Skip to main content

Perclusive Alliances Digital 3-D, Museums, and the Reconciling of Culturally Diverse Knowledges


Although social mechanisms for the control of knowledge are widely studied, research into how intersecting groups and institutions reconcile culturally different approaches to knowledge has been limited. I explore this territory by looking at a collaborative project to create digital 3-D scans and replicas of objects of cultural patrimony that was developed between the National Museum of Natural History and the Tlingit tribe of Alaska in 2010. These 3-D reproductions highlight the social values ascribed to digital technology, including its perceived ability to disseminate knowledge and reveal to the public the inner workings of museums, such as the process of repatriation. The presumed and deceptively straightforward nature of copies, however, belies their powers of social transformation. As explored through these 3-D digital replica projects, I argue these are not only about the power to physically replicate something but also the potential to construct relationships and, therefore, to transform the current social order. I look at the problems of using the term “secrecy” in these cross-cultural contexts, opting instead to identify how responsibilities are assigned to knowledge and its use. By also identifying what I term “perclusive” alliances that traverse groups and public/private knowledge categories, I argue for an analytical approach that studies across institutional and cultural contexts, thereby identifying variations in how these responsibilities toward knowledge are assigned and according to which contexts as well as the means employed to negotiate difference.

Imagine you are involved in negotiations over the repatriation of a culturally significant object and you are asked to digitally replicate it so that the facsimile can stay in the museum and the original can be returned to the community. Does it matter whether it is the museum that requests its production or the community? Is it relevant who will pay for its replication? At the end of this process, who owns or controls the data files created by the scanning—the museum, the digital lab, or the community? Also, who decides when future replicas can be made and under what circumstances? Ultimately, what kind of knowledge is involved and who controls it?

When I took up my current position at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) at the Smithsonian in 2010, I learned that the Repatriation Office, in collaboration with a series of North American tribes, was beginning to explore digital technology to reproduce repatriated objects. Previously, I had investigated how historic replicas made by anthropologists provided insight into different cultural approaches to the reproduction of knowledge (Isaac 2010, 2011). Finding contemporary equivalents to this research on the reproduction and management of knowledge triggered the questions I posed above, and I set out to do an ethnography of these digital replicas of culturally significant objects.

Not so fast—my colleagues at the Smithsonian cautioned—these were sensitive issues requiring long-term associations with communities, many of which have spent years working with the NMNH Repatriation Office. These 3-D replication projects had developed out of these relationships, and it was not appropriate for me to abruptly turn up and ask probing questions. True. Who was I to think that because there was emergent technology involved that was being publicly celebrated as a new solution to old museum problems (Brown 2008; Clough 2013; Keene 1997; Macedonia 2003; Ngata et al. 2012; Rowley et al. 2010; Srinivasan 2009) that this environment was not still fraught with the preexisting and ongoing tribulations faced by tribes and museums over the disposition and control of cultural heritage? After meetings with Eric Hollinger, an archeologist and case officer for the NMNH Repatriation Office and the lead on these digital projects, and Bill Billeck, the repatriation program manager, we decided I would join a project being designed at the time with the Tlingit Hoonah Indian Association (HIA) of the village of Hoonah, Alaska. Hollinger and Billeck stipulated that the community members involved should know from the start of my intentions to document and explore these topics as they negotiated this new territory into the creation or re-creation of their cultural heritage with the museum.

As a result, this inquiry not only became about the transformative powers of digital technology but also about my own transformation from outsider ethnographer with limited understandings of digital replication to the insider federal Smithsonian employee drawn into relationships of obligation with the Repatriation Office, the Smithsonian Institution, Tlingit clan members, and Tlingit tribal governments. It became about understanding how responsibilities toward knowledge are assigned, and in particular, how these are ascribed according to each context of use. This included looking at how the NMNH and the Tlingit developed cross-cultural agreements over responsibilities toward Tlingit knowledge, such that Tlingit cultural norms were honored when these cultural objects were digitally reproduced and printed as well as NMNH museum practices that valued transparency in the collaborative process, as well as maintaining public access to objects. This research also stimulated an examination into how cross-cultural alliances were formed to navigate these different cultural approaches to knowledge use rights, as well the use of technology to materialize and make visible these relationships. Interviews I conducted with the digital 3-D project participants demonstrated specialized responsibilities toward the use and maintenance of cultural and technological knowledge and identified areas where the new technology presented challenges with the control of future responsibilities toward this knowledge and, therefore, archiving knowledge for future use. In effect, with these “new norms of disclosure and related practices of exposure” (Manderson et al. 2015) cutting across diverse groups and knowledges came responsibilities that required complex alliances, not just over the immediate disposition of heritage items, but also the long-term responsibilities toward them.

This research also drew attention to problems arising from using “secrecy” as a comprehensive term to describe contexts in which knowledge is controlled or restricted. Our options in describing these scenarios generally emphasize dichotomies where if it is not “transparent,” it is “secret,” or if it is not “public,” it is “private.” At times, however, an object or social relationship occupies, traverses, or binds both public and private realms, such as will be demonstrated here with 3-D replicas. What are the mechanisms or knowledge-management strategies used to cross otherwise unworkable and rigid divides between public/private spheres and across cultures? Behind the practice of “secrecy” is a series of protocols that, although they result in concealing or revealing things, also function to match particular knowledge and expertise with what is perceived to be its appropriate use and context. How responsibilities toward knowledge or knowledge use rights and their specific contexts are defined, and by whom, as well as how these are managed over time, are the variant-values used to structure the analytical framework here. My underlying aim is to unpack the principles that make up the mechanics of knowledge management, which are often masked or collapsed together when a value-laden term such as “secrecy” is used.

Consequently, I problematize the two-dimensional divide between public and private knowledge, identifying more exactly a multidimensional conceptualization of knowledge membership that recognizes how responsibilities toward knowledge are assigned and, as seen in this case of the 3-D replicas, may be shared across specialized groups, between institutions, and over time. I call these memberships “perclusive” alliances, as they are constructed to crosscut and integrate diverse value regimes that determine knowledge use. The term “perclusive” intentionally works against the duality of inclusive/exclusive categories, instead denoting responsibilities toward privileged and expert knowledge that must now transect a range of groups with different interests and in a range of different contexts—a series of contradictions raised by these replicas. A perclusive or multidimensional conceptualization of privileged knowledge alliances provides a means to consider manifold internal and external alliances working in relation to each other as well as how obligations toward knowledge are assigned and maintained across groups. This insight is critical when analyzing situations involving knowledge diversity as well as how difference in these contexts is mediated. In particular, it helps elucidate how individuals in multi-interest national institutions such as the NMNH and tribal members such as the Tlingit reconcile and enable the enacting of different cultural values both across departments and divisions within their own institutions and groups and between a range of cultures. This process has become central to museums in general and repatriation offices and tribal cultural management offices in particular.

The idea is to provide insight into the architecture of responsibility and obligations toward knowledge use, as well as how these intersect and engage within cross-cultural environments such as a museum. Although knowledge access—such as digital access to collections—may be seen to be granted to a wide audience, in reality smaller groups of experts—clan leaders, archivists, clan historians and so forth—hold specific responsibility for its maintenance over time. I add to this dynamic the fact that knowledge, unlike objects, once exchanged, is shared between the originator and the receiver. Control is therefore defined by and enacted through use rights and, as is the case here, reproduction rights (Isaac 2014). In a context where museums and Native American communities mediate and negotiate multiple power structures (i.e., federal and state governments, tribal governments and museums, clan leaders, religious societies, archives and education departments, etc.), alliances are key to understanding how rights toward the dissemination and use of knowledge is navigated, shared, or impeded between groups. Critical to this analysis are concepts that recognize how caretakers of objects of cultural heritage and patrimony are, according to many tribes and communities, not conceived as individual owners but as having obligations of care toward these objects and their associated knowledges for future generations. In effect, this multidimensional conceptualization of social membership and knowledge obligations must be able to define cross-cultural dynamics and explain these through time and over multiple generations.

In investigating the locus of power and spheres of influence that control how these replicas and associated knowledges are conceived and used, I also ask, when we replicate an object of cultural significance, to what extent do we replicate the social relationships and obligations embodied by the original? Do we reproduce or transform these? The presumed and deceptively simple nature of copies and replicas belies their potentially hidden powers of social transformation. As explored through these 3-D digital replicas, I argue not only that they are about the power to replicate something but also about the potential to transform it and, therefore, to transform the current social order.

To tease out these concerns, I present this case study of the use of 3-D digital technology in NMNH projects with the Tlingit tribe of Alaska. Although bounded by one institution and a limited range of Tlingit communities, these projects provide a means to begin to challenge our assumptions about the divide between public and private knowledge, who controls what knowledge within museum settings, and how cross-cultural or cross-membership practices are created and governed over time, including into the future.

Digital Replicas and Repatriation at NMNH

The genesis of digital 3-D replicas in the repatriation process at the NMNH dates from 2007, when the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe of Wisconsin, the Delaware Nation, and the Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma submitted a request to repatriate culturally affiliated human remains and funerary objects from the Minisink site in New Jersey. While the Repatriation Office assessed this claim, the representative for the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe, Sherry White, took part in a training program at the Repatriation Office’s Osteological Identification Laboratory. Here she received instruction on identification techniques used on human remains and encountered a range of investigative tools such as x-ray, CT scanning, and laser scanning as well as 3-D prints of fossils that had been prepared by the Office of Exhibits Central (OEC). Before returning the objects to the tribes, White asked the Smithsonian to scan a seventeenth-century pewter pipe that had been excavated from a burial near the Minisink site. According to Hollinger and colleagues, “White felt the replica of the pipe would allow her to teach others about early historic Munsee material culture and about the repatriation, but they would still be able to address the spiritual concerns with the original by burying it” (Hollinger et al. 2013:206). A 3-D replica was produced by the OEC and presented at a gathering for the official repatriation, whereupon the attending tribes requested additional copies be made so that each could have a duplicate to educate tribal members about their history. Repatriation claims often require negotiations between multiple related tribes who trace their origins back to a single ancestral culture. This initiated 3-D modeling as a new avenue within the repatriation process to distribute heritage knowledge to communities divided by geography but united by cultural origins, as well as to allow the museum and each tribe to retain a surrogate.

A year after the Delaware project, a second initiative developed between the NMNH Repatriation Office and the Tlingit. Mark Jacobs Jr., the leader of the Dakl’aweidi clan, and his son Harold Jacobs, cultural resources specialist with the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, requested the return of a Dakl’aweidi clan Killer Whale crest hat or Kéet S’aaxw, which had been purchased for the NMNH by Smithsonian ethnologist John Swanton in the early 1900s. The Tlingit repatriation claim was successful, and the hat was returned in 2005, with Mark Jacobs passing away only days after its return. During the memorial potlatch for Jacobs in 2007, the Killer Whale hat was passed down to the clan leader’s successor, Edwell John Jr. In 2010, John and Harold Jacobs visited the NMNH, bringing the repatriated hat with them with the idea of having it scanned and producing a 3-D digital file. According to Hollinger, Jacobs shared stories of a fire in 1944 that destroyed almost all clan objects in the Tlingit village of Hoonah; he “observed that the technology could enable Tlingit clans to digitally archive their important crest objects in case of loss to fire or other disasters” (Hollinger et al. 2013:207).

The Repatriation Office was also interested in finding ways to communicate and make repatriation more visible to the public. Billeck, the head of NMNH’s Repatriation Office, stated in an interview that he “wanted something in the exhibits about repatriation … that was impossible because if we had something repatriated—it would be gone. Then we thought if we could make a replica of something and tell that story that might suffice. … That is how we got into 3-D.” The NMNH Repatriation Office, the OEC, and Edwell John Jr. entered into a collaborative project in which the hat was replicated using digital technology and a milling machine. The resulting replica was painted using colors matched to the original and fitted with hand-cut abalone inlay, attached human hair, and ermine skins. The completed replica was accessioned into the NMNH Anthropology Department collections and then in 2012 loaned to Q?rius, the new NMNH education center, as a vehicle for communicating to the public the cultural values of the Tlingit as well as this particular repatriation story.

Toward the end of the Killer Whale hat replication project, the NMNH received a repatriation request from the HIA for 53 funerary objects from shamans’ graves. During consultation sessions, repatriation staff showed tribal representatives the 3-D scanning technology and the Delaware and Tlingit replication projects and inquired whether the HIA would be interested in “exploring opportunities for the application of digital technology” (Hollinger et al. 2013:209). Consequently, HIA tribal administrator, Robert Starbard, agreed for objects to be scanned and replicated for HIA’s educational purposes. From a Tlingit perspective, these kinds of shaman objects contain spirits called yeik that could be harmful if not handled appropriately. As the replicas would not contain the yeik, the HIA argued that they could be handled and used in educational programming for community members and possibly exhibited for the public. Together, the museum and community selected an elaborately carved oyster-catcher rattle as the first object to scan, printing it using 3-D color printing techniques and painting it to match the wood original.

In 2012, Hollinger and Adam Metallo from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office (DPO) and Carolyn Thome from the OEC attended the Tlingit “Sharing Our Knowledge” clan conference in Sitka, Alaska.1 They brought the Killer Whale replica hat and the replica of the rattle from Hoonah, and with Edwell John Jr. and Harold Jacobs, told the story of the NMNH, Dakl’aweidi, and HIA collaborative projects. In a paper authored by the replica team, John’s speech from the conference is quoted; he refers to the Killer Whale hat replica as an object of important cultural and clan memory: “When I look at this hat I see Mark Jacobs. I see my uncle Dan Brown. I see my mom, Alice. And it’s just amazing that I could be a part of this” (Hollinger et al. 2013:211). The Smithsonian team also brought scanning equipment to the conference, and clan leaders agreed to hats and clan objects being scanned to archive them for the community. During the Raven and Wolf/Eagle dances at the clan house, the original and the replica hat were danced alongside each other by descendants of the original caretaker of the hat, a clan leader named Gusht’eiheen (Spray Behind the Dorsal Fin).

The Killer Whale hat replica now resides in a display case in Q?rius, the NMNH education center, and the clan is authorized to check it out to be danced as clan regalia. Before going on exhibit, it was brought out for a series of presentations and ceremonies and it was danced at the American Indian Society’s Inaugural Powwow and Ball in January 2013. It was also featured as a key project at the Smithsonian digital fair in November 2013. The Killer Whale replica hat is fast becoming one of the most exalted progeny of digital heritage projects at the Smithsonian.

Are All Reproductions Created Equal?

The origins of the term “replica” provide a useful entry point for examining ideas about reproduction as a social process. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “replica” has its origins in Latin, in which it meant “to fold back,” and then in mid-eighteenth-century Italian, replicare, “to reply,” a musical term meaning “a repeat.” The history of this term provides contexts for its use and illuminates a relational view of reproduction, where the act itself builds on what went before—not so much a conversation but a sequence in which the reply duplicates what came previously. In this framework the replica is valued for its repetition within a broader exchange.

I emphasize this relational aspect to counter what I see as the overreliance in postmodern literature on interpreting replication according to the dichotomies “original” versus “copy,” and with digital 3-D, the “real” versus the “virtual.” This hierarchy between original and the copy is a conceptualization of knowledge reproduction that is not universally cross-cultural (Isaac 2011). For example, for the A:shiwi—the citizens of Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico—a reproduction made using the same knowledge as the original not only is an affirmation of this knowledge but it maintains the same powers as the original. Representational frameworks, however, commonly situate copies according to issues of authenticity and, therefore, assign them a diminished value in comparison with the original (Stewart 1991). Yet as the Zuni example illustrates, there needs to be recognition of how and why different cultural values are ascribed to the process of reproducing knowledge and how this affects socialization processes of which these values are a part. As Brown and Nicholas (2012) point out, “For some indigenous groups … no distinction is made between sacred objects, and the like, and copies (including photographs) of them. All are equally powerful, sacred, or otherwise instilled with vital values and thus require appropriate care and protection” (314). Because of her experiences in Vanuatu and New Zealand, Geismar (2013) also suggests that “we start to consider the digital as the new analog,” as there are “surprising similarities in the ways in which people work with digital and non-digital collections,” not to mention that many things are now “born digital” (255).

In tracing how societies have responded in the past to the invention of technology used for the reproduction of things, we find a well-documented example with the invention of the printing press. The transformative power of the press to materialize and disseminate ideas on a vast scale gave it a recognized power, resulting in heated debates about its control and the concept of copyright (Woodmansee 1994). Much later, the invention of the camera obscura was seen to be the catalyst for a modernist subjectivity and the idea of the “observer” (Crary 1992). The subsequent invention of photography introduced debates about whether it conferred a valuable status to its subjects or diminished their aura (Benjamin 1968). Questions arose about its relationship with power: was it more likely to be used as a surveillance tool for those in power (Tagg 1993) or as a tool for disseminating and revealing social inequities (Azoulay 2008)? Its analogic and indexical qualities have been explored as part of nineteenth-century ideas about positivism (Edwards 1992) and later as part of modernist and postmodernist concerns with the subjective nature of evidence (Mandel and Sultan 1977). In recent times, cyber technology such as the Internet and social media has met with similar concerns: will these technologies help create new societies and democracies or mirror preexisting power structures and inequities (Cameron and Kenerdine 2007; Creeber and Royston 2008; Gunthert 2008; Haraway 1991; Hogsden and Poulter 2012; Miller and Slater 2000; Salmond 2012; Turner 2010; Were 2013)?

The continual use and ubiquity of phrases like “digital revolution” or “digital divide” indicate the extent to which technologies such as the web, digital photography, cell phone photography, 3-D scans, and 3-D printing are ascribed the powers of social transformation. Hence, the reproduction of things is not merely about social replication but transformation of the social order. Innovations in technology developed to reproduce things were and are often met with questions about the extent to which their reproductive powers were and are transformative. For example, according to Enlightenment schools of thought, accurate reproductions were an essential part of establishing empiricist frameworks, introducing Cartesian dualism and the separation of mind and body. Later, according to Marxist theories, industrialized reproductions had become about the commodification of labor and, therefore, a project of alienation (Marx 1992). Subsequent social theorists critiqued taste within the reproduction and consumption of commodities as a means of creating distinction and social status (Bourdieu 1984). These varying perspectives all share the premise that reproduction needs to be controlled—whether to gain scientific insight, economic power, or social identity.

From this overview we can assert that not all reproductions are created equal, and neither are they simply copies of things. Replication is a transformation from one being to two, and so on, which creates a collective and a dynamic dialogue. When thinking about the NMNH project of making replicas of objects that have been repatriated to tribes, are we looking at the reproduction of duplicated preexisting power structures and approaches to knowledge-use rights, or are we faced with the redistribution or transformation of power and knowledge-use protocol between institutions and peoples? Below, I explore these questions through the different perspectives that stem from the digital 3-D projects at the Smithsonian, documenting the range of specialized knowledge groups they traverse.

3-D Relationships: Interviews with Team Members

At the heart of this inquiry is an examination of the range of cultural and institutional values ascribed to the reproduction of knowledge as viewed through the replication of an object of cultural patrimony and the mechanisms used to control its use and meaning. Drawing from interviews conducted with the digital 3-D team members and collaborators, I look at Tlingit ideas about the clan crest and the replica as well as the process by which it was created. I chart relationships of obligation toward expert knowledge within and between groups, revealing areas where agreements across groups have built perclusive alliances. I consider how expertise is established and how this enables us to think about knowledge production and the extent to which the replica may or may not change preexisting Tlingit or Smithsonian frameworks and economies for controlling knowledge production.

A fundamental value that the Tlingit communicated to the Smithsonian staff was that of at.óow. At.óow are sacred tangible and intangible property that embody a specific moiety’s lineage and knowledge.2 To make an object at.óow, the moiety must “kill money” on it during a clan gathering so that this payment is witnessed and acknowledged by the associated opposite moiety, thereby enacting and strengthening cross-moiety obligations. “Killing money” is part of a socialization process that an object or song undergoes in order to “pay back” opposite moieties. At its heart, the practice maintains a cycle of ownership and reciprocity rooted within cross-moiety alliances. The at.óow crests also manifest rights toward clan knowledge and history—all of which become the responsibility of its caretaker. Hollinger suggested in an interview that these crest objects “are owned by the Clan or House as a whole rather than by individuals. They are seen as embodying the spirits of past, present and future generations of Tlingit. Objects that are at.óow are only displayed at important occasions and are ‘brought out’ to match at.óow of the opposite moiety.”3 Additionally, the “tangible property of the crest objects as well as the intangible property of the stories and songs associated with the crests depicted on the objects are fiercely defended by the Tlingit as the intellectual property of the clans” (Hollinger et al. 2013:202).

At.óow is an important concept in regard to understanding the Killer Whale hat replica, as Tlingit have repeatedly stated that the original one is at.óow, which is why they needed it to be repatriated. Hollinger pointed out that although the Killer Whale hat replica was not at.óow, it was “a depiction of the crest” of the Killer Whale and that this had its own significance. For example, when the Tlingit visited the Smithsonian after the replica had been made, they requested permission to access it and dance it. Hollinger observed in an interview that “this is an extension of their interest in using it, as it displays the crest. It is regalia. It is not at.óow, but it displays the crest that represents the at.óow.” An object on which the clan kills money takes on sentient and affective powers. Objects and regalia that evoke the same crest symbol as something that is at.óow do not have the same sacred status, but they do inspire respect by representing a sacred being. Hollinger noted that reproductions have been referred to by his Tlingit colleagues in other ways: “I heard a few times over the years [a clan leader] refer to a replica or reproduction as a ‘shadow’ when referring to copies of hats commissioned to replicate ones that are broken or lost, but before they go through ceremonies to become at.óow.” In agreements between clan leaders and the Smithsonian, Edwell John requested that “whenever the replica is shown, it needs to say it is a replica,” because he did “not want people confusing it with the real thing … [or for] other Tlingit to [misunderstand] that he has allowed an object that is at.óow to be displayed in the museum context rather than have it at home.”4 For the Tlingit, the distinction between the two is paramount.

The replica embodies and transforms the relationships developed through or strengthened by its creation. During clan conferences, replicas were presented as representative of these relationships by the community members involved in the project, leading Hollinger to note that “they were honoring the replica and the product—and the relationship is part of the product.”5 Gunter Waibel, director of the Smithsonian’s DPO, discussed in an interview how the replica embodied the Smithsonian’s relationship with the Tlingit: “Our relationship is one of trust—that is paramount above all else in dealing with these objects. … That makes perfect sense to me that these sensitivities exist and need to be honored.”6 In venues across the Smithsonian, the at.óow Killer Whale hat was used in performances that revealed that the relationships involved were part of a wider political arena. During the installation of the replica into the NMNH education center, Q?rius, Edwell John Jr., and Garfield George, a clan leader of the opposite moiety, accompanied by a group of Tlingit dancers, displayed the at.óow Killer Whale hat and explained to the education staff the cultural values it represented. Dances and the story of the replica were shared with the NMNH museum board and the public at the NMNH and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) (fig. 1).

Figure 1. 
Figure 1. 

Jonathan Zastrow (Office of Exhibits Central) and Edwell John Jr. holding the Killer Whale hat in front of the case displaying the replica hat, Education Center, National Museum of Natural History, October 2013.

Although not a legal requirement, a letter of agreement written between the Smithsonian and the Tlingit clan leaders was one Hollinger and the Repatriation Office believed was important in establishing the specific contexts in which the replica would be used.

The letter of agreement authorizes the NMNH to make the replica using 3-D digital files, that the replica will be used for standard museum purposes and will not be further replicated without approval of the clan leader, the replica hat is to be accompanied by a tag making it clear that the original hat is an important crest hat of the clan, that the original hat was repatriated from the NMNH in 2005 to Dakl’weidi Clan Leader Mark Jacobs, Jr., and that the reproduction was created with the permission of the current Clan Leader and caretaker of the hat, Edwell John, Jr.; any public display of the replica hat is to be accompanied with labels mutually agreed upon by the Smithsonian and the Dakl’weidi Clan Leader. The agreement also states that the Smithsonian and the Dakl’weidi Clan recognize that the original Killer Whale crest hat is at.óow and any replica of the Killer Whale crest hat produced by the Smithsonian is not at.óow because it has not gone through the formal process under Tlingit customs of having been commissioned and brought out and paid for and that no money will be killed on the replica as would happen when bringing out true Tlingit at.óow and therefore the Dakl’weidi Clan does not assert any claim or right of ownership to the replica of the Killer Whale crest hat.7

Hollinger explained that “we have a section that acknowledges the original is at.óow and the replica is not. … While there is nothing requiring us to do this, we want to get this straight, either verbally or in writing, that we have an understanding of the context that the hat comes from and, therefore, the potentials and the limitations that the replica might live in.” These obligations were formally codified through the accessioning of the replica by the NMNH Department of Anthropology, which the head of the Repatriation Office considered to be a “push for control of the [replica] object. … Because of an ongoing relationship that we wanted this object to have with the Tlingit community, it was important to have it in Anthropology, so that we could have a voice in that object having this continued relationship.”8 Hollinger noted that this accession also safeguarded the object from loss or damage within the institution. Obligations to the Tlingit and the use of new technology produced an object needing cocuration, with the NMNH Repatriation Office finding institutional means for ensuring these into the future. Notably, the Repatriation Office felt it had a better chance of meeting Tlingit use rights than leaving it to others, such as the Education Department.

Besides clan knowledge, the replicas also now embody a complex series of pioneering digital technologies and knowledge. Looking at these helps chart how expertise and knowledge production is understood and mediated between the groups involved. For example, the Killer Whale hat was scanned and photogrammetry done so that detailed digital files could be compiled for its archiving and reproduction (see Hollinger et al. 2013). A team of technicians training in digital 3-D scanning was at work for the most part of a year perfecting the technology needed to master this experimental process: “You have to have experience to make decisions, and in order to have experience, you need to do it.”9 Each digital project forged new knowledge, and each stage was shared with Edwell John Jr., the Tlingit partner in this collaboration, so that he both contributed to how the Tlingit form was reproduced and learned the technology involved.

Through engaging both with the object and the reproduction technology, a number of team members noted how new insight was gained. As Hollinger observed, the process became one of knowledge production: “We have come to find that we gained a deeper understanding of the objects themselves and the cultural context in which they functioned originally.” The physical process for the hat replication involved a milling machine that, with the work of OEC technician John Zastrow, created the replica from a block of wood. Zastrow learned that the digital scanner did not always read materials accurately such that there was no recognition of sections where there was abalone shell inlay. As a result, he had to hand carve slots for the shell. The intricacies of inlay and painting techniques also required specialized knowledge from Tlingit artists with whom OEC staff consulted. In the accession records for the replicas, the specific expertise was listed both for the original and the replica: “The maker of the original crest hat was a Desheetaan clan leader named Yeilnawoo who was brother in law to Gushteheen, the original owner/caretaker. The makers of this replica hat were OEC model makers Lora Collins (hair, paint and Ermine skins) and John Zastrow (wood, leather and shell).”10

Smithsonian and community members questioned early on whether these mechanical replicas interfered with or altered traditional Tlingit carving practices, expertise, and knowledge economies. It was noted that carving is sometimes undertaken outside the community to meet global market demands: “People from Japan and Germany commission [carvings] and there are long waiting lists. They take years to make a single hat. … The carving now—including hats and at.óow—is sometimes being outsourced.”11 Initially, carvers alerted other carvers to meet with the Smithsonian team to discuss the possible threats digital printing might pose to them. “They were worried about the technology replacing them, and they told us they were sending tweets or e-mails out to each other saying, ‘You better see this. This is going to put us out of business.’”12 At the first clan conference that was attended by the Smithsonian 3-D team, carvers and clan leaders alike were concerned that the technology might replace them or allow for the rapid commercialization of their traditional objects by non-Tlingits, infringing on their traditional cultural property rights. Once they were involved in team discussions and gained hands-on experience with the technology, some carvers began to describe digital scanning as a tool that could be used appropriately or abused by carvers or noncarvers alike. The discussion became less about the threats of the technology itself and more about the need for the products to be managed according to Tlingit values.

Financial policies also play a role in marking out obligations, and they reveal how particular relationships are codified within public institutions. The projects currently under way to produce replicas of culturally significant objects include objects for the HIA being paid for by the HIA, with a second set for the NMNH being paid for by the museum. A Tlingit clan leader has also decided to have a clan hat depicting a sculpin fish, held at the NMNH, replicated and recreated to its original state, as the original is broken. The clan is considering then bringing it to the community in Alaska and to kill money on it, thereby making it at.óow and essentially replacing and restoring the crest to service in the community. The Smithsonian will retain a digital scan and will restrict access to and use of this according to clan authorization protocols.

Early on in the Killer Whale hat project, the Tlingit communicated concern about the public being able to mass reproduce the replica and requested that once the digital scans of it were uploaded to a public website (SmithsonianX3D), these files not be available to the public to download ( Currently this is the only object in this 3-D gallery that cannot be downloaded and printed. This kind of request charts a new direction for the museum for the long-term oversight and restriction of access, as Billeck noted: “People are concerned about the ability for people to reproduce an object that looks very much like the original. So we were concerned about where do we put [the files], where do we store them, how do we retrieve them, how do we put controls on them?” Issues specific to federal institutions are also of concern: “How do we protect the digital record within a federal facility? With the Killer Whale hat replica, control of its use is written into the accession documents, but control over the digital information is an area needing further discussion and work between the Tlingit, the Smithsonian, archivists, and technicians.”13 Internal Smithsonian directives pertaining to digital collections allow for the museum to restrict or deny access to digital files of culturally sensitive collections, but how these might be fully identified and addressed in the future remains to be explored.


In April of 2015, at the meetings for the Society of American Archaeology (SAA), the collaborative NMNH and Tlingit replica project was presented by Eric Hollinger at a session titled “3D Modeling and Printing in Archaeology: Transformative Innovations/Appropriations.” His presentation was met with commendations as to the innovative nature of the project, as well as skepticism by a few participants who had reservations about the use of 3-D printing technology in contexts such as museums, where indigenous groups were already conveying their ongoing anguish about their inability to control objects of cultural significance, as well as any culturally associated knowledge that was held in these institutions. Examples of communities with restrictive knowledge systems, such as the Pueblos, were cited to illustrate how potentially harmful this 3-D printing technology could be if used in an inappropriate context.

This discussion raises a number of critical questions. First, how are preexisting problems treated that arise from the intersection of restrictive knowledge systems, such as those specific to the Southwest Pueblos, and public access protocols by institutions, such as museums? Second, how does the introduction of 3-D printing technology into museums highlight or complicate these intersecting cultural contexts? Laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) do not in fact provide Native American communities with control over culturally sensitive knowledge. While NAGPRA was designed to provide equal rights to Native Americans in the disposition of their human remains and sacred objects, recognition of the need for protocol for the appropriate treatment of esoteric or sacred knowledge has been overlooked by some institutions or consigned by others to an ongoing and seemingly unresolvable debate over the nature of knowledge itself. An attempt to resolve this oversight was introduced in 2006 with the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (PNAAM), which outlined “professional practices for culturally responsive care and use of American Indian archival material held by non-tribal organizations.”14 These also address the need to include Native American perspectives and to establish models for shared stewardship. The protocols highlight not only the diverse kinds of knowledge involved but the different cultural protocols needed for its management.

If we take a look at how restrictions toward knowledge are viewed in the wider context, we find that in many scientific and educational institutions, responsibilities are assigned alongside use rights. Scientific knowledge is understood to require objectivity and, therefore, it should not be subject to restrictions in its use or dissemination. Scientists or scholars’ responsibilities toward knowledge in their area of expertise is toward its dissemination through publication, especially to their peers and colleagues. Present-day library science ethics anticipate that no restrictions be placed on library and archival materials as a means to ensure equal access practices. Additionally, government-funded museums are expected to follow guidelines about fiduciary responsibilities that oblige them to ensure public access to collections in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of gender, age, culture, or race. In these same realms of research and education, however, knowledge that potentially could be used for harmful purposes can, in fact, be restricted. This includes authors placing moratoriums on access to their archives for a designated number of years in order to protect named individuals during their lifetimes. Knowledge required for certain kinds of nuclear technology (reactors, but mainly weaponry) is also restricted. An individual’s medical or educational information is also confidential, as its use outside of the original context is seen as potentially damaging to the individual.

As “secrecy” is a term that may or may not translate well across a diverse range of cultural contexts, a more effective cross-cultural approach focuses on how responsibilities toward knowledge use are assigned. In many repatriation or cultural heritage contexts, the term “sensitive” is now used to denote knowledge that cannot be removed from its original context and that requires specific responsibilities in its use. This approach also helps elucidate the specific mechanisms used to manage knowledge, especially when traversing cross-cultural contexts—a perspective that is voiced by Native American scholars and archivists in the PNAAM, where the restriction of “sensitive” knowledge may be seen to “be a matter of ‘national security’ for sovereign tribal governments.”15

Requests to restrict access to or the dissemination of “sensitive” knowledge by Native American communities are quite common. For example, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office wrote appeals to museums and archives in the early 1990s to restrict access to field notes, photographs, and archival materials that contained Hopi ritual knowledge. An NMNH project in the 1990s duplicated photographs of Zuni from the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) for the newly established Zuni Museum. Once these were sent to Zuni, consultation with religious leaders resulted in images of esoteric subjects being separated out and housed at the Zuni Heritage and Historic Preservation Office so that they could be accessed only by initiated members of the Zuni religious societies. Subsequently, recommendations for restrictions on the duplication and dissemination of photographs of Zuni rituals were communicated by participants in this project to the wider museum and anthropology community as a means to encourage these institutions to respect Zuni approaches to knowledge (Holman 1996). More recently, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokees have requested the removal from the Smithsonian website of Cherokee medicinal formulas that had been collected by the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) ethnologist James Mooney in the late 1880s.16

In order to resolve these issues and through working with the Eastern Band of Cherokee, Tim Powell of the American Philosophical Society (APS) has introduced protocols at APS where scholars can access the sensitive Cherokee texts in person and take notes from them, but they cannot photocopy or photograph them, thereby reducing the extent of dissemination without a close understanding of the Cherokee concept of responsibility toward this knowledge. In each of these cases, the knowledge involved is understood to require specific responsibilities toward its use. For Hopis and Zunis, ritual knowledge is used to bring rain and heal the sick—but it can also be used to cause sickness and, therefore, requires appropriate responsibilities for its use. Similarly, Cherokee understand that these formulas could cause sickness if used inappropriately.

Frictions between museums and Native American communities arising from the intersection of culturally different approaches to reproducing knowledge and replicas, however, remain largely unresolved. There is the case of the Zuni War God, or Ahayu:da, that was made in the late nineteenth century by the BAE anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing and given to the British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor at Oxford University, which upon his death was gifted to the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM). The Zuni Tribal Council’s request for its return in the 1990s was denied because the object in question was considered a “copy” made by an anthropologist and, therefore, not an “original” or authentic Zuni object. The Zuni, however, perceived this particular rendering of the Ahayu:da held at the PRM as embodying not only the Zuni knowledge that Cushing had obtained when he was initiated into the Priesthood of the Bow but also his theft of Zuni ritual knowledge (Isaac 2011). As part of this debate about the nature of this particular Ahayu:da, Bill Merrill, the NMNH anthropology curator who worked with the Pueblo of Zuni on the repatriation of Ahayu:da, wrote to the director of the PRM stating that, for Zunis, “there is no such thing as a ‘replica’ or ‘model’ … [and] there is no doubt that the Ahayu:da in your collection was produced on the basis of Zuni knowledge, and, from the Zuni perspective, should be returned.”17 From a Zuni perspective, Cushing’s initiation into the priesthood would have assigned specific responsibilities to him toward this knowledge, which he disregarded when making the Ahayu:da for Tylor.

These Zuni, Hopi, and Cherokee examples highlight the cultural diversity found in approaches to reproducing knowledge, especially in the variation in how responsibilities toward knowledge use are assigned and managed according to specific use contexts. In the recent example of the digital 3-D replica projects, carvers from the Tlingit community and participants at the SAA session raised concerns about the technology and the challenges it presented when being introduced into a context already fraught with ambiguity over who has control over culturally specific knowledge and reproduction rights. It is worth noting, however, that the collaborative 3-D projects of the NMNH Repatriation Office are coordinated with these challenges in mind. In fact, the Tlingit case study ought to alert museums to the extremely high degree of cooperation across the different cultural contexts that were required to make the Killer Whale hat replica materialize. Its creation necessitated all participants to corroborate intimately with each other’s cultural values as well as how these manifested in each use context; the outcome appears to be one of knowledge exchange and the establishing of shared guidelines around cultural heritage in a public space.

I have drawn on these digital 3-D replica projects to argue for an analytical approach that not only “studies up” (Manderson et al. 2015) but also “studies across” a wide range of groups involved in the reproduction and control of knowledge, especially in a cross-cultural setting. Because knowledge is retained both by the originator and the receiver, its transfer creates an alliance often marked by a contract that details use rights. In the case of the Killer Whale hat replica, this was the letter of agreement between the Smithsonian and the Tlingit clan leaders with which the Smithsonian consented to undertake responsibilities toward the replica hat according to Tlingit values and to acknowledge this for an indefinite period of time and within each context (i.e., exhibits, educational, digital, etc.). This perspective enables us to conceive of an object that operates across a spectrum of value regimes and contexts, some of which may be private and some of which may be public. The original Dakl’aweidi Killer Whale hat has a public Tlingit persona, especially when it is brought out at clan gatherings, but it is also owned by and is the responsibility of the Dakl’aweid clan. Once in the museum and following its replication, its reproduction rights are still controlled by the Tlingit Dakl’aweid clan leader, thereby enabling private control of digital files maintained by a public institution. At each turn this alliance has renegotiated the public/private divide and established a shared agreement for the caring and disseminating of Tlingit cultural heritage in a federal institution and within a public space. The replica reiterates relationships beyond the Tlingit clans, uniting the Smithsonian and the Dakl’aweid clan in a perclusive alliance and a unique form of cocuration where the two visually identical Killer Whale hats reside in but also traverse two distinct and diverse knowledge settings, yet now with greater disclosure as to their values and use of knowledge rights.

Remarkably, the Killer Whale hat replica is under more rigorous controls by the Tlingit than the first Dakl’aweid clan hat was before its repatriation. While the replica solidifies social relationships between the Tlingit and the Smithsonian, it also introduces into the museum and codifies Tlingit values that shape how it is used and presented to the public. It is a composite of Native American and Euro-American cultural values and a carefully negotiated surrogate that enables Tlingit to have influence over their heritage within the national arena of the Smithsonian.

These replication projects at NMNH ultimately help us understand how groups endeavor to mediate difference, especially in terms of how they enact and perform the coproduction of something. They invite us to question what in fact we want to reveal or make physical. The 3-D technology not only materializes culturally privileged Tlingit knowledge but it also intentionally renders the collaborative process within a public gallery and education center, making this behind-the-scenes territory part of a now-public consciousness about the very nature of knowledge diversity itself.

This research would not have been possible without the generous access and time given to me by the NMNH 3-D project collaborators: Eric Hollinger and Bill Billeck of the NMNH Repatriation Office, Edwell John Jr. of the Dakl’aweidi clan, the Hoonah Indian Association, as well as Carolyn Thome of the OEC, and Gunter Waibel of the DPO. I am immensely appreciative of the ongoing discussions and thoughtful feedback provided to me by the guest editors, Lenore Manderson, Chip Colwell, and Mark Davis. Insights from the “Death of the Secret” seminar attendees—Tanja Ahlin, Leslie Aiello, Robin Boast, Susan Erikson, Sverker Finnström, Cristiana Giordano, Junko Kitanaka, Don Kulick, Sarah Nuttall, Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, Birgitte Refslund Sørenson, Ravi Sundarum, and Kimberly Theidon—have also been invaluable in shaping this research.


Gwyneira Isaac is Curator of North American Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History (Department of Anthropology, MRC 112, Smithsonian Institution, P.O. Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013-7013, U.S.A. []).

1. Clan conferences were started in 1993 as a means to gather together the bearers of Tlingit cultural knowledge—Tlingit clan leaders and community scholars as well as non-Tlingit academics—and to provide presentations as well as enact traditional ceremonies that are used to transmit cultural knowledge within an informed multigenerational environment (Hollinger et al. 2013).

2. In the ethnographic literature, at.óow is described as “sacred objects representing the lineage crests” (Kan 1986:196). It has been translated as “an owned or purchased thing” (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer 1987). It is also recognized as a concept that describes both tangible and intangible property. For example, Thornton (1997) suggests that at.óow are “symbolic property” that are “integral components of Tlingit identity” and include “names, stories, songs regalia, crests and other cultural icons, including clan ancestors and representations of geographic features” (296). At.óow transcend generations such that their ownership “reaches both backwards and forwards through purchase by an ancestor” so that when they are brought out during a potlatch, “the accompanying oratory, is the means by which the speaker links the deceased with the living,” and “through the ceremonial display of at.óow the departed grandparents are made present (Breinig 1994:121). A link between at.óow and land ownership has also been described. For this, see Rosita Worl (1998): “The Tlingit fully understood the significance of symbols as title to property since they themselves use markers and clan crests to identify their claims of ownership to their land and other property” (2). Along the same lines, Thornton (2002) also suggests that “origin sites are often taken as crests by the clan and considered sacred property,” thereby linking the clan to that place (172).

3. Interview with Eric Hollinger, March 10, 2014.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Interview with Gunter Waibel, June 24, 2014.

7. Information from the accession proposal for the Killer Whale replica hat, Anthropology Department, NMNH.

8. Interview with Eric Hollinger, March 10, 2014.

9. Interview with Gunter Waibel, June 24, 2014.

10. Information from the accession proposal for the Killer Whale replica hat, Anthropology Collections, NMNH.

11. Interview with Eric Hollinger, March 10, 2014.

12. Ibid.

13. Interview with Bill Billeck, May 18, 2014.

14. See (accessed June 22, 2015).

15. Ibid.

16. This request was made to the author in April 2015, and has initiated the establishment of a committee to develop appropriate protocol for sensitive materials held at the NAA. See Robert Leopold (2013) for the history of this collection and his discussions with members of the Eastern Band about access and duplication rights for online digital copies of Cherokee formulas managed by the NAA.

17. Bill Merrill to Schuyler Jones, April 20, 1993. PRM correspondence cited by Jeremy Coote in “The Zuni War God at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford and Its Contested Status.” Paper presented at “Point of No Return? Museums and Repatriation,” a Museum Association seminar held at the Museum of London, November 4, 1997.

References Cited