Indigenous Knowledge, Meaning, and Emotion in Collections Databases / Julia Gray

This study path explores how various description and access systems provide opportunities for the viewer to engage with the emotional and affective dimensions of digitized cultural objects.

By Julia Gray, Independent Consultant, Riverside Museum Solutions

Learning Objectives

  • Interpretation: To ensure students avoid the pitfall of looking for the “right answer” and demand answers that are principled…students are able to encompass as many salient facts and points of view as possible.
  • Empathy: To ensure students develop the ability to see the world from different viewpoints in order to understand the diversity of thought and feeling in the world.
  • Learners recognize that meaning making and engagement with collections/cultural belongings/objects is often an emotional process shaped by the lived experience of the person engaging with the content/cultural belonging that has not traditionally been reflected in museum catalogs.
  • Learners will be introduced to Indigenous knowledge systems that may create meaning around cultural belongings in ways that are very different from traditional museum catalogs.



This assignment asks students to think about how lived experience and culturally specific knowledge systems shape how people understand, assign meaning to, describe, and respond to cultural belongings.


Anderson, Jane. 2005. “Indigenous Knowledge, Intellectual Property, Libraries and Archives: Crises of Access, Control and Future Utility.” Australian Academic & Research Libraries 36 (2): 83–94.
Bourcier, Paul. 2017. “#Meaning : Cataloging Active Collections.” In Active Collections. New York: Routledge.
Christen, Kimberly A. 2012. “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness.” International Journal of Communication 6 (0): 24.
Cushman, Ellen. 2013. “Wampum, Sequoyan, and Story: Decolonizing the Digital Archive.” College English 76 (2): 115–35.
Duarte, Marisa Elena, and Miranda Belarde-Lewis. 2015. “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 53 (5–6): 677–702.
Krmpotich, Cara, and Alexander Somerville. 2016. “Affective Presence: The Metonymical Catalogue.” Museum Anthropology 39 (2): 178–91.

2.Visit the Plateau Peoples Web Portal

  • Examine multiple records, finding records that include both an institutional record and at least one tribal record.
  • Identify examples of metadata that catalog/convey emotion. Can you see how this reflects Indigenous knowledge systems?
  • Choose a cultural belonging that elicits an emotional response for you. Consider why you are experiencing that emotional response. Can you identify aspects of your identity and lived experience that might shape that response?

3. Find an online museum catalog from a museum that features objects/cultural belongings that are meaningful to you. For example, if you have always wanted to be an astronaut, visit If Revolutionary War history is your thing, visit Love quilts? Try

  • Find one or more objects in the catalog that elicit and emotion for you, or that are meaningful to you in some particular way.
  • Does the online catalog record reflect that response in any way?
  • What is it about your identity, lived experience, cultural knowledge system, that makes the object/cultural belonging meaningful?

4.Now visit a traditional museum catalog of Indigenous material. Some options:

What do these catalogs include for metadata? Compare to the PPWP. What are the similarities and differences?

Why does it matter? Why might it be important for museums to make space for emotion and personal meaning making in catalogs, both internal and public? Consider this from both the perspective of the community of origin and the community(ies) of end users.



Krmpotich, Cara, and Alexander Somerville. 2016. “Affective Presence: The Metonymical Catalogue.” Museum Anthropology 39 (2): 178–91.
Woods, Elizabeth, Rainey Tisdale, and Trevor Jones, eds. 2018. Active Collections. New York: Routledge.

Communities of practice

Sustainable Heritage Network

Exemplary projects

Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal

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