Exploring the Digital Frontier

Craft, Handloom, Art, Micro-history, Art History

Exploring the Digital Frontier: Creating the Ngarluma map

Wood, Sharmila

Ngarluma Ngurra: Aboriginal Culture on the map evolved from a creative initiative exploring the intergenerational transmission of Ngarluma culture and tradition through arts with a focus on tabi, the Ngarluma poetry and song tradition translated in paintings by artist Jill Churnside. From a return trip to Country undertaken as part of this endeavour, the project grew to encompass the broader Ngarluma community who were interested in exploring ways to document and record their intangible cultural heritage. In response to the Ngarluma elders desire to develop a platform which would support the transmission of knowledge to younger people, Sharmila Wood (FORM) and Andrew Dowding (Tarruru) developed the concept of embedding Ngarluma cultural values in a digital map; they brokered support from Google Earth Outreach and were the recipient of the grant which rewards organizations with outstanding mapping ideas. The map was built around a series of field trips undertaken with Ngarluma elders. Along with Ngarluma place names, film, audio, photographs and text identify particular sites around Ngarluma country, lending an insight into Ngarluma ways of seeing country. The map was launched on November 8th at FORM in Western Australia as part of a broader exhibition which curates paintings, song and objects of material culture together in order to present the richness and depth of Ngarluma culture.

Andrew Dowding is an anthropologist whose area of focus is intangible cultural heritage. He was a co-founder of the Ngarluma Ngurra: Aboriginal Culture on the map project with Sharmila Wood and conceptualized the cultural mapping methodology using Google Earth. Sharmila speaks with Andrew about the catalysts for the mapping project.

SW: Can you give us some background about how the Ngarluma Ngurra: Mapping Project began?

AD: The seeds for the project really emerged from my experience working with Ngarluma elders. These people are part of a generation who walked or rode horse back all over their Country – they didn’t use vehicles, and they have an intimate knowledge of the land because of that. These elders communicated to me that they would like to create a way to show how they are attached to places and how culture is related to these places in their Country. They wanted to document this information and make it accessible for future generations.

SW: How did you move from the need to create a way of representing Aboriginal cultural values about Country, into the digital sphere of Google Earth?

AD: Like many people I’ve used Google Earth for everyday general directions, and because I live down in Perth I really enjoyed being able to look at Ngarluma Country that I couldn’t visit in the Pilbara. It was through this function that I began to realise the power of being able to see distant places and the potential to overlay information about them. As my work progressed in the Aboriginal Heritage sector I continually saw a different application for Google Earth. I started my current work, which involved undertaking heritage surveys in the north of Australia, and I found that Google Earth helped me to visualise the places being depicted on paper maps because it gave details of the terrain, and you could see the car tracks and roads all over the land. These things helped to orient me in the landscape and I soon saw the way other Aboriginal people found it easy to navigate and orient themselves as well. For instance, I was sitting in an office in Roebourne with an old man who has now passed away, and we travelled along old dogging tracks that he had made in his days working as a dingo hunter. He used to go out for months on end with only fuel drums and a gun, he would travel solo through very remote areas of Ngarluma Country, but because of his age he was no longer able to take me to those sites. But we were able to mark out a huge number of cultural sites by just sitting at the computer and viewing Google Earth. This was the first time I saw the power of Google Earth as a cultural heritage tool. Then, through Shakti and Elias from Curiousworks I saw how you could incorporate different media into Google Earth, from videos to photographs and audio. We’ve expanded this function to create a rich, content-driven map of Ngarluma Country using Google Earth, with the aim of using it as a platform for the protection and preservation of Aboriginal culture. We have asked community members to take us to a place they want to record content about, and we record it with a film crew, and then incorporate that into the map for others to learn about. This allows non-Aboriginal people to see how Aboriginal people understand land as being embedded with stories. By using high definition cameras, GPS and other new technologies, we are creating new cultural documents for people to use and refer too.

SW: You mentioned the idea of the map as a database, which suggests that you see it as a digital repository – How important is this aspect of the project?

AD: Well, the idea of bringing together information in a way that is free, accessible and public where appropriate, is something I feel passionately about. This is primarily because the elders I’ve worked with have expressed their desire to show that Australia is not empty of culture, that this is not an empty landscape devoid of any deep meaning and importance.
There have also been some experiences I’ve had that have influenced this belief. A turning point was discovering my grandfather’s recordings in an archive in Canberra. My grandfather was a prolific recorder of songs and stories, but getting access to these recordings was not the easiest process and I became very frustrated. When we did eventually repatriate them, I took the recordings to Roebourne and played them for elders, some of whom were very emotional about hearing my Grandfather’s voice again and there was a real sense of re-establishing a connection with traditional stories and the genre of songs called tabi. There was also a sense of pride that Ngarluma has this rich cultural body of stories, songs and poems that the elders were remembering and exploring again. These are really precious because they are a snapshot of cultural knowledge from the late 1960s and it demonstrated to me that because many of our traditional forms of passing on knowledge orally from one generation to another have been slowly eroded, that recordings and documentation are very important – as was having this material readily available for people to connect with.

The other important factor was going to New Delhi in India and working in the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (A.R.C.E). I saw how lacking Australia’s cultural infrastructure is, and how the real strength of A.R.C.E was their connection to communities. I began to see how archives were not only places for researchers to compile or hold materials, that they should not function in isolation from the people who own the content. Dr. Shubha Chaudhuri, the Managing Director of A.R.C.E, actively sought to engage the communities whose knowledge was stored in the archives by continuing to work with them, hand back materials and ensure ongoing cultural maintenance of their traditions.

SW: So the idea of mapping country in this way emerged from a combination of realising the possibilities that new technologies offered, but also the desire to create a digital archive that, as opposed to traditional archives, was accessible to the Ngarluma community and the wider public?

AD: Definitely. Over the past 100 years Aboriginal people have continually given information to people in government departments, in mining companies and researchers who have valued that material for the period that they have been engaged with Aboriginal communities, but then have made no attempt to repatriate it afterwards. It’s very sad because there is a lot of room to encourage this kind of repatriation in order for Aboriginal people to control and access their own socio-cultural information, now and into the future – particularly when the most common practice is for this information to be held in static archives that are located in places that are distant and foreign to the Aboriginal community.
The new frontier for archives all over the world is the movement towards digitising and repatriating, although this repatriation is not happening fast enough. Aboriginal people are frustrated because these precious resources are something that they want to utilise in order to teach their own communities about their history and culture.

SW: How is Google Earth different and why do you see this particular platform as aligning best with the needs of Aboriginal people?

AD: Generally, cultural heritage databases solely rely on the use of text. The importance of the online map is that it can demonstrate how Aboriginal culture is connected to land and is not just about being on Country, but is also about knowing your Country, which means knowing rivers, knowing the tracks that get you to those places, knowing the historical roots that are embedded in that country. We now have leaders in our community who agree it is important information that younger people should have access too. Google Earth is digital, it’s on the Internet, it can be accessed by multiple users and that’s the real power of the Internet: connectivity. There is now a new generation of Aboriginal kids who have mobile phones that are 3G enabled and they have the Internet in their hands. This map allows them to not only have access to their cultural information, but to see their elders and culture represented in an exciting digital format. I see a real need for Aboriginal people to forge a strong digital presence, for elders to harness these creative forces in this form of multimedia so they are in control of their digital identities. This will be a big part of the next ten years.

SW: How do you see Google Earth being used by Aboriginal communities in the future?

AD: With the promise of the National Broadband Network Aboriginal communities will begin to keep pace with the types of digital identities that communities all over the world are forming. It will take some innovation, and brave elders to step into that frontier, but we’ve already seen how the Canning Stock Route Project and others like the Mulka project in Arnhem Land, as well as Goolari Media in Broome, IcampfireTV. com and Juluwarlu in Roebourne are forming digital identities and creating multi-media. Personally, I feel it’s the Internet which will drive the next form of cultural innovation; up until now it’s been television and DVDs that have driven a need to record culture. However, with the Internet you can connect to a massive audience with relatively little infrastructure and make a real impact if you have good digital strategies in place. We’re hoping that more elders will adopt this form of mapping as a cultural teaching tool for their own communities, as well as educating the broader Australian community about the precious cultural resource they have in their own backyard. Aboriginal people have lived here for millennia, and have cultural, ecological and historical knowledge which is unique and needs to be acknowledged and valued.



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