About the Software

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The Ara Irititja project exemplifies how Indigenous ontologies are reshaping the technologies of information and the management of cultural heritage. The project began in 1994 with the digital repatriation of photographs, oral histories, film recordings and documents to remote communities in Central Australia. In late 2010, the Ara Irititja software underwent a significant transition, migrating 108,000 digital records from an object-based FileMaker Pro database into a multimedia knowledge management system (Keeping Culture KMS).

Throughout the lifetime of the project, managers, archivists, IT professionals and community members have been working together to interrogate three tools of knowledge preservation and transmission — databases, archives and the Internet — re-shaping them to suit the needs of contemporary Aboriginal people striving to imagine, produce and safeguard their own cultural futures.


‘Ara Irititja malatja malatja tjutaku — We want our Ara Irititja for all the generations of the future.’ Imuna Fraser, NPY Women’s Council Director, Yunyariny SA, 23 March 2006.

For almost 20 years, the Ara Irititja project has fulfilled its original brief from Anangu (Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people) about protecting their archival past, accessing it in the present, and securing it for future generations. The project is ongoing, always growing and adapting to meet dynamic needs. The Ara Irititja project will continue to preserve Anangu heritage, and responding to our Anangu directors remains our first priority. At the same time, we are intensely committed to learning from other Indigenous groups with similar needs in their own contexts, and facilitating their goals for knowledge management, cultural preservation, and community archiving through the best-available digital technology.

‘I have been looking after the Ara Irititja computer at Imanpa Community. My community would like Ara Irititja to keep supporting our computer here at Imanpa. We like Ara Irititja because it has so much information from the past, different plants and animals which school children like to look at. The archive also has many photos of people who have passed on and of many people that are still around. The kids like looking at photos of them when they were a bit smaller and of how their parents looked as well. They not only use it for fun but also for learning and understanding their culture and of how old people lived. People also use the computer to look up their friends and family at other communities as well. The Ara Irititja computer is used by many and it also gives people knowledge as well.’ Tanya Luckey, Imanpa Community, NT 16 March 2011.


From this background, the Keeping Culture Knowledge Management System (KMS) has been developed.


About the Ara Irititja Project

Ara Irititja means ‘stories from a long time ago’ in the Pitjantjatjara language. From the beginning, the main goal of the Ara Irititja project has been to bring home materials of cultural, historical, and contemporary significance to Anangu and to provide access to these materials in sensible and sustainable ways. The project is a community-based initiative, designed as Anangu elders were becoming increasingly concerned about the fragility of their knowledge, and enlisted the help of archival consultants to put new technologies to work in the service of traditional cultural protocols.

The Ara Irititja project is guided by the Executive Board of the Pitjantjatjara Council Inc, an organisation established in 1976 to fight for Indigenous peoples' rights to land and provide much-needed social services to remote Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, and Yankunytjatjara communities in Central Australia. Through the Pitjantjatjara Council, Anangu own the Ara Irititja project, its holistic approach to archiving, the original objects of cultural heritage, and the digital infrastructure and records used to provide remote-area surrogates for photographs, artworks, documents and other multimedia of significance to these communities. Since inception, stakeholders in the project have been committed to the central notion that Anangu must have access to and maintain control of their own histories, knowledge and cultural artefacts.

As a community-controlled resource, the Ara Irititja project is structured around an ever-expanding collection of materials and knowledge. The project challenges many conventionally-held notions of archives as static repositories of data which people may visit for purposes of research and retrieval. The Ara Irititja project is different, responding directly to the needs and expectations of community members, participating in contemporary efforts to preserve language, traditional cultural protocols and Elders' knowledge, and making these relevant and available in the present. The project team — based in Adelaide and Alice Springs — acts upon feedback received directly from Anangu during frequent trips to communities, through community members' visits to the regional hubs, and through regular email and telephone contact. Over the years, this has meant that strong bonds and close relationships have formed between archivists, historians, anthropologists, linguists and Anangu; the Ara Irititja project is proudly cross-cultural and intergenerational.

The need for a digital archive

Over the last century many visitors — schoolteachers, missionaries, medical service providers — in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in Central Australia produced, collected and took away artefacts, photographs, film footage and sound recordings from their host communities. While some of these materials were filed away in the archives of public institutions — such as the State Library of South Australia — others were ‘lost’ in private photo albums or packed away in old suitcases and boxes, vulnerable to the ravages of time. On rare occasions, physical repatriation of such items has been attempted but has been largely unsuccessful: harsh desert conditions (dust, heat, unreliable power supplies, various pests) and vast distances between communities threaten the survival of fragile materials.

How the idea grew

During the 1980s, the idea for a community archive began to take shape in the minds of many Anangu working with various cultural brokers in their remote communities. In 1986, schoolteacher Ron Lister spent a year locating photos and archival records, contacting state institutions, community organisations, former missionaries and others — anyone who might have had old photographs, home movies, letters and sound recordings relevant to Anangu. Slowly, the idea for an archive began to grow in different ways and a combination of events drew everyone together. In 1991, archival consultant John Dallwitz was commissioned to prepare a photographic exhibition to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 1981 Land Rights Act in South Australia. Historical photographs, mostly on loan from a state government heritage organisation, were displayed outdoors near the community of Ernabella. They were enthusiastically viewed by Anangu and stimulated the demand for a comprehensive search for historical materials to be made.

In 1994, after spending some time in the State Library of South Australia inquiring about the extent of their Pitjantjatjara-related collections, Anangu Elders Peter Nyaningu and Colin Tjapiya, Pitjantjatjara Council anthropologist Ushma Scales and archivist John Dallwitz came together to develop a formal and ongoing way to digitally repatriate multimedia items to remote communities. Together, they agreed on the name — Ara Irititja — as the flagship project of the newly-forged Social History Unit of the Pitjantjatjara Council (now called the Cultural Heritage Unit). Soon after, they secured office space and a telephone line as in-kind donations from the South Australian Museum (which has now become a significant partner-organisation), and a hand-me-down Macintosh computer (with a capacity of 4 megabytes!) from Anangu Education Services. A new kind of archive was born.

Developing the software

In the early 1990s, there was no such thing as a multimedia database — a digital home for photographs, films, sound recordings and text-based information about these media items. Although a few software programs had begun to facilitate the digital storage of photographs, FileMaker Pro was the only program available that could also house audio and video materials. FileMaker Pro also did not delimit text fields; this was important in accommodating multiple users' annotations to media items.

Finding this program flexible enough to facilitate different pathways of access to photographs and their associated stories, a small but dedicated Ara Irititja team began the work of shaping this digital architecture according to very-specific Anangu needs. Wherever possible, Pitjantjatjara language was used. The interface was designed to be easy to use for people who might not be literate in English as a first language, using large icons familiar to communities, minimising trouble for populations with high rates of eye problems and little familiarity with computer tools. The software was adapted to restrict access to sensitive materials, such as images of people recently deceased (as these tend to cause distress to Anangu). Additional, separate databases were created to protect the privacy concerns surrounding both men’s (watiku) and women’s (minymaku) materials.

By 2001, the first Ara Irititja project computers were delivered to Anangu communities in three states: South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. By this time, the database was already housing 20,000 items. Fields were arranged to best empower Anangu to view the digital collection, add information, stories and reflections, and use passwords to restrict access to specific items for cultural reasons. These functions facilitated the development of multivocal, Anangu-centered histories and resulted in some unique capabilities of the initial software.

In 2015, now more than twenty years since its inception, the project is responsible for over 160,000 digital records. In the last few years, a convergence of circumstances has revolutionised the project's potential: adequate infrastructure for high-speed connections has reached many communities in the NPY lands; Anangu have grown up using the Internet as a communications tool; and the Ara Irititja team received funding to purpose-build new software to be shared on a network. Our new, browser-based, cross-platform, multimedia knowledge management system, now called Keeping Culture KMS, was launched in 2010 incorporating all of the functions of the old software and adding many new features. These include individual profiles for every person, plant, animal, thing, place and collection in the archive — digital records no longer must originate with a physical, analogue object — expanding the original Ara Irititja software into a comprehensive tool for preserving and reproducing traditional cultural knowledge. The program is now accessible only to people who can login with individual passwords — a significant shift from community-shared pathways of access that makes information entry and editing much more accountable and archivally rigorous. Finally, the new archive is delivered using the worldwide web but via a private intranet (adhering to strict Anangu privacy imperatives, and yet eliminating the need for manual synchronising, time intensive process which we relied on for the first 10 years of the project).

Ara Irititja Project Mission and Goals

The Ara Irititja project strives to endow all members of indigenous communities with culturally-appropriate access to and control over their media and knowledge. The project encompasses a holistic approach to digital archiving, maintaining rigorous standards to preserve original photographs, film/video, sound recordings (and other media) and the content embedded in these. At the same time, preservation is not just about collecting histories; rather, it is considered integral to the reproduction of culture and language in contemporary lives. In this context, managers strive to shape the most capable and state-of-the-art digital technologies to best facilitate intergenerational learning, the continuing strength of traditional cultural protocols, and community empowerment in remote locations.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural brokers have worked together throughout the 20-year history of the project to problem-solve many unique cultural issues. How might photographs of recently deceased people be locked away from open-access, and yet remain in the database for return to public view at a later date? How might many distinct communities build a network that allows for the sharing of information amongst themselves, but protects the privacy and autonomy Anangu so value? How might a digital archive facilitate both text-based metadata and the transmission of oral histories fundamental to the survival of these language groups for thousands of years? Ara Irititja now serves 31 constituent communities in three states across 200,000 square miles (321,000 square kilomtres) as well as providing support for the software platform to over 60 other Indigenous communities across Australia.


Responsiveness (in the form of trouble-shooting, piloting new features, eliminating functions that don't work, further adapting things that prove somehow inadequate) to these challenging philosophical questions is what led the project to shift away from the original FileMaker Pro database to the new multimedia knowledge management system. As Anangu have grown more confident with computer technologies, online tools and archiving strategies, they ask the digital archive to do more. In addition to storing the knowledge embedded in photos, could it also be a centralised repository of traditional and scientific knowledge about the Lands' flora and fauna? Can searching be nonlinear, for example, when you search for a person, can you find all the media items related to him or her? Can data be uploaded and shared in real-time? The dedication and creativity of managers, staff and Anangu, and the longevity and stability of all key stakeholders to get things right (and change things when they're not working) have been instrumental to the long-term success of Ara Irititja.

Accountability to Anangu needs, to preserve language, histories and knowledge, remains foremost among the Ara Irititja project's core values. Yet from its earliest days, the project has also been committed to facilitating this crucial cultural labour in other Indigenous communities facing similar issues. Beginning in 1996, the Ara Irititja project has supplied a software package, training modules and technical support to other communities and benefited from their different uses, problems and successes in the ongoing improvement of the digital architecture and broad approach to archiving and cultural heritage management. The state library systems in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia are already among our supporters; we have long-term relationships with Land Councils, community arts/cultural centers and health services. We are a small, community-owned project, but one with great experience in making sophisticated knowledge management strategies work for many diverse interested parties.

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