WRITER: Dan Lander
The South Australian Museum is custodian to the largest and most important collection of Aboriginal artifacts in the world, yet space limitations mean only five per cent of the collection can be displayed at any one time. How do we increase public access?
The Preserve initiative was created to challenge entrepreneurs to give the SA Museum’s Australian Aboriginal Culture Collection higher visibility, using the latest high-speed networking technology.
The winning start up, Sandpit, was awarded $20K to develop a virtual, interactive experience into the Museum’s existing displays, forever changing the way we engage with museums.
EMBRACING CUTTINGEDGE TECHNOLOGY TO SHOWCASE THE OLDEST LIVING CULTURE ON THE PLANET.
The South Australian Museum’s collection of over 30,000 Aboriginal artefacts is the largest in the world, a fact that means only around five per cent of it can be displayed at any one time. While this is a problem common to museums the planet over, the deep cultural significance of many of these objects has recently inspired an innovative new venture that will deliver far greater public access to the collection.
With logistical issues limiting the extent to which the current physical display can be expanded in a traditional fashion, the Museum has partnered with UniSA and the State Government to develop a new project called Preserve, a novel initiative that uses the latest high-speed networking technology to expand the current exhibition by integrating a virtual, interactive experience into the Museum’s existing displays.
“We have such a strong, vibrant and engaged Aboriginal artistic, intellectual and political community here in Australia,” explains SA Museum’s Head of Humanities, Professor John Carty. “Museums can't get away with being lazy, or with trotting out the same old stuff. So, there’s been a push – from outside and from our own staff – for us to be doing more progressive, more thoughtful and more challenging work.”
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
The Preserve initiative represents the first major public project for Ignite SA, a technology partnership launched by the State Government, UniSA’s Innovation & Collaboration Centre (ICC) and the Information Strategy and Technology Services unit. Ignite SA formed in 2017 when Adelaide became the first international city to join the US-based Ignite Smart Gigabit Communities program, a network of more than 25 communities kickstarting local economies by providing businesses with ultra-highspeed data connections.
In conjunction with global US Ignite members, Ignite SA is responsible for promoting and using the highly affordable gigabit-per-second networks now accessible in South Australia. This presents opportunities for a range of technology industries unrivalled anywhere in this country. Earlier this year, Ignite SA launched a series of public engagements called the Gigabit Challenges, designed to inspire community-oriented applications for the Gigabit network, and after lengthy community consultation, it was decided that Preserve would be its first instalment.
While the Gigabit Challenges are ostensibly technology contests, they aim to be much more than a showcase for innovation. According to Karl Sellmann, Ignite SA’s Technology Leader and the UniSA’s Deputy Director of ICT Infrastructure and Cyber Security, the Ignite project prioritises broad community benefits, and it was a combination of deep cultural significance and intriguing technological possibilities that brought the Preserve concept to life.
“Often there’s airplay for more technically aligned challenges, and we see attention around smart cities and the Internet of Things,” Sellmann says. “But when we saw the impact that Preserve could make for the community, and the benefit it could offer a wide-ranging stakeholder base, not just in South Australia but internationally, it emerged as something very compelling.”
On the surface, the Preserve challenge appears conceptually simple – develop a digital gateway to provide access to the Museum’s entire collection of Indigenous artefacts. Dig a little deeper however, and the profound sense of responsibility that accompanies such an enterprise becomes apparent, as Prof Carty, explains.
“To most people’s eyes this is a technical challenge, but for us at the Museum, it is also about caring for what is essentially the longest continuous tradition of art and technology and engineering and culture on the planet. It’s a really significant cultural challenge for the Museum in making sure the Aboriginal heritage is not only cared for, but also shared in a responsible and respectful way.”
Meeting Preserve's challenge not only calls for new technology, but also something of a new philosophy, and Professor Carty acknowledges the South Australian Museum, like many such institutions around the world, is rapidly evolving its conception of both content and public needs.
“THIS IS ABOUT CARING FOR WHAT IS ESSENTIALLY THE LONGEST CONTINUOUS TRADITION OF ART AND TECHNOLOGY AND ENGINEERING AND CULTURE ON THE PLANET.”
“It marks a bit of a shift in the history of the Museum, which has traditionally been about archiving culture. That tends to put things, intentionally or not, in the past, whereas what we’re doing now is saying, ‘These cultures are very much a part of our present, politically, culturally, in every way, in Australia’. The digital medium is a way of bringing these cultures closer to people.”
Supported by the Department for State Development, UniSA’s ICC, and in conjunction with the Museum, Ignite SA conducted a reverse-tender process, inviting a wide range of tech startups to develop a digital solution to unlock the Museum’s full Indigenous collection. After culling proposals to a short list of three, the judges – who included Professor Carty along with SA’s Director of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, Kirstie Parker, former Engineering Director of Google ANZ, Alan Noble and CEO of LeapSheep, Kirk Drage – awarded the $20,000-opportunity to Adelaide-based firm, Sandpit.
“We see it as an exciting opportunity to have digital technology augment what it means to come into a museum,” Sandpit Creative Director, Sam Haren, says. “Previously, we've been working with a number of museums and galleries, and what we’re really engaged with is how digital technology can allow visitors to experience things that are more personalised and meaningful to them.”
TELLING STORIES WITH TECHNOLOGY
While the Preserve judges were impressed by Sandpit’s experience and tech savvy, Sellmann also emphasises the importance of their cultural acumen.
“They went out and engaged with the Aboriginal community, had conversations to get the feel of the impact the project would have for the Aboriginal people. I think this really helped the stories they were able to tell with their platform.”
It’s early days in the development of that platform and things might evolve, but the picture Haren currently paints of Sandpit’s plan is elegant and engaging, augmenting the real-world museum experience with virtual access to the vast collection of artefacts beyond those which can be physically displayed.
“Museums and galleries are full of incredible objects or artworks, and the last thing you want is to detract from that,” he says. “We want to use people’s smartphones as a sort of interactive cursor – you hold your phone and it connects wirelessly to a screen or display. Your phone becomes a bit like a laser pointer, allowing you to interact with the physical objects while discovering related items through the digital interface.”
With plans for a first incarnation of the system to be in place by early 2019, the short-term outcome of Preserve is already eagerly anticipated, with a prototype expected later this year.
The longer-term implications, however, are equally exciting. The international relationships South Australia has forged offer immense potential, and, as Haren notes, “The Ignite project brings connections to some very big and famous cultural organisations in the US, such as the Smithsonian Museum. These are amazing opportunities.”
Ignite SA’s Community Leader and Manager of the ICC, Jasmine Vreugdenburg, says the ICC works with local startups providing support and a place to test and validate ideas before connecting them to the US market using US Ignite’s network.
“Ignite SA provides a unique opportunity to showcase our emerging technologies and local innovations to a growing number of US cities involved in the program, creating a pathway for our startups to enter the US market.”
Beyond Preserve, the ongoing commitment to the Ignite process from a diverse range of stakeholders marks an exciting new phase for South Australian business.
“The types of people that have thrown their hands up and said, ‘This is for the right reasons, I can see the significant benefit that it can bring to the community,’ I think that speaks for itself,” says Sellmann.
“We’ve got great assets; we’ve got great capabilities; and we've got a fantastic ecosystem. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think we can bring this all together and make Adelaide the startup capital of Australia and a focus point in Asia Pacific.”
CELEBRATING A LIVING CULTURE
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Preserve unlocks more than just a collection of artefacts
One of the great virtues of all museums rests in their capacity for allowing individuals to experience cultures that may otherwise be foreign to them, and while the Preserve project represents a new way of approaching that role, it remains a core concern.
Yet there’s also another dimension to the opening up of the South Australian Museum’s Aboriginal collection, as Director of Aboriginal Affairs & Reconciliation in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Kirstie Parker explains.
“It has been said that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are making an extraordinarily generous gesture with this, saying ‘Let’s go on this journey together’, but it’s actually about survival, about preservation, about preserving ourselves. And that comes from people learning more about us, whether that’s in the form of an object or an artefact or a story that comes from us.”
From Parker’s perspective, Preserve not only represents an opportunity for the world to connect with and understand the rich culture and diversity of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but also offers a unique opportunity for Indigenous Australians to reconnect with their own traditional identities.
“There’s no one audience, yet a very important audience has to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” Parker says.
“I don’t want anyone assuming that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, especially, know everything that they need to know about their own stories, their own people, their own communities, and their own place in the world. For me, this is the most important audience. And from this, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people get to realise that, out of something that has been lost for a time, it can actually come back to them.”
While providing such cultural reconnection for the traditional custodians of this land remains central to all involved with Preserve, Parker is also very optimistic that the more traditional cross-cultural museum experience will also benefit greatly from the respect and sensitivity with which the collection will be represented.
“What I want to see, as an Aboriginal person, is something that situates non-Aboriginal people in the world of Aboriginal people, and it is about story.
“The stakes are so high for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in telling our story, if people can at least begin to know Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – not through acquiring and owning objects necessarily but understanding and appreciating how such things may be situated in our cultures, traditions, history and memory – they’re more likely to value and respect us."