Preserving culture and heritage through digital media
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey once said: ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without a root’.
Changing lifestyles and the way we share knowledge in the 21st century has often been described as the death knell to the art of oral traditions and traditional wisdom.
With increased access and accessibility to technologies like the smartphone and the internet, however, technology has instead become an important game changer in conservation and preservation of our cultural heritage.
As part of an initiative of a research project ‘Cultural Enterprise Through Digital Media’, a research team conducted ‘Digital Media and Heritage Community Workshop’ among the Kenyah community at Long Silat (from August 2nd to 3rd) and Long San (August 5th to 6th) at Ulu Baram.
Funded by both Swinburne University of Technology (SUT) based in Melbourne, Australia and SUT Sarawak, the workshop aimed in cultivating the habits of knowledge sharing and transfer of traditional and local knowledge of the indigenous communities in Sarawak.
What is it for?
Started in 2015, the research project runs over the course of three years with the purpose of investigating whether mobile media technologies can help in preserving local stories and indigenous knowledge through sustainable cultural tourism enterprise.
“We started out just basically wanting to look at other people’s practices and to see what people had already been doing with digital media and the internet,” said Dr Christine Horn, who is a postdoctoral researcher of Institute for Social Research SUT, Melbourne.
Together with Raine Melissa Riman, research associate of Swinburne Sarawak Research Centre for Sustainable Technologies, they conducted baseline surveys within the area a year ago.
According to Horn, as some of the community already have telecommunication towers or a form of internet access, they wanted to find out what the communities had and what they used it for.
Raine said that having a smartphone and internet access were necessary criteria to conduct the workshop.
“On the second part of the project, we wanted to build an information net; where we know what are their practices and bringing that into a more entrepreneurial direction, such as cottage industry, transport, and maybe eco-tourism,” explained Christine.
As one of the most fascinating yet not fully explored places in Sarawak for the team, Ulu Baram holds potential for the local community to promote their area and culture as part of the eco-tourism industry.
“Our project is about economic sustainability or development of these communities. But we wanted to make it closely related to their cultural heritage,” said Horn.
Combining culture with digital media
Using only a smartphone for the workshop, the participants were exposed to photography, video making and editing as well as learning how to utilise social media such as Facebook and Instagram as a platform for them to compile and share their stories and knowledge with the outside world.
The workshop was mainly conducted by SUT senior lecturer in design Gregory Wee, lecturer in multimedia design Wilson Suai Moses Jantan and higher degree researcher from the faculty of business and design Aurelia Liu.
“We do not use laptops or anything. The things that we teach them like videos and photos, are all based on using smartphones, because they are more easily available rather than a laptop and it is easy to learn to use,” said Aurelia.
Even though the area has telecommunication towers, she added that it was a bit tricky as the mobile phone connection was limited to 2G or 3G. However, the team managed to conduct the workshop even with slow internet speed.
Participated by about 15 to 20 people in each workshop, the team also got to spend time with the local community, immersing themselves in their culture and participating in their traditional practices like handicraft making and dancing.
Participants were exposed to the full potential of the usage of social media and smartphone, managing to create videos with nothing but their smartphones.
“It was good to see them interacting with their phones. Some of them do not have any experience before. Of course, the young ones are fast learners and the older generation would refer to the young ones and after that they would tag along,” said Wilson.
As most of the participants from the workshops are mostly in their 40s and 50s, Wee (the team leader for SUT, Sarawak) noted that as the older generation holds the door to knowledge of culture and tradition, it was important to bridge that with the younger generation who are more skilled in mastering social medial and digital media.
From there, some of the participants showed interest in making a cooking show to be put up online as well as using social media to reach more customers for their businesses selling bead crafts, parang and empurau fish. One participant who does not own a smartphone was so sold on the potentials and the possibilities that he expressed his interest in getting one.
While there are some of the people within the communities who already have businesses selling beaded handicrafts and ‘parang’, it is difficult to get in touch with them as they are spread out.
“And that is when we realised that we need a platform, one community platform for you to find them in one platform and for them to come in to introduce what they do. That platform can be online, website or apps on smartphone,” said Wee.
“So, this is where the workshop comes in. It is to create awareness, as a way to collect and preserve cultures by recording, taking pictures or interviewing people. It could be anything from folklore, songs, how they do their craft or even where they get their materials from,” he added.
As a result of the workshop, the team also developed a platform which is a Facebook page, Kedaya Telang Usan for the communities to share their stories and culture to be shared with others.
“And when you share that on that platform, it will sort of enhance the value of whatever you are doing and at the same time preserve your culture,” he said, adding that it also helps in triggering a curiosity among the younger generations to become more interested in their own culture.
“It is not just about selling things. Selling things is the draw because a lot of people are doing things for their livelihood… but the underlying reason is to get the local communities to start collecting and sharing their cultural heritage,” he said.
“It is a knowledge bank for community engagement and knowledge contribution, where everyone can contribute their stories from how to make this kind of craft to how do you fish in the river. We are hoping that the community itself can sustain whatever we taught them during the workshop,” said Raine.
The team also plans on developing interactive storytelling apps featuring stories of the local communities, the culture and livelihood with can be accessed and used by everyone to be engaged and well informed of the places, which according to Wee could hopefully be available sometime next year.
Closing the gap
Based on their observations, the page has garnered a lot of interest especially from those living outside the community.
“I think their own traditional heritage and culture seems to become more important to those who have moved out or among other different groups. This is just the sense that I get or response that I get from people who has engaged with us from that platform,” observed Horn.
“And I think that, for those who are living in that village, it seems that heritage is not that remarkable to them because it is their everyday life. But if you do not have direct access to that anymore, probably it becomes more precious,” she said.
“That is the sense that I got, but also that is something that we can tap into because it means that these are the people that are really interested in the conservation of that heritage through digital media,” she added.
To maximize the benefits for the community and see what more can be explored and engaged, Raine added that the team is planning on returning next year sometime in February to conduct another workshop, but have yet to determine the location.
“It is not about going there and conducting a workshop, it is really about making it long term and sustainable,” said Horn.
Having spent time from August 1st to 8th in Ulu Baram working closely with the local community and immersing themselves into their culture, check out this link to see some of the highlights from their trip: