Digital repatriation aims to translate the inaccessible into the accessible and to welcome deep engagements between communities and scholars. It uses digital technologies to restore culturally significant items and the scholarly knowledge associated with them to communities, much of which has been limited to external researchers and specialists. It is a response driven by the acknowledgement that colonisation and cultural expropriation turn access to information into a privilege, but there are ways of transforming our academic outputs, which are often only researcher-friendly, into real-world community resources.
Thus, highly technical textual analyses become interactive digital editions, specialist knowledge is rewritten as broadly digestible materials for learning, and remote corners of the university library shift to the world wide web.
We see the online spaces emerging from digital repatriation as an innovative foundation for renewed dialogue and co-creative partnerships.
Digital repatriation does not ignore the need for the physical repatriation of culturally significant items but is a parallel complement to it. In the context of the textual traditions that ANUBhasha works with, digital repatriation is uniquely able to address the following complex issues:
- Environmental damage on material collections, both traditional and archival in regions especially vulnerable to the effects of global climate change.
- Industry and development, such as the construction of mines and dams in heritage areas, which damages original materials and prevents localised restitution.
- Political instability, in which current regimes prevent repatriation or threaten the heritage of minority cultures, deemed ‘unimportant’ or even ‘dangerous’ to current political structures.
- Inaccessibility to community heritage when repatriated items are held in geographically removed locations or safeguarded in archival facilities preventing public engagement and education and limiting community benefit from physical repatriation
- Impossibility of physical repatriation, such as when the present location of items is unknown, or when physical items are no longer extant and are only available via microfilms or other forms of documentation.
- Timeframes involved in physical repatriation due to logistics involved in transportation, development of secure and suitable facilities, and so on, resulting in items being held ‘in trust’ for extended periods.
- Loss of knowledge when items are repatriated but the scholarly knowledge developed around them remains inaccessible, or when items represent extinct regional cultures and present-day ‘inheritance’ communities may not have reasonable access to the training or skills to develop knowledge and understanding around regional heritage
Digital repatriation provides a means of access when physical repatriation is delayed or not possible, and it recognises the needs of heritage communities separated by diaspora and the drawing of modern borders, allowing for equal access to documentation and scholarly knowledge. In addition, digital repatriation addresses issues of longevity and sustainability, allowing for ongoing engagement and knowledge-sharing between cultural and scholarly communities.