Developing a Sustainable Model in Mutual Cultural Digital Heritage

Nonja Peters, Curtin University & University of Western Sydney, AU

Since 2013, the Migrant, Mobilities and Connection project has consisted of a complementary and interlinked program of research and development between Curtin University (History of Migration Experiences, Sustainability Policy Institute, Perth), The University of Western Sydney (Digital Humanities Research Group) and the Huygens Institute for Netherlands History (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Hague). The backbone of both programs is informed by a digital framework which reconstructs the life courses of migrants through correlating data from both countries within the context of mutual cultural heritage. By this we mean reconstructing a history that simultaneously intersects with Australia and the Netherlands through accessing or digitizing birth documents, death lists, shipping lists, passport requests, health clearances, alien registration, citizenship papers, school and business records, diaries and letters previously held only in state, regional, national and international archives, consulates and other governmental organizations. Indeed, our pilot study involves 51,525 emigration registration records from the National Archives, The Hague, which contain pre-migration demographic facts for over 180,000 Dutch emigrants over the period 1946-1982. This includes 'hard facts' on composition of family, dates of birth, addresses, religion, marital status, date of arrival, carriers, port of entrance and emigration scheme, and 'soft facts' on profession.

Migration is, by its very nature, a mutual heritage activity since all migrants leave documentary traces of their past in memory institutions from their country of origin or home, and move records of their present and future into archives and libraries of the receiving or host society. By maintaining, managing, using and highlighting this heritage, we can foster a critical reflection on our shared pasts and acknowledge, integrate and build awareness of the migration experience. This includes drawing attention to the right of dual-belonging; the desire to find common ground and contribute to home and hostland identities; and the need to build knowledge about events that induced individuals – and refugees in particular – to leave their land. This paper will tease out the project’s progress within the context of how to best negotiate mutual heritage records in digital forms and enable access to the intersecting and interdependent histories they represent?

Like any form of data migration, which conventionally involves the process of transferring data between storage types, formats and computer systems, here we have the additional load of mapping old and new datasets into meaningful assemblages that “talk” to each other. This includes not only the differences between the Australian and Dutch provenance of data but also between information that exists digitally and information that is yet to be digitized. How in fact, for example, do we join data in the Australian domain with data in the Dutch domain, or information that is embedded in dusty community-based storage attics with names on the “Welcome Walls” at the Fremantle Maritime Museum in Perth and the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney? We bump up against these issues because the solutions are not easy and require a step change in how we conceptualise the digital repatriation of mutual cultural heritage materials.

While much digital research in the library and information field deals with the explosion of user-generated content online, which creates new challenges and opportunities for libraries as custodians of data as well as objects, our project is faced with the exact opposite issue: that is, not the problem of struggling to decide what data to collect and document from the ever-growing content generated by new media environments, but rather the equally tremendous volume of untapped cultural heritage materials and the infeasibility of libraries to collect and save it. Furthermore, from a digital humanities research language point of view and with regards to the current spatial turn, around this arises a challenge over whether the ascendance of humanities-focussed GIS mapping techniques that emphasize the stories of a place and their geo-located attachment to said places – otherwise known as sited narratives or histories – can remain meaningful in the context of mutual cultural heritage, in which the human subjects carry the inheritance of two or more worlds with them throughout their life courses.

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Developing a Sustainable Model in Mutual Cultural Digital Heritage

Nonja Peters, Curtin University & University of Western Sydney, AU

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