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Review: Urarina Digital Heritage Project

A review of the Urarina Digital Heritage Project, a digital collection of Indigenous cultural heritage materials, developed by the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Kansas

Published onDec 18, 2023
Review: Urarina Digital Heritage Project

Urarina Digital Heritage Project

Project Team
Bartholomew C. Dean, University of Kansas and Universidad Nacional de San Martín
Emanuel Fabiano, University of Coimbra & Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú
Sylvia Fernández Quintanilla, University of Texas at San Antonio
Brian Rosenblum, University of Kansas
Emma Bruce, Bristol Botanics

A full list of team members is available on the project site.

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Jennifer Isasi, Pennsylvania State University

Project Overview

Bartholomew C. Dean

​​Fusing public anthropology with digital humanities, the Urarina Digital Heritage Project creates a digital collection of Urarina cultural heritage materials currently held at the University of Kansas (KU), in collaboration with members of the Urarina community in the Amazon rainforest from which the materials originated. It is a transnational, multilingual collaboration — between the Urarina community in Peru, Urarina cultural specialists, and faculty, librarians, museum staff, and technologists in the U.S. — with the aim of creating a trilingual site to make digitized images of the collection more accessible to the Spanish speaking population in Peru and give wider visibility and recognition to the Urarina language and heritage. The pilot website currently includes 104 items, but this grassroots project remains in development and continues to evolve. This ongoing work presents an opportunity to learn and share what it takes to do such projects, with a particular emphasis on the ethical, technical, and logistical issues related to working with Indigenous digital archives across the Global North-South divide.

The Urarina are a hunting and farming society that has been shaped by long-term entanglement with missionaries, colonial administrators, and traders, as well as with agents of the “singular” Peruvian nation to which the state gave birth. Following centuries of colonial rule, a pattern of skewed development emerged in Peruvian Amazonia that effectively blocked Indigenous people like the Urarina from full participation in the Peruvian nation-state. The Urarina are geographically isolated and not easy to reach — the nearest big city, Iquitos, is reachable only by plane or by boat on the Amazon River, and the Urarina communities are another 1-3 days of river travel from there. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture estimates the population of Urarina at 5,802 people. 

The project has proceeded on a couple of fronts simultaneously from 2019 to the present. Basic descriptive metadata provided by KU’s Spencer Museum of Art was translated into Spanish and then into the Urarina language by members of the Urarina community, who included additional information to better contextualize these items. At the same time, the team tested Mukurtu as a possible platform and worked closely with Mukurtu developers to adapt the platform to switch between the three languages when viewing or searching for items. 

To date, the project has encountered several challenges across different realms. Technical concerns include the slow speed of the site, largely due to Mukurtu’s large footprint, and the technical complexity of managing a Mukurtu-based site. This is a significant concern when considering the lack of internet access, bandwidth, and technical capacity among the Urarina or at institutions in the region and current lack of Spanish-language documentation and support for Mukurtu.

Developing metadata in the Urarina language was also a complex endeavor. Some of the items — collected in 1997-1998 by Bartholonew Dean — are no longer in use by the current generation due to loss of certain traditions, and younger members may not even be familiar with them. This suggests a need to capture these kinds of cultural changes and make them present in the collection. This, combined with the desire to include metadata created by the Urarina themselves, required an ongoing dialogue with the Urarina translators. Communication was slowed by the geographical remoteness between the various partners and exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic.

Most important are the ethical considerations this project surfaces. Since we are digital humanities librarians, anthropologists, humanists, and technologists in the Global North, we must be continually mindful of questions about our appropriate role in the project, who the audience(s) for this project are, and ensuring that the Urarina are involved in shaping the project to meet their needs. In this process, we are attempting to follow paradigms such as “slow archives,” which emphasizes deliberate, ethical, and collaborative approaches to knowledge production and exchange. Limited funding from KU was used to pay members of the Urarina community for their translation work and logo design.

Next steps include testing out static websites that will be more suitable to the technology infrastructure in the region, developing a long-term collaboration with a local institution in Peru that works more directly with the Urarina community, adding additional content, and cross-referencing other Urarina-related collections in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Project Review

Jennifer Isasi

The Urarina Digital Heritage Project, in its pilot phase developed at the University of Kansas (KU), is an inspiring initiative operating within a decolonial framework. Its primary goal is the ethical preservation, accessibility, and reciprocal exchange of the Urarina community’s heritage in Perú. The repository, Laenanuuinelanaala jelaia Urarina kainara kuina amiianena, provides access to 104 objects dated from 1850 to 1993, gifted to The Spencer Museum of Art at KU by anthropologist Bartholomew Dean. The project’s international collaboration involves U.S.-based scholars, librarians, and technologists, alongside Peruvian scholars and the Urarinaaürü people, illustrating a commitment to digitally repatriate Indigenous objects back to their rightful community. 

The project strategically employs the Mukurtu open-source content management system, a platform developed at the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation at Washington State University. Aligned with the project’s decolonial and collaborative ethos, it incorporates two key Mukurtu’s features — Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels and cultural protocols — to facilitate varying levels of access to the digital objects, particularly if the community opts to restrict certain information.

The online interface to navigate the project is intuitive. Upon landing on the site, users are greeted by a landing page featuring a photograph of an Urarinaaürü community by a riverbank. Notably, this page includes the project’s title in the Urarina language and offers immediate access to the collections. A top bar menu further allows users to explore project details (in English only), including an about page, a note about the TK labels, scholarly resources in English and Spanish, and a comprehensive team member list. Users can also seamlessly navigate to collections or explore individual items within the archive.

The project’s foundation comprises digital images and metadata for 104 Urarina objects. Each asset includes an image with accompanying image metadata, as well as diverse metadata fields with crucial details such as protocol type (mostly public), community affiliation (Spence Museum), categorical classification (e.g., tool, sculpture, covering, masks), keyword denoting material composition, creation attribution (“unknown Urarina maker”), language alignment, source details, a unique identifier, and object type and format. Some objects also present contextual descriptions, enhancing cultural depth and accessibility. 

Commendably, the team has made the collection available in three languages, showcasing their commitment to inclusivity, especially for the Urarinaaürü. Despite constraints in Mukurtu confining the project interface to English, the team innovatively created three distinct collections, for Urarina, Spanish, and English. Although this tripled data in metadata fields, this multilingual approach is preferable to a sole reliance on English, aligning with the team’s decolonial approach. 

Laenanuuinelanaala jelaia Urarina kainara kuina amiianena represents an exceptional model for the digital repatriation of Indigenous artifacts in Global North institutions, particularly when physical repatriation proves impractical. The project's engagement with both the Indigenous community and experts in the origin country has yielded previously inaccessible information, thereby enriching the understanding decolonial approaches to digital stewardship.

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