of this essay, it is more accurate to say that this work is part of an epistemic culture. An epistemic culture is, as sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina (2007) defines them, “those sets of practices, arrangements, and mechanisms bound together by necessity, affinity, and historical coincidence which, in a given area of professional expertise, make up how we know what we know” (363). In contrast to interessement, the idea of epistemic cultures allows for an understanding that each member of a collaborative endeavour is operating within a number of epistemes. As a result, a diverse array of epistemic practices co-operate and shape the outcome of collaborative work without the requirement of mutual intelligibility. As Cetina explains, the framework of epistemic culture, “brings into focus the content of the different knowledge oriented lifeways, the different meanings of the empirical, specific constructions of the referent (the objects of knowledge), particular ontologies of instruments, specific models of epistemic subjects. Epistemic unity, then, is a casualty of the cultural approach to knowledge production” (2007: 364).

While Cetina’s theoretical framework is developed in direct conversation with studies of knowledge creation that came to prominence in the 1970s and that take as their object the scientific laboratory (i.e. Barnes et al. 1979; Pickering and Cushing 1986; Pinch and Bijker 1984; Lynch 1985; Latour and Woolgar 2013), it has interesting implications for the museum context and for digital heritage projects more broadly. Cetina asserts that epistemic cultures are embedded in environments she terms “object worlds” (2007: 371), in which experts develop intimate relationships with the objects of their expertise. Cetina explains that these intimate relationships are reciprocal and become binding in ways that do not just mirror inter-personal social relationships between humans but actually are social relationships. The object world of the Smithsonian-Tlingit collaboration includes the moss in the coolant tank which, in Cetina’s view, was in relation with the other participants in the project. Furthermore, Cetina suggests that we need not only examine micropractices of knowledge production in bounded contexts like the laboratory; it is possible to take an intermediate-level view and examine the growing, international enterprise of digital cultural heritage collaborations as an epistemic culture in-and-of itself. This lends an understanding that it is motivated by human and non-human social relationships, and that an epistemic culture is part of a distributed network of knowledge and practice sharing, albeit one that is highly contextually specific.

 

Part IV: Technological Terroir

When discussing cultural heritage, particularly when considering Indigenous ways of knowing and being, it is important to think literally about land and ecology. When an object of material culture is physically removed from its place of creation or use through museological collecting, it is also removed from a place-based context of meaning and value (Phillips 2011). An object’s “placeness” is in many ways elided by the museum’s institutional mechanisms (Turner 2020). This is a particular kind of colonial violence that museums continue to reckon with and that historically undergirds the acts of collecting, cataloging, and display in museums (Stocking 1988). We must reconcile the physical and intellectual mobility of a museum’s collections objects, which move between storage spaces, conservation labs, and various exhibitions or research spaces within the museum, with their enduring embeddedness in, and reliance on, a very specific ecological context. Yet the inherent placeness of items of material culture is difficult to translate, in Star and Griesemer’s sense, into institutional rhetoric.[1]

One model that may help is that of terroir, the French word that refers to, “an area or terrain…whose soil and microclimate impart distinctive qualities to food” that is also “considered to have a marked influence on its inhabitants” (Barham 2001: 5). Sociologist Elizabeth Barham emphasizes that, “there is a…‘mental’ quality” to the word, derived from “knowledge of the history and geography of a particular terrain” (2001:5). Education scholar and museum professional Heather Read (2014) suggests that it isn’t only consumables that have a traceable terroir. In her comparative oral history of pottery-making techniques in Newfoundland and New Zealand, she asserts that we can learn something meaningful about items of cultural heritage and craft work, and that they can teach us something meaningful about their local context, if we examine the processes of their creation using similar metrics to those employed by international terroir certification bodies.

Employing terroir as an analytical framework for cultural heritage requires an acknowledgement that land and place leave tangible and identifiable traces on the belongings made in and from them. Furthermore, subjects of this type of analysis are placed in a network of relations with: people who produce and use heritage items and live on the land on which they are produced; local and global economic systems in which the items circulate; and networks of care and affect in which meaning and value are ascribed to both the heritage items and the land from which they come. Taking up this network of relations, anthropologist Lisa Messeri (2018) has adapted the concept of terroir for application to the study of digital technologies, specifically virtual reality. Messeri defines technological terroir as, “understanding how the very contours of what counts as a particular technology (or technology in general) is locally sculpted” (2018: 49). She clarifies her theoretical approach by saying, “Scholars of science and technology (S&T) know that place matters. Engineering teams embed their norms and values in objects and algorithms; adoption (or lack thereof) of technology is shaped by local practices” (2018: 47).

If epistemic cultures are the sum of all the local practices that enable us to know what we know, then for Indigenous knowledges in particular thinking of epistemic cultures as inclusive of terroir, or placeness, is key. Thinking of epistemic cultures as inclusive of terroir, or placeness, is also key to successful and ethical collaborative digital heritage initiatives of the type that opens this essay. The terroir of the cedar—and by extension of the hats carved from it—made itself apparent via the moss that traveled far from home on a log of yellow cedar and continued to grow contentedly in the coolant tank of a CNC machine. Similarly, the terroir of the digital technologies being used made itself apparent in the technicians’ assumptions about the proprietary nature of data creation and preservation strategies and in the decisions made about who that information could and should be shared with.

While the terroir of the cedar and the terroir of the digital tools being used to mill it each influenced the collaborative terms of engagement, philosophies of data creation and sharing, and their degree of influence, were not recognized in equal measure. To the Exhibits Central staff I met that day, the moss growing in the coolant tank was a funny anecdote and a mild operational inconvenience, while the choice to not share the data creation and preservation strategies of the museum or the external tech company undermined efforts toward self-determination and data sovereignty on the part of the Tlingit and the project as a whole.

 

Part V: Alternative Ecologies

Technologies used, though not necessarily designed, for cultural recuperation work emerge from and manifest a specific, localized terroir that situates them in a particular network of value. How can colonial heritage institutions work to ensure that any outcomes of these types of technologically mediated, collaborative, cultural recuperation projects are equally attentive to place and the requirements of the human and non-human beings involved? The concept of institutional ecology precludes the distribution of the decision-making hierarchy within cultural heritage institutions; it reifies the dominance of institutional epistemologies. Equally, distributed architectures trap collaborative work with a stymying rigidity that is not fully compatible with the fluid and dynamic concepts of sovereignty and control by communities. An ecological model which resists this autopoetic (or self-producing and self-regulating) institutional framework in favour of a collectively produced, sympoetic operational structure with emergent boundaries and distributed control is useful to conceptualize the emergent epistemic culture of digital heritage collaborations.

Métis Science and Technology Studies scholar Zoe Todd (2015) sets forth an ecological epistemology that takes up ecologies not as, or not only as, discrete biomes that serve as the object of environmental research studies, but as a form of, “paying attention to the webs of relationships that you are enmeshed in, depending on where you live. So, those are all the things that give us life, all the things that we depend on, as well as the other entities that we relate to, including human beings” (250). Her framing re-tools a mainstream ecological perspective, one that echoes Hughes (1971), as an emplaced phenomenon that offers, “a reconfiguration of understandings of human-environmental relations towards praxis that acknowledges the central importance of land, bodies, movement, race, colonialism and sexuality” (2015: 245). Todd takes up Papaschase Cree scholar Dwayne Donald’s concept of “ethical relationality,” which is an enactment of ecological imagination that aims to facilitate a deep understanding of the way our cultural and historical contexts orient us toward ourselves and one another. Furthermore, the ecological imaginary of “ethical relationality” pushes us to directly acknowledge our emplaced, culturally specific systems of being and knowing, and work to live in the world symbiotically with those whose systems differ from ours.

Plant ecologist, author, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013; 2003), offers an ethico-ecological model that emerges from the intersection of empirical, scientific study and localized Indigenous knowledges. She advocates for an approach that mirrors Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall’s concept of Two-Eyed Seeing: “To see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing, and to see from the other eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing, and to use both of these eyes together” (2012: 335). For example, in relaying her relationship with wild strawberies as a child, Kimmerer explains that the strawberry plant’s evolutionary fitness is directly influenced by the way people—herself and her compatriots—intentionally and unintentionally tended to them: “Human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift” (2013: 30). When people view strawberries through a lens of gratitude and reciprocity, appreciating their sweetness and capacity for growth, the evolutionary fitness of both are increased. People repeatedly benefit from the nutritional value of the fruit while the fruit benefits from the animal-driven spread of their seeds. In (Western, scientific) evolutionary terms, the genes for sweetness and deep red colour are passed along to the next generation of strawberry plants, as is mutual appreciation between plant and animal.

Kimmerer emphasizes that this framework breaks from mainstream, Western ideas of what principles drive ecological stewardship: “In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘bundle of rights’, whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibility’ attached” (2013: 28). This is a juxtaposition that is apparent in emerging museological approaches to stewarding cultural heritage. The museum field broadly speaking is grappling with what principles undergird the impetus towards stewardship in their institutions, moving away from an inheritance model toward a model of responsibility and the privilege to steward. This shift is visible as museums opt to leave behind a traditional, fully hands-off model of collections care that insists that touching collections items is predominately harmful, and move towards one that embraces physical touch and handling as a healthy practice in the life of the object and the communities to which they belong (Chatterjee et al. 2009; Pye 2016).

 

Credit: Moss on Rocks: “Stone Oxy Moss Water 01” by 3dhdscan is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution. https://skfb.ly/6THMJ To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Conclusion: A Note About Moss

Because of their small size, mosses necessarily have close, intimate relationships with surfaces. Mosses can be found around the world growing on the surface of stones, living trees, fallen logs, vertical canyon walls, the dynamic surface of watery bogs, and even otherwise lifeless, craggy ground. They thrive in the “small space between land and air” known as the boundary layer. Moving air passes over a surface, the texture of which, no matter how fine or otherwise imperceptible, alters the air’s flow. Unobstructed moving air advances in a pattern called laminar flow. Imagine an automobile designer sending a prototype for an aerodynamics test, streams of swiftly moving air slide smoothly along the sleek top of the car, but swirl into eddies and vortices around the protruding tail lights. This same pattern emerges along every single surface: friction is generated as the laminar flow of air comes into contact with obstacles, which creates successive layers of differently-moving air. While the upper layers continue to flow smoothly, the layer immediately adjacent to the surface—the boundary layer—is almost completely still. It is within this microclimate that mosses thrive.

The boundary layer acts as a natural greenhouse for mosses, trapping humidity, warmth, and gases that the plants need to thrive. What is perhaps most fascinating about this arrangement is not that moss species have adapted to make the most of the diverse boundary layers they grow in—evidenced by the relatively dramatic variation in height of different species—but that mosses have evolved strategies to manipulate and control the size of the boundary layer they live in. For example, some species of moss rely on wind to propagate fertilized spores. However, if they are trapped within the confines of the boundary layer, no wind can pick up released spores and scatter them about. Therefore, these species temporarily extend long stalks, called setae, up into the laminar flow above the boundary layer. This protrusion creates enough friction for the wind to pick up loose spores and carry them away.

In Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003) Kimmerer discusses the ecological “Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis: that diversity of species is highest when disturbance occurs at an interval between extremes” (67). According to this hypothesis, a complete lack of disturbance (for example, a dam that eliminates yearly flooding) allows some species to dominate and out-compete others, while a high degree of disturbance ensures that only the most resilient species survive. An intermediate level of disturbance not only prevents the particularly hardy species from outcompeting more tenuous ones, but also opens up a space in between for a wide diversity of species to access resources and propagate in concert with the others. This is also a possible approach as museum professionals rethink approaches to digital heritage collaborations: no disturbance allows hegemonic ideals of data and information creation and sharing to prevail unquestioned, too much disturbance completely undermines efforts toward physical and intellectual stewardship in the museum, but just enough disturbance invites in diversity of thought and practice, stimulating new growth and proliferation.

Kimmerer (2003), notes that a, “tenet of Indigenous plant knowledge is that we can learn a plant’s use by where it occurs” (106). For instance, a spongy moss that commonly grows on the bank of a pond would typically be used to wash ones’ self, or mosses that can retain large amounts of water and withstand high heat would become fodder for nearby ovens built to smoke root vegetables or fish. Kimmerer explains that, “consistent with the Indigenous worldview that recognizes each plant as a being with its own will, it is understood that plants come when and where they are needed. They will find their way to the place where they can fulfill their roles” (103). The moss growing in the coolant tank could have been an accidental oddity, a startling occurrence but one that wasn’t entirely unexpected given the nature of moss and the nature of working with organic materials. On the other hand, perhaps it grew right where it was needed, insinuating itself out of the boundary layer and up into project logistics as a way of making visible something otherwise unseen.

Boundary objects may be easily misconstrued or transmit a multitude of meanings despite the care and precision with which they are defined and, as previously stated, often reify colonial institutional prerogatives or modes of knowledge organization. Emphasis can be placed instead on a project’s boundary layer, the small, still, epistemically rich space in which participants (human or otherwise) process input, metabolize resources, and negotiate meanings before extending up into the laminar flow of project activity to cause or respond to an environmental disturbance. What is needed is a new “politics of relation” (Wemigwans 2008: 36) for collaborative digital heritage projects that is built upon alternative ecologies, and that does not rely on translational boundary objects to do the work of ensuring that all participants are understood and cared for. In the ongoing development of the epistemic culture of digital cultural heritage collaborations, we must strive for a politics of relation that acknowledges and integrates Indigenous data-culture(s) and works to subvert the divide between material cultural possession and digital dispossession on the part of heritage institutions. One which does not simply wonder at the tangible expressions of unfamiliar epistemologies, like the moss in the coolant tank, but one which grapples with the disturbances these expressions cause and works to strengthen the social relationships they make possible.

 


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Footnotes

[1] Euro-American and Western European epistemologies at the heart of museums and cultural heritage praxis operate around a separation between knowledge and environment, or ecology (DeSilvey 2017; Phillips 2011). This is especially so for universal museums or encyclopaedic museums like the NMNH, though notably less so for community history museums or eco-museums which have modelled a placeness for museum collections and knowledge practices since their creation (Davis and Corsane 2014). Scholars are also taking up the emplacement of Indigenous knowledge practices in productive ways (CF Tallbear 2017; Simpson 2017; De Line 2016; Watts 2013)


Haley Bryant is currently a Doctoral Student in the iSchool at the University of Toronto, which operates upon the traditional territory of many Indigenous nations, the traditional stewards of this land, including the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, the Huron-Wendat, and most recently the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Tkaronto, a Mohawk word meaning “there are trees standing in the water,” is governed by The Dish with One Spoon Wampum agreement, a treaty between the Anishnaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee that calls for shared stewardship of the land and its peoples. Although her family is originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Haley has lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington D.C. where she earned a B.S. in Anthropology and Human Biology from Emory University and an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the George Washington University. The research she now pursues at U of T concerns digital cultural heritage collaborations and emerging technologies.