Since the advent of sound recording technology in the late nineteenth century, anthropologists, folklorists, and ethnomusicologists have steadily recorded music, spoken word, and traditional cultural expressions around the world. Today, sound recordings like these are available in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and similar ethnographic archives worldwide. These heritage recordings are valued for the unique contribution they can make to language revitalization and other cultural sustainability initiatives, but their public availability may occasionally cause concern.
In June 2019, I spoke with several individuals in Southern California whose ancestors, the last speakers of their language, were recorded decades ago by a renowned Smithsonian linguist. They cherish their grandmothers’ voices, but at the same time, they’re dismayed that the recordings and accompanying fieldnotes disclose privileged cultural and personal matters that community members would prefer to keep private.
“Has anyone asked the Smithsonian to restrict them?” I asked.
“We didn’t know we could!” they replied.
In the interest of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships with the heritage communities represented in our collections, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage recently developed a Shared Stewardship of Collections policy for sound recordings, photographs, and moving images. With these guidelines, we aim to foster sustained dialogue with source communities, promote greater engagement with their heritage collections, enhance and refine cultural documentation and associated metadata, ensure culturally appropriate collection care and display, and create simple pathways for digital return and repatriation.
Shared stewardship (sometimes called “co-curation”) refers to sharing authority, expertise, and responsibility for the respectful attribution, documentation, interpretation, display, care, storage, public access, and disposition of a collection item with the advice of the source community. Shared stewardship can lead to a wide variety of outcomes. Providing culturally appropriate contextual background for sound recordings and other collections is one possibility. Disallowing access to culturally sensitive materials—such as sacred songs that may be performed and heard only by members of a particular family or community, or during a particular season of the year—is another.
Our staff developed the Shared Stewardship of Collections policy building upon protocols for respectful and culturally appropriate care of collections, codes of ethics of archives professional societies, and best practices of archival repositories with similar cultural heritage collections. We circulated drafts to Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues on three continents in an effort to make our final policy recommendations as widely applicable as possible.
The Center has long acknowledged a special responsibility for curating the intangible cultural heritage in its care. Anthony Seeger, the first director/curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings after the institution acquired Folkways Records in 1987, was a steadfast champion of the intellectual property rights of performers. Smithsonian staff members Sita Reddy and D. A. Sonneborn wrote, “If we treat these diverse recordings as mere records or documentation of information about music traditions (some of which were recorded more than 70 years ago), we may end up reifying stereotypes about indigenous groups, denying them some capacity to recover their own traditional resources for creating their own futures.”
Yet despite our continual review of our archival collections, it’s still possible to find songs and other materials containing culturally sensitive material, or documentation that contains errors, omissions, misunderstandings, or culturally inaccurate information. For this reason, our Shared Stewardship of Collections policy extends an open invitation to all artists, performers, and scholars represented in our collections to collaboratively steward them or—in certain cases described within the policy—to seek custody of them.
We trust that community members will recognize in the Center’s Shared Stewardship of Collections policy our profound respect for their cultural knowledge, our acknowledgement of their shared authority, and our commitment to consultation.
Robert Leopold is deputy director for research and collections and interim director of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.