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Review: Pacific Virtual Museum

A review of Pacific Virtual Museum, a project fostering accessibility to the cultures of the Pacific, directed by Tim Kong, Taputukura Raea, and Ulu Afaese

Published onDec 18, 2023
Review: Pacific Virtual Museum

Pacific Virtual Museum

Project Directors
Tim Kong, National Library of New Zealand | Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Taputukura Raea, Pacific Virtual Museum
Ulu Afaese, Pacific Virtual Museum

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Kate Topham, Michigan State University

Project Overview

Tim Kong, Taputukura Raea, and Ulu Afaese

The Pacific Virtual Museum project aims to make the digitized cultural heritage of the Pacific visible and accessible for those based in the Pacific region and for a diaspora that live around the world — most of whom are not aware that these digitized records exist. The project is supported by the Australian Government and implemented by the National Library of New Zealand | Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa in collaboration with the National Library of Australia.

The project, which began in January 2020, has been led by a small co-design group drawn from across the Pacific region, initially with representatives from galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (the GLAM sector), as well as academic institutions. As the project has progressed, individual voices and those representing Pacific communities have been welcomed. This conversation is ongoing. 

The key output of the project is the project website, which serves as an aggregator of metadata from online repositories. The website design and build began in March 2020, with many parties in COVID-19 lockdown and all conversations and decisions made using online tools. The initial build period was 20 weeks, and the key infrastructure element is the Supplejack API developed by the National Library of New Zealand.

The project team made the decision to build the website behind an authentication layer, to allow the co-design group access to the entire design and build process. Our co-design group members were able to log in at times suitable to them, review work being done, and provide feedback. This feedback was provided to designers and developers to work, so co-design suggestions were implemented promptly. This saved time and effort when the site was ready to go live, as the team only had to remove the authentication layer.

The project is not a repository of records, nor is it able to provide digitization services. The key focus of the website is to aggregate metadata held by content partners. The site presents this metadata via an interface that was designed to work well in the Pacific region. Many content partners host their own sites, but Pacific people are not often aware they exist, and if they do know of the existence of the institution, they may not be aware that it holds Pacific artifacts and items. The website makes it easy for Pacific people to search and access the records of multiple content partners as well as connect to them easily.

The team designed the user experience for those in the Pacific by focusing on these aims:

  • An interface that is mobile first, and “light” in page weight to enable useful functionality and speed of the site in low-bandwidth and high-cost networks. In practice this means the site does not implement social media, popups, or embeds of content, and is by design relatively flat.

  • An interface that reflects visual and written aspects of a Pacific experience back to users, focusing on showing their island locations and when possible, using their languages. In practice, this means the site does not translate for the sake of an English-speaking audience. Metadata is presented in the form that it’s recorded, which may be an Indigenous language. The site also focuses on the names of geographical locations, which may not represent political naming conventions, to highlight the long history of the Pacific.

  • An interface that reduces complexity for users, to make it easy to find and get to the source site that holds a record by simplifying the technical language used by the GLAM sector. We aim for a user to never be more than three clicks from a source record on the content partners website.

The site allows for “user contributions” to records as they are presented. These records may be corrections or personal reflections, and could be positive, negative, or both. Our hope is that this function provides for a Pacific-centered way to see and consider heritage records. We are conscious of the appropriation of Indigenous people’s knowledge, and we worked hard to ensure the design of our terms and conditions honor those who post.

This focus has included exploring ways to shed light on catalogues of institutions that may not be digitized or online, but that exist in Pacific-based institutions. The aim has been to support and enable Pacific-based GLAM sector leaders by meeting them within the technical contexts they can access. The project has also worked to share the metadata held by Pacific-based institutions that may be using platforms like YouTube to host their content. While they may not meet GLAM standards, these platforms are often the only way these communities can digitize and share their knowledge.

In doing so we’ve sought to increase visibility to the diversity of Pacific culture; enable Pacific ways of reclaiming, telling and owning their stories and heritage; and consider a future for Pacific people informed by their ability to maintain their own metadata, while easily connecting with their heritage that is held by institutions far from the Pacific.

Project Review

Kate Topham

At the start of this review, I want to acknowledge that I am a white, settler archivist on Anishinaabe land. I was raised and trained in the Western, colonial context that this project is actively working to problematize and balance against. With that in mind, I hope to approach this review with humility and respect. serves as the pilot and central piece of the Pacific Virtual Museum Project, a collaboration between the Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa | National Library of New Zealand and the National Library of Australia. The initiative is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia. The project aims to bring together the digital cultural heritage of the Pacific, which is scattered and, in many cases, hidden in collections around the world, into one portal with the goal of empowering people in and of the Pacific Islands to discover and explore that heritage.  

In making these collections accessible, the project finds balance between its goals of centering diverse Pacific cultures and the practicalities of working with colonial institutions. Linking collections from over 600 partners across borders into one shared access point would be a colossal feat in itself, yet the project reaches further in its aim to center Pacific users in its creation.

In his workshop given at the 2023 Global Digital Humanities Symposium, Tim Kong walked participants through the co-design process, which involved a group of 20-30 volunteers that included both community members and representatives of the library, archive, and museum world. This team advised on all aspects of the project with the goal of designing for users located in the Pacific region and those that are connected to its cultures. This principle is immediately apparent in the visual design of the website, with imagery and color schemes that resonate with Pacific identity and invert traditional mental models about the Pacific with its focus on the coastlines and the land, rather than the ocean.

The team also considered the technological context of their users: many of the people that they hoped the website would reach primarily use mobile phones to access the internet, and are often located in places with low bandwidth. With that in mind, the project uses a minimal computing, mobile-first approach. Each page of the website is no more than 800 kilobytes in size, all images are compressed into thumbnails, and all content links back to the partner website.

These choices are not without their drawbacks. Partner websites are often slower on low bandwidth networks and their content is much larger, causing delays when users access the original. However, it still allows the project to achieve its aim of allowing users to know that these objects exist, what they are, and where they are located.

The project also reckons with the difficult history of how these objects come to be in these collections as well as the problematic ways that these collections have been presented and described. When first visiting the site, the user is presented with a pop-up window, offering “warm Pasifik greetings,” and a note that these records may reflect the bias of the period they were created in and that, in some cases, the existence of these records themselves may be offensive to the cultures that they purport to represent.

In doing so, the project immediately addresses the largest pitfall in a project like this: when harvesting metadata from other institutions, one is subject to the vocabularies used by those institutions. This pop-up, equal parts content warning and acknowledgement of limitations, also offers a path forward for users to offer feedback to the project.

Tim Kong wrapped up his workshop posing the following questions:

“When our institutions hold Pacific artifacts as static, frozen things, on shelves or in boxes, and detailed with academic metadata, are they really preserving them, abstracted as they are from the lived knowledge of their existence? And if we do so, in this way, which can be valued and is valuable, who are we preserving and protecting them for?”

The project poses and answers this question in every aspect of its design. Preserving and sharing cultural heritage should be done by and for the cultures that produced them. While repatriation of these artifacts is difficult, impractical, or nigh impossible, the project offers a pathway for its users to discover and reclaim their heritage.

The Pacific Virtual Museum cannot reverse the difficult history of these objects, nor should it be expected of them. Yet through community-focused design it finds a way to share this digital heritage with the people, places, and cultures of origin. Though this disruption may seem small in the face of the many insidious and pervasive aspects of colonialism, it serves as a major step forward in anti-colonial collections work.

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