Designing tangible Interactions to communicate cultural continuity: ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings, a tangible table in c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city at the Museum of Anthropology.
Reese Muntean, Simon Fraser University, Canada, Kate Hennessy, Simon Fraser University, School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Canada, Brendan Matkin, Simon Fraser University, Canada, Susan Rowley, University of British Columbia, Canada, Jordan Wilson, Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Canada
AbstractIn this paper, we discuss ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings an interactive tabletop using a tangible user interface to explore intangible cultural heritage. The table was developed by an interdisciplinary team of curators, Musqueam advisors, and interaction designers for the "c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city" exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. The tabletop uses replicas of Musqueam belongings excavated from the ancestral village site of c̓əsnaʔəm, as well as contemporary objects that are a part of everyday Musqueam life, to access information about the long history of salmon fishing and the continuity of related knowledge and values at c̓əsnaʔəm. Our focus in this paper is on the collaborative design process that guided the realization of the project and the articulation of the continuity of Musqueam cultural values in contemporary life. We explore how the project team identified priorities for interaction design and goals for sharing cultural history and knowledge with museum visitors. We conclude with reflections on the results of visitor studies that evaluated the success of the table in using tangible interactions to communicate knowledge of the continuity of Musqueam values.
Keywords: tangible table, intangible heritage, collaborative design, belongings, Musqueam, archaeology,
Tangible computing and the creative design of interactions with tangible interfaces for the museum space are providing new opportunities for engagement with museum collections and their complex contexts and meanings. These tangible interfaces use physical objects as inputs for a digital system, manipulating the physical objects to control the digital information. As Hiroshi Ishii, one of the early researchers in this area noted, the tangible user interface “makes digital information directly manipulable with our hands and perceptible through our peripheral senses by physically embodying it” (Ishii, 2008). In addition to facilitating visitor and community engagement with new technologies and applications, tangible interactions open up significant possibilities for communicating embodied and intangible forms of knowledge, such as cultural values.
ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings is an interactive multi-touch tabletop using a tangible user interface to explore intangible cultural heritage. The table was developed by an interdisciplinary team of curators, Musqueam advisors, and interaction designers for the award-winning c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). This exhibition is a partnership of three major institutions in Vancouver, BC, and it explores c̓əsnaʔəm (the significant ancient village site on which part of Vancouver was built) as well as Musqueam culture and community today. The tabletop uses replicas of Musqueam belongings excavated from c̓əsnaʔəm, as well as contemporary objects that are a part of everyday Musqueam life to access information about the long history of salmon fishing and the continuity of related knowledge and values at c̓əsnaʔəm.
In earlier work (Muntean et al., 2015), we have highlighted the ongoing challenge that museums in North American face in building new relationships with contemporary Indigenous peoples, to begin to confront shared colonial histories and legacies, and to initiate the repatriation of belongings and ancestral remains. At the same time, museums continue to struggle to find ways to bring representations of intangible cultural heritage into the museum space (Kurin, 2004). We have suggested that the desire for continuity and sustainability of intangible forms of knowledge is in tension with their historical fragmentation, just as the historical prioritization of objects as the focus of museum collections has contributed to the fragmentation of tangible and intangible heritage. We have also shown how we began to address this tension by exploring possibilities for designing cultural values into interactions with the interactive tangible tabletop (Muntean et al., 2017).
In this paper, we focus specifically on the collaborative design process that guided the realization of the project.. Overall we present the tangible tabletop interface as a response to the desire to reconnect fragmented collections and physical belongings from c̓əsnaʔəm with Musqueam intangible cultural knowledge, and to demonstrate the continuity of Musqueam cultural values today. First we will introduce the tabletop installation and situate our work within related theories on collaborative design processes. We then trace how notions of ownership of ancestral ‘objects’ were reframed through the use of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ term ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ, or ‘belonging’, signifying the continuing sense of ownership of Musqueam material heritage. We provide context for understanding the concept of belongings in the exhibition as a whole and the role of the tangible table in supporting curatorial and community goals for representing Musqueam history and identity at MOA. We discuss the priorities and goals for design and goals for sharing cultural history and knowledge with museum visitors. Our collaborative design process fundamentally shaped concept development, aesthetic decisions and production processes, content development, and tangible interaction design. Sharing the details of this process is crucial in understanding how this particular project came to be realized, and should be instructive as a case study for curators, designers, and members of originating communities who are similarly interested in developing media for the museum that begin to address continuity of culture and the connections between tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings
Given the collaborative nature of this tabletop design process and our focus on communicating Musqueam cultural information, it is important to note the individuals on the design team to better position ourselves in the project and clarify our voices in this paper. We, the authors and faculty members and students from UBC and Simon Fraser University (SFU), comprised the core development team of ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings. At the time of development, Rowley was co-head of the Department of Anthropology at UBC, Associate Professor, and Curator of Public Archeology at MOA. She has significant experience working collaboratively with the Musqueam Indian Band, and she and Wilson, a Master’s student at UBC and a member of the Musqueam Indian Band, were the co-curators of MOA’s exhibit. Our SFU team included Hennessy, an Assistant Professor with a background in anthropology whose own work is focused on the collaborative development of culturally specific new media applications and installations, and Antle, an Associate Professor who has expertise in tangible computing and embodied interaction. Matkin was a Master’s student under Antle, and Muntean was a Master’s student under Hennessy and the project manager of the tabletop. Our team also included two undergraduate students. While the UBC team provided the content and museum-related support, the SFU members focused on the technical aspects of development, interaction design, fabrication of the physical aspects of the tangible interface, and the programming of the tabletop. All team members participated in the overall activity design of the table (Muntean et al., 2017).
The ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings tabletop displays a top-down view of a fish-cutting scene (See Figure 1). On the table in the image are a salmon, salmon fillets, a knife and sharpener, and an iPhone. Additional supplies related to fishing and fish preservation are pictured around the table: fishing nets, firewood, an axe, a gas can, an oilcan, rubber boots, and a tote of fish. To interact with the tabletop image and Musqueam cultural knowledge and values, there are six replicas of ancient belongings excavated from c̓əsnaʔəm (net weight, adz, slate blade, harpoon, a decorated fragment, and a piece of cedar bark), six contemporary everyday items from Musqueam life (ice cube, keys, status card, tide chart, quarters, and a Coke can) (See Figure 2), and two activator rings. The detailed replicas and contemporary belongings sit together on a museum collections cart. This juxtaposition of familiar items like keys and an ice cube invites visitors to pick up the ancient belongings that they might not otherwise handle in a museum setting. Conversely, seeing a Coke can on display next to ancient belongings encourages them to question how mundane modern objects are relevant to Musqueam culture.
To explore the belongings, visitors must put a belonging in an activator ring on the table. A digital ring appears around the physical activator ring, with four categories with hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ terms and English translations (See Figure 3). Each category is accessed through a different set of interactions with the table, resulting in information to appear on the table in the form of text, contemporary images, historical documents, and quotes from community members. These interactions include putting a belonging into the ring to learn about belongings’ function (What is this?), connecting the belonging to its corresponding section of the fish-cutting table image (Understanding it), matching an ancient belonging to a modern one (Teachings), and ultimately unlocking stories from Musqueam community members about the process of learning and their traditional culture (Having stories).
Our design context
Our collaborative design process for ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings has similarities to theories of participatory design and co-creative experiences (e.g. Björgvinsson et al., 2010; Iversen et al., 2012; Jun & Lee, 2014; Sanders & Stappers, 2008; Smith & Iversen, 2014), but we note an important distinction. We did not include the final users of the interactive tabletop—the museum visitors—in the design phase. One of the goals of the tabletop, and in the MOA exhibit overall, was to highlight Musqueam voices. We will discuss this in greater detail during the discussion of the exhibition context. Instead, we see our design process as relating more directly to ideas of post-colonial computing, collaborations between Indigenous communities and heritage institutions, and Value Sensitive Design.
Our design process connects to the ideas of post-colonial computing as discussed by Irani et al. and its response to uneven economic and power relations and cultural epistemologies (Irani et al., 2010). Irani and her coauthors cite examples of information management systems as an intersection of cultural understandings and technology (Srinivasan & Shilton, 2006; Verran & Christie, 2006). Our work extends these ideas of creating technologies that communicate traditional cultural knowledge and allow for multiple ontologies and worldviews (e.g. Cameron, 2010; Lyons et al., 2016; Srinivasan et al., 2010) while also addressing issues of cultural property ownership (Brown, 2009).
The collaborative models displayed by museums and Indigenous communities, often in developing databases for cultural heritage (e.g. [Hennessy, 2009; Hennessy et al., 2013; Hennessy et al., 2012; Simpson, 2012) or exploring new technologies for safeguarding heritage or facilitating repatriation efforts (e.g. Hollinger et al., 2013), informed our design process. Further, we note that collaborative media production practices can open important spaces for the articulation of local cultural property rights to be made (Hennessy, 2012), and in which research is based on learning from communities rather than learning about them (Jones, 2008).
The Reciprocal Research Network (or RRN) was one such collaboration that was particularly pertinent to ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings (Rowley, 2013; Rowley et al., 2010). The RRN is a web portal that provides access to the databases of different institutions across North America, reconnecting dispersed belongings for community members and researchers. This project was proposed and developed by the Musqueam Indian Band, Stó:lō Nation, the U’mista Cultural Society, and MOA, and was the result of nearly a decade of close collaboration. While the RRN was used as a tool for curators across multiple institutions to develop the three c̓əsnaʔəm exhibitions, it was this established relationship that laid the groundwork for our work on ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings.
Our work also resonates with the emerging approach known as Value Sensitive Design. Most prominently developed by Friedman, Khan, and Borning, Value Sensitive Design (VSD) considers how human values manifest in technologies and how these technologies might then shape our values (Friedman, 1996; Friedman et al., 2013). The authors presented a list of universal “values of human import” of VSD (Friedman & Kahn, 2003), but our work here extends beyond that initial and universal list. Instead we look at specific cultural values that our development team carefully considered at the start of the design process of the culturally-specific and specialized tabletop system. Le Dantec et al. called for such an extension of VSD (Le Dantec et al., 2009), recognizing the limitations of classifying values in such a way. They also detailed how the “ex post facto value analysis” allowed for examining how systems affect users but not for informing system design. When Borning and Muller later reflected on the next steps for VSD (Borning & Muller, 2012), they discussed addressing the universal vs. culturally specific values issue as an empirical one, strengthening the voices of collaborators in publications, and making the voices of researchers and designers more clear. Durrant et al. drew upon concerns from VSD in their research on values in curating videos in a human rights archive (Durrant et al., 2014). They noted a particular challenge for interaction designers is to enhance cultural engagement with sensitive archive materials while supporting empathic interactions. Borning and Muller and Durrant et al. present challenges that we address through our collaborative design process of ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings.
Belongings: reframing ownership
c̓əsnaʔəm was one of Musqueam’s largest village sites at its height roughly two thousand years ago, and it was located near the mouth of the Fraser River in an area that is now part of Vancouver, British Columbia. c̓əsnaʔəm transitioned into an archaeological site during British Columbia’s colonial project. Since the late 1800s, archaeologists both professional and amateur, the general public, and looters have removed thousands of belongings from the ground at c̓əsnaʔəm. Now found in living rooms and museums, belongings from c̓əsnaʔəm are scattered around the globe (Roy, 2010).
Archaeologists commonly refer to belongings excavated from Musqueam’s village site as “objects” or “artifacts”, but the Musqueam people see them as still belonging to the ancestors who created them. The elders of the Exhibit Advisory Group for c̓əsnaʔəm – the city before the city made the decision to change the terminology and language around what has been removed from c̓əsnaʔəm. We have thus adopted the term ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ, a hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ term meaning belongings, for the title of the tangible tabletop installation and have incorporated belongings in our own discourse around the project.
Wilson wrote about the nuances of the term and its adoption. At first he viewed it as a correction of the language of Western discourse, which takes the ownership of these belongings away from the Musqueam community, but he also realized it was more than that:
The use of the term emphasizes the contemporary Musqueam connection to the tangible things themselves, but it also conveys that Musqueam have always been the carriers of these belongings’ intangible qualities, including knowledge about the power they continue to hold, how they should be cared for, what should be said about them, how they should be presented (if at all), and how they fit into our ways of seeing the world. (Wilson, 2016)
The exhibition context: c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city
c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city is a partnership between the Musqueam Indian Band, the Museum of Vancouver, and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, along with the University of Waterloo. In this series of three exhibitions, the institutions introduce visitors to c̓əsnaʔəm, each with a different focus and each keeping in mind the union of tangible and intangible heritage that Wilson describes.
The exhibition at the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre & Gallery highlights the sophistication of Musqueam’s technology and culture both past and present. The Museum of Vancouver showcases ancient Musqueam belongings and ties them to the more modern histories of colonialism, heritage politics, and cultural resilience. The MOA exhibition, which includes the ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings tabletop (See Figure 4), shares Musqueam values and worldview using media-rich installations told from the point of view of named Musqueam community members’ voices. The exhibition at MOA ran from January 2015 to January 2016. The exhibition at the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre is ongoing, and the exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver is slated to run from January 2015 through January 2020.
In Wilson’s articulation of the importance of belongings, he also describes how each of the three exhibitions reunites the tangible and intangible elements of Musqueam culture. He notes,
At MOV, ancient fishing and hunting gear is accompanied by video segments of community members discussing the importance of the Fraser River—the lifeblood of our community—to our community’s cultural activities and identity. At Musqueam, all belongings are shared alongside their contemporary equivalents, simply and elegantly revealing the continuity of practices and values. At MOA, “actual” belongings are forgone to emphasize the intangible, with the exception of replica belongings (ancient and contemporary), which can be placed on an interactive surface to navigate through narratives on Musqueam practices. (Wilson, 2016)
Each exhibition offered a unique approach to showcasing the history of c̓əsnaʔəm, the contemporary lives of Musqueam people, and the tangible and intangible aspects of their culture that connect the past to the present. The MOA version of the c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city exhibition took a more experimental approach to showcasing this long history by shifting the focus of the exhibit from belongings themselves to community knowledge and ways of knowing. In the design of the MOA portion of the exhibition, curators Rowley and Wilson were rethinking archaeology and what it means to exhibit belongings.
After consulting with Musqueam elders on the Exhibit Advisory Group, Rowley and Wilson determined MOA would not include any ancient belongings. c̓əsnaʔəm is not viewed as an archaeological site by the Musqueam community, rather, it is a former village and cemetery and an important part of Musqueam’s history. In fact, the excavations, removal of ancestors, and many other forms of Western research have been viewed as contravention of cultural values and protocol with long-term negative impacts on the community (Roy, 2010). Rowley and Wilson were also attempting to challenge the meaning of an archaeology exhibit. MOA is known for collecting and displaying material culture, with ancient objects supplemented by plaques viewpoints from academic experts and scientists. But material culture is not equivalent to culture, and there is much more to Indigenous communities than artifacts. This exhibit clearly highlights that academics and scientists are not the only voices with valuable information to offer.
In his 1997 work Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Clifford writes about his experience reconnecting museum collections back to community voices and describes museums as contact zones (Clifford, 1997), adopting Mary Louise Pratt’s term for “the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations” (1992, p.6). However, while the contact zone has been readily taken up by museums, Boast highlights the inherent asymmetry of power in these relationships that is often overlooked and inherently neocolonial (Boast, 2011). He highlights Clifford’s warning that museums must go beyond simple consultation and cultural sensitivity and incorporate the actual sharing of authority. Boast notes that the power still remains with those who have the property, the capital, and the power to display (Geismar, 2008).
The development of ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ – Belongings took place against this context and a long history of collaboration between the Museum of Anthropology and the Musqueam Indian Band. Rowley and Wilson were central members of the ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ – Belongings development team, and the tabletop was designed with the curatorial goals of centering Musqueam voice and history in mind. Yet we saw this tangible table as an opportunity to speak to the belongings without taking focus away from the community voices, highlighting the ongoing connections between tangible and intangible cultural heritage. We drew inspiration from the museological discourse of the late 1970s, which included the ideas that knowledge is social, that knowledge is shared, and that objects themselves embody knowledge. Indeed, “a necessary condition for the generation of knowledge is engagement with objects” (Srinivasan et al., 2009). We felt that using replicas of belongings as a tangible interface would be the ideal way to access Musqueam community knowledge. In the following section, we detail the priorities and goals that shaped the design process, and an overview of our collaborative process.
Priorities and goals for ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ – Belongings
During the first meeting, we articulated the overall goals for the project. We discussed what each person hoped for from this project, sharing in a way that allowed for everyone to provide input based on their background and area of expertise. Through this exercise of sharing our experiences and viewpoints, we came up with nine related and sometimes overlapping goals that would guide us during the development of the tabletop.
- Demonstrate the richness of information that is related to small pieces/fragments from c̓əsnaʔəm;
- Help visitors understand the whole, complex, and rich story attached to archaeological fragments of belongings;
- Reinforce Musqueam values and respect; communicate that Musqueam knowledge should be treated with respect;
- Belongings are more than beautiful objects; show significance of the fragments and the non-blockbuster belongings;
- Create a conversation between visitors;
- Facilitate storytelling; help people learn about a belonging but also about Musqueam detailed knowledge of the environment, space and land;
- Bring together academic archaeology and community voice;
- Interaction with the table should somehow challenge peoples’ assumptions.
- Communicate that there are thousands of belongings from c̓əsnaʔəm but we focus on only a few to tell their complex stories.
We regularly referred back to these throughout our design process, and when the tabletop was finally installed in MOA, we derived our research questions from these goals to evaluate the design and the project overall. The visitor study testing our research questions and our overall success in meeting these goals is presented in another paper, forthcoming (Muntean et al., 2017).
Overview of collaboration in ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ – Belongings
In the design process ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings, our team’s collaborations and interactions with Musqueam included representation at the Exhibit Advisory Group meetings, incorporation of Musqueam language and values in our process, and visits to Musqueam reserve land to collaborate with Musqueam community members on creating the photographic imagery we needed for the tangible tabletop.
The MOA exhibition highlighted Musqueam voices, and the Exhibit Advisory Group was integral to ensuring that Musqueam’s voice and input came through in all of the related exhibitions. Rowley and Wilson were members of this group and attended the weekly meetings, reporting on our work and asking questions on our behalf. While Wilson is a member of the Musqueam community and could offer his knowledge on certain subjects and concerns, he would often remind the team that he could not speak for Musqueam as a whole. He and Rowley would take our questions to the Exhibit Advisory Group for input from Musqueam elders. In this way, while we as designers were not in direct contact with the elders and decision makers from the community, the importance of respect and deference to the knowledge keepers and those in charge was clear.
Even without directly working with the Musqueam members of the Exhibit Advisory Group, we still worked to embed values within our design team. This included the use of the term belongings and ensuring that the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language appeared properly in all design documents, the final installation, and scholarly publications. As mentioned previously, we adopted the term belongings, which was being used by Musqueam and the Advisory Group. In a sense we retrained our way of speaking and thinking, since we had been accustomed to using the terms object and artifact. We ensured that the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language appeared correctly throughout the design process. hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ was originally a spoken language and is now written using the North American Phonetic Alphabet, which does not render properly in many common fonts. As a result, the Exhibit Advisory Group approved the abbreviation “csnm” for use when shortening c̓əsnaʔəm for use in file naming conventions (though c̓əsnaʔəm would be used in exhibit texts and writing). We used this abbreviation in our meeting agendas, notes, design sketches, and even while no one would likely see it, we advised our programmer to use csnm in the code. The proper rendering became a greater issue when publishing academic papers on ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings. In some instances we had to change fonts from the approved templates or send screen shots to the publishers to make sure everything rendered correctly.
Muntean and Wilson also visited Musqueam to create imagery for the tabletop. Many photos used in the MOA exhibit were actually taken by community members, showing family, elders, and day-to-day activities. There were certain aspects to the design of the tabletop, though, that either required a staged shoot or images that were not available. Muntean and Wilson worked with the Musqueam Fisheries Commission to photograph the fish preparation process (See figure 5) and hiked along the foreshore and nearby woods to photograph the area and important plants.
Through our design meetings, we established that we would have both ancient and contemporary physical belongings as a way to communicate continuity of culture with a sort of activator ring to interact with the belongings and highlight the numerous, complex stories related to each belonging. In determining the overall theme for the table, Hennessy and Muntean were inspired by the fish cutting table of Sonny Williams of the Scowlitz First Nation, during a project that they were working on up the Fraser River with the Stó:lō Nation (See Figure 6). The team agreed this concept of a fish-cutting table would be a wonderful way to show the continuity of Musqueam’s fishing culture, and Exhibit Advisory Group also liked this concept. Rowley and Wilson selected the ancient and modern belongings that would best tell the stories of Musqueam practices and continuity of culture. We wanted realistic belongings, so visitors could more accurately experience the materiality of the belongings. Replicas were cast from molds of original belongings, with Musqueam approval, and modern belongings were coated with resin and sealant. Lastly, we developed the complex categories of information and the interactions needed to access that information. Along with communicating the vast network of information around the belongings and the continuity of Musqueam culture, we purposefully designed the activities to be difficult, encouraging visitors to spend more time with the belongings as a way for them to experience the Musqueam value that cultural knowledge should be treated with respect.
ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings is a unique product of long-term relationship building between curators at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and the Musqueam Indian Band, on whose territory the museum and university reside. We further offer the project as a case study of interest to the museum and media community because of the particular collaborative design process on which it was premised. In this paper, we have focused specifically on this collaborative design process (along with the important context and history on which this collaboration was based) and the ways in which such a process supported the articulation of the continuity of Musqueam cultural values in contemporary life. More broadly, ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ — Belongings is presented here as a response to the desire to reconnect fragmented collections and physical belongings from c̓əsnaʔəm with Musqueam intangible cultural knowledge, and to demonstrate the continuity of Musqueam cultural values today. One such value was represented by the use of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ term ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ, or ‘belonging’, signifying the continuing sense of ownership of Musqueam heritage. This not only includes Musqueam’s material heritage, but also the intangible heritage and complex histories that are part of these physical belongings. In addition to providing context for understanding the concept of belongings in the exhibition as a whole, we described the role of the tangible table in supporting curatorial and community goals for representing Musqueam history and identity at MOA. Our collaborative design process, and the initial design goals that informed our work together, fundamentally shaped concept development, aesthetic decisions and production processes, content development, and tangible interaction design. We believe that sharing the details of this process is a crucial dimension in conveying how this particular project came to be realized. We encourage other curators, designers, and members of Indigenous communities who are working to decolonize design and curatorial practices to similarly document and share successes and failures in representing the continuity of culture and the connections between tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
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