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Afterword: Sharing Located

Mark Turin

© 2017 Mark Turin, CC BY 4.0

It is a pleasure and responsibility to be the one charged with concluding this unique volume with some structured reflections on how it came into being. In so doing, I shall refrain from discussing specific contributions and individual chapters, as my co-editor, Daniela Merolla, has already handled this so effectively in her comprehensive introduction to the volume. Rather, this Afterword is offered as a closing statement that reflects on the origins, alliances and impact of the collaborative research contained in these pages.

The research collective that formed the project, entitled “Multimedia Research and Documentation of African Oral Genres: Connecting Diasporas and Local Audiences”, last came together in person in December 2013, generously hosted by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FLSH) at University Mohammed V at Agdal in Rabat and the Rabat National Library, Morocco. We are grateful to all of the participants and presenters, in particular Abdellah Bounfour (INALCO, Paris) and Khadija Mouhsine (University Mohammed V, Rabat). Beyond the contributors to this volume, we would like to thank the participants in the wider project: Abdalla Uba Adamu, Arinpe Adejumo, George Alao, Saoudé Ali, Felix Ameka, Amar Améziane, Giorgio Banti, Abdellah Bounfour, Anne-Marie Dauphin-Tinturier, Jean Derive, Geti Gelaye, Mohamed Aghali, Graham Furniss, Annekie Joubert, Roland Kießling, Khadija Mouhsine, Maarten Mous, Kamal Naït-Zerrad, Annel Pieterse, Nirhylanto Ramamonjisoa, Mechtild Reh, Mineke Schipper and Simone Tarsitani.

Directed by Merolla, the wider project that framed our last meeting focussed on how multimedia technologies afforded scholars new ways of sharing documentation and scientific knowledge with the cultural owners of these collected oral genres. Funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), the project had two distinct and overarching goals: first, to explore the use of electronic tools to reach and to “activate” larger audiences, in particular African diasporas and local publics; and second, through an iterative discussion, to offer some theoretical reflections on the nature of partnerships (between scholars, storytellers, technicians, passionate amateurs and activist documentarians) in documentation and research. As readers will already have ascertained, this edited volume speaks directly to these interrelated intellectual motivations.

Searching for Sharing is situated in a rich intellectual tradition that has long explored issues of orality, textuality, performance and cultural heritage. The digital turn, and the changing cultural landscape now so saturated with multimedia, has effectively moved the scholarly conversation from the “Preliminary Isolation of the Performative”(Austin 1962: 4) to one in which oral traditions and the internet are increasingly understood to be “homologous technologies of communication” (John Miles Foley, personal communication). As Scott has convincingly argued, the digital turn can work to facilitate the “formation of relationships of trust and cooperation, rather than those of exclusion or superiority” (2012: 2). Yet, for all of the access that digital tools afford, the conversation around sharing cultural heritage, whether in person or online, always comes back to fundamental questions of ownership, trust, ethics and collaboration.

A number of projects and interdisciplinary research initiatives are engaging with these questions in exciting and holistic ways. The Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) project — a seven-year international research initiative based at Simon Fraser University in Canada — explores the rights, values, and responsibilities of material culture, cultural knowledge and the practice of heritage research.1 Similarly, while the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records (CoPAR) was originally founded to help “anthropologists, librarians, archivists, information specialists and others preserve and provide access to the record of human diversity and the history of the discipline”, today “the preservation and stewardship of anthropological records face new challenges as anthropologists create records in many formats, both analog and digital, as expectations for immediate, digital access grow among users, and as collection managers face challenges of digitizing, preserving, and providing access to heterogeneous materials”.2 Entitled “Revitalizing CoPAR for the Digital Age”, this community of engaged scholars is now working to help “create a roadmap for the preservation of anthropological research products in the digital age.”

As we reflect on the challenges that lie ahead, Marshall McLuhan’s penetrating insight that “in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message” (1964: 7) looks to have become both more and less true. The collapsing of time and space — epoch and distance — through online multimedia tools has generated widespread confusion about where content stops and where context begins. Should YouTube be understood as the publisher, host, owner or disseminator of digitized fragments of African cultural heritage, or does it play all (or none) of these roles? Can content be liberated from its container (a codec, a shell, a frame or a folder), or have form and content now been collapsed into one? Can digitized cultural heritage, once it has been uploaded to a shared public space, ever truly disappear or be retracted? Have new forms of digital media effected a transformative change on the durability and visibility of the messages that they transmit?

These timely questions have impacted all of our disciplines, including museum practice and curatorial studies. The development of critical museology as distinct from operational museology3 is not only an “essential intellectual tool for better understanding museums, related exhibitionary institutions, fields of patrimony and counter patrimonies”, but even more saliently:

crucial for developing new exhibitionary genres, telling untold stories, rearticulating knowledge systems for public dissemination, reimagining organizational and management structures, and repurposing museums and galleries in line with multicultural and intercultural states and communities (Shelton 2013: 7).

Ever more museums of culture and ethnography are now engaged in complex and necessary conversations with the descendants of the people whose belongings (not objects), regalia (not costumes) and even ancestors (not human remains) they have the privilege and responsibility of ethically curating. Curatorial practice and archival practice are becoming more democratic and less authoritative. Curators of exhibits of cultural heritage regularly consult with communities for whom the collections have cultural meaning and relevance, sometimes leading to co-curation and even collaborative exhibit design.4

The title of this volume, Searching for Sharing, intentionally avoids the terminology of repatriation and return. In her introduction, Merolla introduced the concept of reusability, a term inherently more agnostic and more open to theoretical complexity. While the use of the prefix ‘re-’ in words such as repatriate and return point to the undoing of some past action or deed (Glass 2004), the term reuse has a different directionality. After all, if the world’s cultural heritage had not been “expatriated” to begin with — through colonization, imperial adventure and war — there would be less need for return and repatriation, let alone “rematriation” which has the more explicitly decolonial agenda of empowering women to collectively strengthen future generations through positive representation.5

The new pathways of digital publishing and dissemination — so powerfully embodied in Open Book Publishers and others who are productively rethinking the future of the academic book — are also working to unsettle established hierarchies of colonial authority, widen access to knowledge and thereby find innovative ways to coordinate medium with message in ways that McLuhan would surely have found provocative and welcome.

Searching for Sharing is the seventh volume in the World Oral Literature Series. The series was established to preserve and promote the oral literatures of indigenous communities by publishing materials on endangered traditions in ways that are both innovative and ethical. Situated at the intersection of anthropology and linguistics, the study of oral genres is an exciting and developing field, but one with few publishing outlets. The creative publishing practices adopted by Open Book Publishers make the dissemination of such unique traditions — in both textual and multimedia form — possible for the first time, recreating in the digital space some of the multimodal experience of the original recitation or performance that would otherwise be lost in traditional print.

As a case in point and to illustrate the transformative power of digital publishing, I am delighted to report that the updated and revised edition of Ruth Finnegan’s masterpiece, Oral Literature in Africa, which Open Book republished in September 2012 and through which we launched the Oral Literature Series, has now been accessed, read online or downloaded over 116,000 times. Most importantly, the largest number of users per continent come from Africa, widening access to a readership that had been mostly excluded from the 1970 print edition. Similarly, although on a much more modest scale, Oral Literature in the Digital Age: Archiving Orality and Connecting with Communities, which I edited together with colleagues Claire Wheeler and Eleanor Wilkinson, has been viewed almost 12,000 times, with high numbers of readers from Asia — the focus of many of the chapters contained in its pages.

As Series Editor of the World Oral Literature Series, and the co-editor of this volume, I offer a few final words of thanks. A great deal of effort goes into creating the openness of such a volume, and the opportunities for sharing. We are extremely grateful to our colleague Jan Jansen who — with characteristic modesty and grace — oversaw much of the heavy lifting that brought this manuscript together, and then recused himself from taking credit as an editor. While his name does not grace the cover of this volume — at his own request, I hasten to add — his effort, diligence and generosity of spirit are present on every page. In Searching for Sharing, we also are fortunate to have published the work of a number of scholars for whom English is a third or even more distant language, and are thankful to our copy editor, Bridget Chase, who worked with these texts in a deliberate and respectful manner to support — through translation — the knowledge contained in these important voices. Much unremunerated labour goes into the production of such a volume, including the anonymous peer reviewers who donated their time and insights to improve the volume considerably, and the ever patient and professional staff at Open Book. I thank you all for your skill and commitment to this venture.

In conclusion, I hope that the readers of this volume have enjoyed these contributions as much as we enjoyed the process of collating them. We not only “searched for sharing” but also located it, together with a vibrant scholarly community, along the way. The journey was as important as the destination. The medium remains just as salient as the message.


Austin, J. L. (1962) How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures, Delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Glass, A. (2004) “Return to Sender: On the Politics of Cultural Property and the Proper Address of Art”, Journal of Material Culture 9–2: 115–139.

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York, McGraw Hill).

Muntean, R., Hennessy, K., Antle, A., Rowley, S., Wilson, J. and Matkin, B. (2015) “ʔeləw̓k̓w — Belongings: Tangible Interactions with Intangible Heritage”, CITAR Journal 7–2: 58–69.

Scott, M. K. (2012) “Engaging with Pasts in the Present: Curators, Communities, and Exhibition Practice”, Museum Anthropology 35: 1–9.

Shelton, A. (2013) “Critical Museology: A Manifesto”, Museum Worlds: Advances in Research 1: 7–23.