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III Mapping the nation

Social relationships and digital

relationships: rethinking the
database at the Vanuatu
Cultural Centre
H aidy Geism ar New York University
William M ohns Independent Scholar

In this paper, we seek to unravel and interrogate the aesthetics of the museum database, and the
links between digital and social relationships within the museum and beyond, using as a case study
the development of an integrated database system for the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, or Vanuatu
Kaljoral Senta (VKS). The VKS database both draws relationships of knowledge, practice, and
collection into view and generates connections in a newly national trilingual space. We ask: What are
the implications of mapping the social onto the digital and vice versa? What is the efcacy of digital
connectivity on museum practices, and other social networks? Does the digital domain create a new
national aesthetic of connection and relationality, and how might we rethink the nation in this new
aesthetic frame? How do digital relationships affect the production of new collections and new
relations to the object world? How does this electronic infrastructure generate or perpetuate
hierarchies of knowledge and the political economy of information?

Of all recent technical revolutions, the development of digital technologies has been
most espoused as radically reshaping social relationships. From virtual worlds to social
networking sites, chatrooms, blogs, and instant global audio-visual communication,
the coupling of digital and telecommunications technologies has been fted as both
expanding social fields and providing alternative domains within which to explore
social selves and create new communities (see, e.g., Boellstorff 2008; Dibbell 1993; 2006;
Miller 2000; 2002; 2011; Miller & Slater 2000).
Museums are excellent places to observe how digital technologies open new social
spaces and create new forms of knowledge (see Parry 2007). They are also places in
which colonial legacies, unequal access to dominant languages and representational
forms, and didactic nationalistic discourses frame such digital mediations. Museums
around the world make use of similar technical frameworks and equipment to dissemi-
nate information about collections; duplicate collections outside of their usual place of
holding; and allow for audiences and source communities to participate and comment
on curatorial and classificatory practices. At the same time, these digital technologies
are also appropriated to very local ends in very different ways. This paper investigates
the ways in which digital technologies create a new aesthetic for apprehending culture

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in the space of the national museum. We ask whether the database really creates new
relationships, or reproduces, in new form, older orders of things. We challenge the
understanding of museums as promoters of national hegemony (Anderson 1991: chap.
6). Rather, we suggest that digital technologies in the museum provide an aesthetic
framework that articulates both the complex national/local negotiations and subver-
sions that take place in museums, and especially in national cultural centres (see Bolton
1994; Geismar & Tilley 2003). We view the digital domain as a provocative aesthetici-
zation of the complex interests, relations, and articulations that forge the public and
the nation. In Vanuatu, the view of national connection forged through the museum
both centres and decentres. It is, we argue, like the database, relational. Here we expand
the narrow definition of relational databases to include social and other relationships.
In the context of growing talk about the digital divide, it is increasingly recognized
that we need to understand how digital media are used within specific social, political,
economic, and philosophical contexts that are culturally determined and historically
located, and that these contexts may be fragmentary as well as totalizing (see Ginsburg
2008). Celebratory accounts of the flexibility and democratizing nature of digital
technologies should be balanced by an awareness that they provide an often invisible,
specialized, and bureaucratic template or structure through which to organize infor-
mation. Ethnographic research needs to investigate whether and how digital technolo-
gies either efface or enhance local understandings and representations of the
connections between fields of knowledge and how they may be presented (e.g. Boast,
Bravo & Srinivasan 2007). In this paper, we discuss the impact of digital technologies on
the ways in which knowledge and collections are created and organized within the
diverse projects of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and National Museum, referred to
locally in Bislama (the national lingua franca) as the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (hence-
forth VKS). We focus on the ways in which the specific pragmatics of digitization and
local conceptualizations of digital technology work together to create new aesthetic
forms. We highlight how digital technologies are co-opted into a continuum of object
management practices that creates a very different conceptualization of the public
domain and open access (framed but not foreclosed by the generic multicultural liberal
nation-state) than that usually associated with the cultural practice of digitization (see
Lessig 2001). We work from the assumption that the digital framework within museums
is not merely representative of ideas about classification and of specific relationships
(between people, or between domains of collection or information) but, like other
forms of archival practice, is also constitutive of these relationships. Digitization is a
powerful tool in the reordering of our idea of relationships affecting the types of
relations that can be drawn between ideas, information, and their instantiation.

A eld of relations
In recent years, there has been growing discussion of the relational nature of museum
databases, collections, and archives. In this context, the term relational refers not only
to the basic principles of structure that underlie a particular digital form (the database)
but also to the webs of social relationships that are inculcated through the process of
collection, archiving, and organization of material within the museum. A high-profile
example of this perspective may be found in a project organized through the Pitt Rivers
Museum, Oxford, entitled The Relational Museum, which has generated a database
focused on the museum as a network of intersecting connections.1 The project views
museums as transcultural artefacts composed of relations between the museum and

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various kinds of communities (see Gosden, Larson & Petch 2007; Larson, Petch &
Zeitlyn 2007). The term relation is therefore both referential and creative: it is both a
subject to be drawn into view, and a way of organizing this viewpoint.
Databases not only map, represent, or embody existing sets of connections, they also
facilitate many different, often unexpected, connections, and in turn permit the refor-
mulation of previous relationships. Whilst making visible these complex relationships,
in turn, digital databases also embody a complex set of hierarchies, both classificatory
and political. The power to create these digital hierarchies is in the hands of the
database developers, creating hierarchical relationships that only or first exist through
the user, not necessarily those to whom the cultural object or knowledge belongs. This
inequality of use is facilitated by a certain invisibility, or naturalization, of how code
(and other kinds of relations conceptualized by many as digital and usually not as
social) is structured.
As digital catalogues move outside of the museum space (usually via web technolo-
gies), the context in which these relationships are viewed becomes infinite, as the
terminals on which the catalogues are viewed will vary as well as the physical environ-
ments in which they are located. Despite this fracturing of the viewing experience,
international museum culture tends to assume a certain relationship between visibility
and knowledge what you see is what there is to know (see, e.g., Bennett 1995). An
emphasis on seeing things as the most important way of acquiring knowledge may
induce us to forget to open our minds to what might be concealed, rather than revealed.
In turn, the fact that digital technologies are developed by programmers, who bring
divergent backgrounds and institutional support to museums, and by the spatio-
temporal unspecificity of certain (on-line) aspects of digital experience, disrupts many
of the conventional narratives regarding the nationalist agenda or utility of museums
(Anderson 1991; Bennett 2004). The digitized museum may reflect the collections of its
predecessor, but it is no longer curated or contained in the same manner.
Melanesia has long been used as an ethnographic foil with which to discuss alter-
native forms, and effects, of bringing relations into view (e.g. Gell 1999; Strathern 1999;
Wagner 1977; 2001) and is also a place in which the holistic image of the nation starts to
fracture (see Foster 2002). In contrast to a disembodied, or cartographic, view of
networks or relations, most commonly associated with modernity or the age of the
[national] world picture (Heidegger 1977), in Melanesia, what you see is not a repre-
sentation of the world; it is evidence of your point of being in it (Strathern 1999: 259).
In this theory, relations are momentary points of visibility in a great swathe of net-
works. Relations cut the network (Strathern 1996); they are modes of representation
that are culturally inflected rather than natural; evidence of being in the world in
specific ways, rather than disembodied schematics of external and immutable realities.
The nation itself is but one node within an infinite possibility of organizational frames.
Whilst we are critical of the cultural essentialism that this view of Melanesian alterity
presents, as an analytic model this perspective is very useful in providing an alternative
theory to some of the conventions of the new museology (Vergo 1989) and is helpful
in understanding how digital technologies reconstitute a vision of museums as com-
prised of diverse networks and relations. Rather than being tools of enlightenment, in
which the world is neatly packaged and displayed for a general public, democratically
defined (see Bennett 1995), this Melanesianist sensibility suggests an understanding of
museums in which knowledge is constructed through select relations between object,
institution, and visitor, and in which visibility is not the only way in which this

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relationship may be configured. The idea that you know you may not be seeing
everything initially seems to be at odds with a Western museological or exhibitionistic
approach that provides a narrative in which what you see is what you know. We are
aware throughout our searches within a digitized museum catalogue that the end result
a series of catalogue records has emerged not only because of our own inputting of
terms of inquiry, but also because of a complex, and to the user, invisible, process of
classification and organization. The end view itself, generated by our idiosyncratic
engagement with the available search criteria, is also what draws some relationships
into view and obscures others. This is the problem with understandings of relationality
in museums, like that of the Pitt Rivers Museum project, which assumes relationships
and visibility to be one and the same.
Understanding database technologies as truly relational (in both technical and
sociological terms), rather than just in the narrow sense that the conventional history
of the technology has constrained, permits us to see them as socially embedded and as
facilitators of the incorporation of global forms within local structures of meaning in
potentially multiple ways. Jennifer Deger (2006), writing about multi-media projects in
Yolngu communities in Northern Australia (primarily radio, photography, and video),
describes how Yolngu use media technologies as ways of both participating in moder-
nity, thinking about tradition, and practising culture. They do not bifurcate this expe-
rience irreparably into incompatible local and global domains, but rather acknowledge
these divides as part of their social fabric and position themselves within them, using
new technologies in creative ways.

Relational technologies
An increasingly reflexive museum anthropology seeks to archive, map, and represent
the complex webs of connections that engender museum collections. The digital rep-
resentation and manifestation of these relationships draw heavily on the language of
relational database management systems: digital systems of organized information
that rely on the (re)drawing of connection between discrete data fields and fields of
inquiry. A relational database is a physical implementation of the relational model: a
system for data structure and organization based on mathematical principles drawn
primarily from set theory and predicate logic (Riordan 2005: 9).
In a conventional card catalogue, a relation is established by the inclusion of a
collection of data on a card (often organized around an object). In a relational database,
however, a relation is established by the physical implementation of a schema (or
mapping) where individual data comprising the relation are (almost by definition)
stored apart from one another and may be simultaneously involved in multiple rela-
tions. In the relational database it is the invocation of the schema that establishes the
relation between a photograph, a photographer, and a subject, for example, rather than
the information inscribed on a catalogue card. The relations come into view through
the execution of queries and reports, invoked by the database administrator, developer,
or by a user (constrained by the work of the developer), with the potential for redraw-
ing relations with a complexity not possible through a card catalogue, and with the
potential to create new relations: generating result sets which create a unique (though
perhaps momentary) relation or juxtaposition among objects.
This schematic generation of relationships is therefore mapped onto other conven-
tional, curatorial decisions regarding what kinds of information should be connected,
and what fields of information are privileged. Application of the relational model to

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museum catalogues thus requires self-conscious attention to the ways in which knowl-
edge is ordered into discrete domains, connected, and evaluated hierarchically.

Social relationships
How well do computerized relations map onto, or reflect, social relations? We are by no
means arguing that relational database technology mirrors sociality, but rather that
there is a form of sociality within the database that may often be obscured by a narrow
focus on visible relations. As Robin Boast, curator at the Cambridge Museum of
Archaeology and Anthropology, commented on an earlier iteration of this essay:

I would argue that the relationality of Relational Database Management Systems [RDBMSs] is not just
different to your sense of relationality, but that it is the neo-imperial enemy of it. It is centralizing and
rarefying in exactly the ways that you say the Vanuatu work is not. More importantly, though, I think
that your study of the VKS shows something clearly that the rest of us are working on. Namely that
despite the imperialistic, in all senses of the word, normalizing structure of RDBMSs, they are
phenomenally open to subversion. What I find most interesting about the VKS cataloguing program
is that the underlying database has been able to be adapted to these local protocols so easily ... The real
question, for me, is not how are these social relationships in Vanuatu like relational databases, but why,
like the museum itself, can we use these colonial instruments so effectively to overcome colonial
instruments? (Pers. comm., 16 June 2009)

The subversion of these hegemonic systems has been demonstrated over and over with
regard to indigenous use of media (e.g. Christen 2005; Ginsburg 2008; Michaels 1994).
To explain this, rather than posit a fundamental incommensurability between indig-
enous conceptual schemata and that of the relational database, one might also posit a
homologous relation of form between database relations and social relations based
on the increasing reification of the relation as a form and category. As Strathern

Social anthropologists route connections through persons. They attend to the relations of logic, of
cause and effect, of class and category, that people make between things; it also means that they attend
to the relations of social life, to the roles and behaviours, through which people connect themselves to
one another (1995: 11).

Stratherns discussions of relationships, alongside and within the broader fields of actor
network theory and science studies (e.g. Latour 2005; Law & Hassard 1999), have been
particularly influential in the generation of the relation as a paradigmatic analytic
Within the domain of anthropology, Stratherns theoretical project has largely been
to describe how persons, things, and society are produced from relational processes
the composing and decomposing of connections that in turn give rise to both the
concept and category of, for instance, gender, kinship, and property, even subjects and
objects (Strathern 1990; 1999; see also Wagner 2001). The rendering of relationships as
visible is the way in which society itself comes into view (Strathern 1990). Like the
museum collection, in this relational perspective, bounded entities only gain meaning
when drawn into productive relationships with others. Indeed as Gell comments,

describes the world as an array of signs. The perceptible world is the vehicle of meanings. Meanings,
however, do not originate in the perceptible world, but in the code or system which encompasses the

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perceptible world which is culturally produced and reproduced. Thus material things and bodies are
not isolable things-in-themselves, but exist only in so far as they convey, or encipher, meaning deriving
from the code. Because of this they have, in themselves, no fixed identities or essences as real entities,
but can assume limitless identities according to their shifting articulation to the code (Gell 1999: 32).

A powerful analogy may be made between this specific formulation of social rela-
tions and the coding of digital relations not because both work as overarching
systems or structures, but because both are premised on the process of bringing
relationships into view providing a new aesthetic form for apprehending society. For
instance, the forging of equivalence between kinship diagram and kinship system (a
founding methodology of British social anthropology inculcated by W.H.R Riverss
genealogical method) or the mapping of representational system onto social struc-
ture and vice versa may also find its analogy in the computer database. Take, for
instance, the highly popular practice of mapping family trees using computer pro-
grams, bringing the genealogical method into the everyday households of Europe and
North America. Here, the view or representation of relationships is also how rela-
tionships are made. Where the tree ends creates the boundary of immediate family.
The aesthetic of the family tree profoundly affects the limits of family experience
(particularly when it comes to family celebrations, the apportioning of inheritance,

Real networks and digital networks in Vanuatu

Whilst social relations in general may be infinitely complex, they also form patterns and
create visible networks that may cross-cut the kinds of analytic divides that often form
the foundation of social descriptions. For instance, in the central marketplace of Van-
uatus capital, Port Vila, one of the handicraft stalls is run by a man from the island of
Tanna called John. Through his Tannese affiliations in town, he stocks a variety of
artefacts, mainly brightly patterned grass skirts made by Tannese women. He also
stocks baskets from Futuna island, the purchase of which was facilitated by his regional
connections, and the marriage of his sister to a man from the neighbouring island of
Futuna, both of whom now live in the capital. Through his membership of the Seventh
Day Adventist Church he has access to a constituency of women from diverse parts of
the archipelago who want to supply him with crafts for his stall as well as the produc-
tions of his own wife, a woman from the island of Efate. Before marrying and moving
permanently to Port Vila, John had worked on a ship owned by a prominent Vietnam-
ese businessman, in whose political party he was also involved. The connections he
made on his travels with villagers on many islands and with Asian traders resulted in
the creation of a series of trading networks. The proximity of his stall to the wharf, the
produce market, and Port Vila trade stores makes it easy for him to receive produce and
artefacts from the islands and to send goods back in return.
Johns situation is a good example of the networks that people from Vanuatu, or
ni-Vanuatu, are engaged in and of the ways in which these connections may be mani-
fested in the presence or visibility of specific objects in particular locations. The baskets
John sells reflect the identity forged out of connection of both John and the women
who wove them. For many ni-Vanuatu, networking is itself a form of work: the making
of connections between persons and places vital to the maintenance of both rural and
urban lifestyles. As Johns networks show, such connections between people and places
can be forged through trade and travel, through religious groups, through marriage,

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through proximity, and through birth and natal affiliation. Other important connec-
tions for ni-Vanuatu are those forged by colonial ties (affinities of particular areas with
France or Britain that afford economic and other developmental opportunities),
tourism, customary ties, political relations (between national parties, and with the
governments of Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, and China), and net-
works of communication forged especially over the radio and through the transport
infrastructure: inter-island shipping and aeroplanes.
All of these relational frameworks have informed the collection of museum artefacts
and affect the ways in which classificatory structures are ordered in the VKS. For
instance, the idiosyncratic keyword list developed by the Database Committee includes
social-geographical terms (island names, regional names), Christian denominations,
traditional ceremonies, and so on.
As Vanuatu is an archipelago of over eighty islands, each with its own distinct
identity, it can be argued that it contains an increasing number of different national
frameworks. Ni-Vanuatu continually discuss the connections between persons and
places and are often engaged in the process of trying to understand the histories of
transaction and movement that developed between groups throughout the archipelago
(and beyond).3 In turn, the VKS is an organization that works self-consciously within
these networks and within what we are describing as a relational aesthetic. Founded in
the 1950s by expatriate administrators and social scientists, it has become an indigenous
institution, which uses the technologies and practices of international museum work
with an increasingly political agenda of grass-roots cultural and economic develop-
ment (see Bolton 2003; Geismar & Tilley 2003). Whilst its operations are based in the
National Museum site, opposite Parliament House in Vanuatus capital, the work of the
VKS is spread through the archipelago embodied in the presence of volunteer field-
workers, both male and female, who research local traditions, collect oral histories,
create lexicons of local languages, make photographs, videos, and sound recordings,
and regularly update the VKS collections using these new technologies (see Fig. 1 for a
map charting the placement of women fieldworkers throughout Vanuatu). This sense
of connectivity enables people to meet in the new context of the nation without being
dislocated from the identity and relationships which frame their lives in the village
context (Bolton 1993: 64). The VKS has thus become an extension of many different
places, as well as a centralizing force in visualizing the networks of connection between
them. It is this network that is made visible through the digitizing practices that take
place in Port Vila.
The digital projects of the VKS are now integral to these networking operations.
People in the islands will often call into the VKS and ask for a digital video camera, with
or without a camera crew,4 to document a customary event they are planning, to
interview an ageing authority in kastom (indigenous tradition), or to support various
local projects. This network of moving images and new audio-visual collections forms
the backbone of contemporary operations at the VKS, the hub of which is increasingly
the state-of-the art sound and film studios of the National Photo, Film and Sound Unit
(NFFSU). The CDs, video, films, and radio programmes produced here in turn
re-circulate throughout the archipelago, intersecting with locally and VKS-organized
festivals, music events, and meetings, creating a network of cultural knowledge and a
template for future activities.
This networked perspective is exemplified in the ways that the database has been
structured. Formed from the outset by a committee, the database reflects the multiple

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Figure 1. Map of Vanuatu showing locations of women eldworkers in 2001. (Image courtesy of
Katherine Holmes.)

voices that comprise the VKS and exemplify its commitment to incorporating grass-
roots perspectives into every level of VKS practice.

The VKS database

The VKS began to redevelop its cataloguing and database systems in late 2004 under the
direction of its then-Director, Ralph Regenvanu. At that time there was little

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co-ordination of database systems or standardization of cataloguing practices across

the units of the VKS, and no computer network to facilitate a shared system. The initial
context was one of an institution rich in cultural producers, with limited expertise in
electronic cataloguing systems and database development.5
Given this situation, however, there was considerable support across the Cultural
Centre for a new and co-ordinated system. Regenvanu proclaimed that 2005 would be
the year of the database. As a result the VKS recruited William Mohns through CUSO6
to focus on this project, and established a Database Committee to plan the direction
and cataloguing standards for the new database system (see Fig. 2 for the database in
use in the National Library).
The Committee first met in early 2005 and comprised representatives from various
sections and projects of the VKS, including: Ralph Regenvanu; Chief Jacob Kapere and
Ambong Thompson, National Photo, Film, and Sound Archive (then known as the
National Film and Sound Unit); Takoronga Kautonga, Vanuatu National Museum;
Anne Naupa, Vanuatu National Library; Elaine Boe, Vanuatu Public Library; Jean
Taresese, Womens Culture Project; Martha Kaltal, Richard Shing, and Andrew
Hoffman, Vanuatu National Heritage Register (then known as the Vanuatu Historical
Sites Survey); and Francis Hickey, Traditional Resource Knowledge Project. These
Committee members are in turn answerable to the diverse community stakeholders
who work closely with the VKS on documentary and recording projects. These stake-
holders, in turn, are usually represented by local fieldworkers, part of a network of
voluntary researchers that spans the archipelago.
The approach taken by the Committee was to develop a system in-house in order to
meet the unique needs and priorities of the diverse institutions that comprise the VKS,
and the diverse linguistic backgrounds of its public. The primary criteria in selecting
the tools to be used to develop the in-house system were: expedience (how quickly
could the first set of databases be developed to allow cataloguing efforts to restart);
flexibility to meet the unique needs of the VKS; and long-term sustainability (the

Figure 2. Using the VKS database (June Norman, Chief Librarian, Vanuatu National Library/Archives).
(Photo: William Mohns.)

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ability of the VKS permanent staff to take full control of the system).7 In April 2006, the
VKS hired an Information Technology Officer, Billy Bakeo, to be trained as the main
database developer and administrator. Unlike most museum catalogue software, such
as The Museum System (or TMS, which is highly standardized and remains in the
hands of the software developers even after it is installed in the museum), this approach
provides a structure with the ability to reflect local ways of organizing and naming
fields of knowledge. These new catalogues incorporated the keyword list and support
for the three national languages (French, Bislama, and English). The choice of software
and training strategy has allowed for the development of a unique and appropriate
system, but it has also presented challenges for the sustainability of the project as it
places increasing responsibility on in-house expertise and resources for the continued
development of the system.
The database system developed into the Vanuatu Cultural Information Network
(VCIN), and was intended to follow six guiding principles: to make it easier to find
things; to respect tabu restrictions; to understand social and spatial connections; to
function trilingually; to be user-friendly; and to integrate digital content with catalogue
information. In addition, two features of the project that cut across these four work
areas are the development of a cultural thesaurus for cataloguing and the trilingual and
translingual aspects of the project. As such, the digital domain was explicitly under-
stood by the Database Committee as a powerful tool, not just to organize information,
but also to articulate and develop complex ideas about structure social, material, and

Back in the network

As a long-term researcher working with the VKS (Geismar) and the initial technical
developer of the database (Mohns) we became interested in examining the immediate
impact of the convergence of these complex social and technological networks. The
following sections investigate how the database has provided a new arena for consid-
ering the representational form of, and aestheticizing in particular visual and auditory
ways, indigenous concerns about knowledge production and preservation. What
started to emerge within the database was the nation as a peculiar problematic rather
than a natural outcome of political and social organization. The relational aesthetics of
the database negotiates and intersects with pre-existing representational tropes and the
digital aesthetics of language, place, and secrecy which in turn provoked animated
discussion on the ways in which places and persons could be related across the

The typical user of the VKS archives is competent in multiple languages and wants to
be able to access any material related to his or her interests, regardless of the language
of either the archived object or its catalogue information. As such, the VCIN is designed
to be trilingual in the sense that the user can choose to navigate the archives in any of
the three official national languages, but also trilingual and translingual in that the user
can enter search terms in any of the three languages and find what he or she is looking
for without the item necessarily having to be fully catalogued in the three languages. It
also needs to reflect the flexibility of orthography and different literacy and writing
skills that many people bring to the catalogue as users.

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At the heart of the VKS database is a thesaurus or subject list that has been developed
in three languages in collaboration with each of the sections involved. The thesaurus is
an agreed upon list of concepts translated into the three official languages of Vanuatu
to be used in describing objects in all of the collections (i.e. the cataloguer of a
particular item chooses any number of words from this agreed-upon list that appro-
priately relate to the item). This allows items to be found by searching the catalogue in
any of the three languages, regardless of the language used by the cataloguer. So, for
example, if a photograph that documents the cultural practice of Land Diving is being
catalogued by an English-speaking cataloguer, the cataloguer will select land diving
from the thesaurus. This will relate the object to a particular keyword identification
code which is used to represent Land Diving as well as the French equivalent Saut de
gol, the privileged Bislama equivalent Naghol, and the other common Bislama spellings
Landaeving, Nangol, Nagol, and Nanghol (Fig. 3). Thus if someone searches for any
of these terms, the photograph will appear in the results list. The strength of the
database which emerges from the nature of relational technologies is the way in which
categories cross-cut media and object divides, re-creating spatio-temporal connections
previously sundered by older practices of museum collecting and archiving.
This list epitomizes some of the tensions around language inculcated by the data-
base. On the one hand, it along with a biographical database of names that underpins
the system involves the enumeration and standardization of names for words, places,
people, and languages, and their representation or translation in(to) English, French,
and Bislama. It involves a privileging of some spellings over others, of the national
languages over endemic ones, of the written over the oral. On the other hand, it is also
able to capture the fluidity of local classificatory systems and reflect local understand-
ings of what words are important.
The VKS database also tries to respect different spellings and place names within the
constraints of this system. Alternative spellings for places, people, languages, and
keywords/subjects are linked in the database to the privileged spelling. As a result, if a
user searching the catalogue uses an alternative spelling in his or her search, where that
alternative spelling has been enumerated in the database, the application is designed to
recognize the spelling as referring to the same person, place, or concept as the privileged
spelling, and therefore as also referring to the same linked objects. Theoretically, there
is no limit to the number of alternative spellings that can be incorporated into the

Figure 3. Classifying Land Diving in the database.

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The use of a multi-lingual thesaurus is uniquely important for a multi-lingual

cultural context such as Vanuatu, where it is very rare for someone to speak only one
language. Most people speak at least three languages, and it is not uncommon for
someone to speak four or five. The keyword list is important for objects that are not
necessarily linked to one particular language, such as photographs and museum
objects. In this way, the database participates in the complex language politics of the
nation in which Bislama, the national lingua franca, mediates between local languages,
and alongside French and English. The three national languages often take represen-
tational authority away from local languages. Part of the mandate of the VKS is to
emphasize the importance of learning in local languages and to develop orthographies
so that local languages can increasingly be privileged as archival as well as oral tradi-
tions. The construction of the database paradoxically both facilitates and hinders this
grass-roots promotion of local language in a more national context, reflecting contem-
porary tensions regarding the use of diverse languages across different places in the
archipelago. Rather than foreclose on language, the database tries to open the field of
choice to the user and to accommodate a multiplicity of privileged terms.

Language is intimately connected to place. Perhaps the prime arena of representational
tension within the VKS database is the ways in which digital connections between
places influence the place-markers perceived to organize information. The archive aims
to create a system that understands the connections between collections, and the
people, places, languages, and cultures associated with them. In effect the goal is to be
able to map these social and spatial contexts and relationships into digital relationships.
The idea of place, or ples in Bislama, is a vital organizational and conceptual principle
in Vanuatu, often overshadowing that of the nation. Ples is understood as crucial to the
definition of identity, both individual in terms of the connections between people and
land (or between persons and families connected to the land), and through the political
deployment of this concept in a national context (e.g. Bolton 1999; Kelly 2000; M.
Rodman 1987; W.L. Rodman & Rodman 1985; Van Trease 1987). Vanuatu is conceived of
both locally and analytically as a highly complex, united network comprising a group
of relatively discrete sited places (see above).
The drawing together of Vanuatu as a nation, since its co-option into the Condo-
minium government in 1906 and since Independence in 1980, marked a complex series
of representational boundary-making practices within the archipelago. The colonial
authorities marked the country into districts, grouping together nearby islands under
the management of French and British District Agents. These districts were trans-
formed after independence into provinces whose names are acronyms drawn from the
names of the islands contained within: TORBA, PENAMA, SANMA, MALAMPA,
SHEFA, and TAFEA. In turn, each island is also mapped into a complex arrangement
of villages, districts, wards, parishes, traditional and ritual units, and so on. These
distinctions have emerged out of local histories of cultural, linguistic, and political
entanglement, from the organizational rationale of colonial and church administra-
tions and bureaucracies, as well as from local classifications and hierarchies. The
classification of place thus reflects a sense of being in Vanuatu that unites national and
local concerns to the prime concern of land-ownership now that the republics consti-
tution has decreed all land to inalienably belong to its customary owners.

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Since the relatively recent phenomenon of urban drift and development in Vanuatu,
greater attention has been paid to the construction of provincial identities, exemplified
by a popular string band song, Mix Malo Shefa Gel (literally: Mixed girl from Malo
island (in Sanma province) and Shefa province, sung by the Toko-Souwia String
Band). People increasingly trace identity to an urban area, and to one or more islands,
summarized in a regional rather than village- or island-based affiliation (see Figs 4-6).
Place is also a problem for the drawing of standardized relationships in the context
of the database (see Fig. 7). For instance, cataloguing the founding collection of the
digital photographic archive, a collection of photographs by the British anthropologist
John Layard (see Geismar & Herle 2010) provoked an interesting discussion regarding
the place of ples in the database. In general, there is a strong feeling in the VKS that
material from particular islands should be kept with other material from that island
and should not be mixed with material from other places. The museum has become a
site in which ideas about copyright and other forms of restriction have been reified in
specific relation to place, but not always nation (see Geismar 2005; Geismar & Tilley
2003). This reflects the geographical implications of the fieldworker project, where
individual fieldworkers, whilst representing the specificities of their local ples, are also
considered to be representatives of their island or region. Layard lived on the Small
Island of Atchin, in North East Malakula, in 1914-15, and travelled from there to other
Small Islands of Vao, Atchin, Wala, Rana; to the mainland opposite; to South West Bay
Malakula; and to West Ambae. Cataloguing his photographs raised many provocative
These issues were raised initially by the ways in which the Committee had already
decided the photographs were going to be catalogued before entry into the database.
After several meetings it was initially decided that the location of the photograph would
be integral to its catalogue number. Each photographs code would be hierarchical:
location, then box number, and then image number. For example, a photograph taken

Figure 4. Map of Vanuatu showing provinces. (Image derived from


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Figure 5. Map of the Shepherd Islands showing language groups. (Image courtesy of Nick

by Layard on Vao would be VAO/2.1/bwf: VAO is the island code; 2 refers to a second box
of Vao photographs which may include photographs from other collections taken on
Vao; 1 refers to the images placement within that box; and bwf is an abbreviation of the
Bislama for black and white photo. This complex system became enormously prob-
lematic when dealing with collections taken in many different places and photographs
where the location is unknown. It became unwieldy to have the objects location built
into its catalogue number as the photo archive itself was in the process of being
organized and rearranged. The digital catalogue was originally conceived as an exten-
sion of the organizational principles of the museum, but the Committee came to realize
that it demanded its own classificatory form. Layards was the first collection to be
catalogued which was made up of images taken by the same person in many different

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Figure 6. Cultural exchange in North Central Vanuatu. (From: Huffman, K. 1996. Trading, cultural
exchange and copyright: important aspects of Vanuatu Arts. In Arts of Vanuatu (eds) J. Bonnemaison,
K. Huffman, C. Kaufmann & D. Tryon, 182-94. Bathurst. Map at p. 184. Digital published map
courtesy of Crawford House Publishing.)

places. It raised many challenging issues for the Database Committee and forced them
to reconsider what kinds of relationships they were trying to reify in the form of the
archive. It forced them to let go of a privileging of named places in favour of a generic
representational system that acknowledged the fluidity of movement between places,
but which could also be called upon to maintain distinctions between places. Whilst as
ethnographers we might resist generification, in this instance it permitted a far greater
flexibility in organizing material according to indigenous values and protocols.
Firstly, there was discussion regarding the status of the Small Islands themselves. In
the present day, most people consider them to be part of Malakula and indeed they are
inhabited by people who, during times of intensive local warfare, migrated from the
mainland to the relative security of the Small Islands. In the present, all Small Islanders
have their gardens on the mainland and the population has spilled back into new
villages there. In the catalogue, each island has its own category in location, although

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Figure 7. Place in the context of cataloguing a photo in the database.

this disconnects each island from its entanglement in family, ceremonial, and trading
networks across the area. In turn, it was initially suggested that the photographs be
divided up by place and both catalogued and stored in separate places that reflected the
partition of Vanuatu into place-bound areas of knowledge, experience, practice, and
property rights. At the same time, it became apparent that this move was suppressing
the creative force of exchange and networking that was also an intrinsic part of local
identities (see Fig. 6 above).
In addition, it was necessary to consider whether the collection of photographs as a
whole should be broken up by place or kept together, maintaining the integrity of their
collectors experience in moving through networks of different places during a specific
historical period. The solutions that the Committee (and we as researcher and pro-
grammer) came to exposed how the database both challenged museological problems
in terms of reifying specific kinds of fields of knowledge over others, and provided
flexibility to include many different networks of relationship. The solution we came up
with provided a powerful aesthetic for manifesting the complex networked reality of
identity politics in Vanuatu. The database now tries to create a space that can represent
all of these competing experiences of place in Vanuatu.
The more conventional museological concern to maintain the integrity of specific
collections is less important in Vanuatu, when ni-Vanuatu users are generally more
interested in tracking down material and images related to their families or places, and
primarily search using location or creator, rather than collector or photographer.
However, the issue of breaking up collections would not only impact the ways in which
anthropologists and other non-local peoples collections were viewed but could also
raise problems for the ways in which material collected by fieldworkers is stored. Before
the advent of a computerized database, material was stored firstly by collector and
secondly by island. The photo archive consists of envelopes of images, each roughly
mapping onto a single film taken by a fieldworker or other researcher (as well as images
collected from museums, libraries, and archives, or gifted in albums). The system of
cataloguing initially proposed not only broke up the natural order of images, but also
severed the visibility of the inter-island connections and dynamic movements of
ni-Vanuatu. For instance, in the case of the organization of the Layard photographs, it

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remains the case that Vao islanders have closer ties to North Ambrym than they do to
South West Malakula. After much discussion it was decided to change the format of the
catalogue so that images were catalogued with a number that was then linked to the
database in a more flexible manner. In addition, it was decided to create a bulk
cataloguing field which meant that an entire collection could be catalogued at once, and
even if it was broken up into different places through the search terms of users, or even
physically in the archive, the initial bulk catalogue entry would always permit the
reconstitution of the collection through the database.
The discussions that took place around the classification of objects by location
exposed some of the ways in which the database has the power to alter how connections
are drawn between cultural groups, places, and media. There is a fine line between
trying to use the database as a way to represent the social and political complexity of
inter- and intra-island relationships within Vanuatu and using the database as a way to
draw lines through these relationships (much in the same way that colonial adminis-
trators drew boundaries around districts and provinces).

The VCIN incorporates differing levels of secured access to the objects and information
stored in the network, respecting and reinforcing the existing access structures
employed by the VKS. As such, the VCIN will only make it easier to find things that one
has a right to access, and therefore has differing levels of secured access to the infor-
mation stored in the network. Currently the system relies on sixteen different levels of
tabu restriction based on gender, family, village, nasara (sacred dancing ground), and
island (see Fig. 8).
Initially the inner sanctum of the VKS archive, known as the Tabu Room, was
constructed in order to reassure those permitting sensitive or restricted material to be
recorded and collected that the material would not be freely available for viewing by
those who were not entitled, and as a safe-house to protect such material from the
potential threat of hurricanes, tropical rain, and erosion. Since its inception, villagers
have been encouraged to use the room as a bank for kastom, to protect valued artefacts

Figure 8. The tabu section of the VKS database.

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and documentation and to preserve them for future generations, safe in the knowledge
that the archives can be restricted along kastom guidelines (defined mainly by connec-
tions of persons to places, to families, and by traditional status). The collections in the
Tabu Room thus constitute a new genre of material culture, drawn out of traditional
practice by the idiosyncratic appropriation of international museum technologies and
principles by the VKS: audio-visual recording, archiving, and conservation (see
Geismar & Tilley 2003; Sam 1996).
Such newly made museum objects include documentations of personal testimo-
nies, stories, myths, music, ceremonies, national political and cultural events, ritual
paraphernalia, and artefacts recorded in a variety of media: written texts, audio tapes,
film, slides, and photographs. As the Tabu Room is in the process of being incorpo-
rated, and indeed transformed into the database, all material, including digital material,
is subject to the same restrictions as any other artefact, and a copy of every recording is
left with the people with whom it was made, both assuaging peoples concerns about
the removal of local kastom from the islands and creating further anxiety about the
possibility of endless circulation or mishandling.
As much as they make information available and accessible, the hierarchical nature
of relational databases lends itself perfectly to the control and restriction of access to
information. For instance, in Australia, the digitization of photographs, video and film,
and oral testimony is a way to institutionalize Aboriginal protocols around the own-
ership of knowledge and cultural copyright, and encourage national recognition of
indigenous rights to cultural material (see Christen 2005; Deger 2006).8 This is another
arena in which digital technologies may actually facilitate localized concerns about
access to knowledge as much as they make information more broadly accessible.
Within the database all records and objects are evaluated for their secrecy content.
This means that when the database is opened to public access, any records with tabu
will not be available for viewing more than that, they will not even emerge during
searches. In many ways this improves the efficiency of the archive in tabu terms as
there was always the possibility either of inadvertently coming across tabu material
during the course of a search for something else, or that someone without the appro-
priate permission would take advantage of their presence in the archive to look at
things they should not look at. With the eventual scanning of all sound, film, and image
files, there will be less and less need for people to go into the non-digital archive, and
the tabu restrictions set in place via the tabu field in the database will be extremely hard
to overcome. Indeed, currently records marked as tabu will not show up on any search,
even that made by curators, effectively erasing their presence in the database even as the
information itself remains in place. There is the general idea that once the object has
been catalogued and given the appropriate tabu status, not even curators who do not fit
into that category will be able to view these objects rendering parts of the museum
collection potentially invisible to almost everyone.
At the present time of writing (2011), the VKS database is only available via intranet
it is primarily accessed by the curatorial team in the VKS and is used by members of
individual sections to upload and organize data, and to perform searches for internal
use, and on behalf of the general public and visiting researchers. The most synthetic use
of the catalogue is in the National Library. The Library is visited every day by local
students and schoolchildren as well as interested people, and its two librarians use the
catalogue to do thematic searches for any visitor, and the lists of associated music,
sound, films, documents, and books are printed out and given to visitors to assist them

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with their research. What is really impairing the usability of the database is a lack of
hardware, rather than software limitations. There are no networked computers avail-
able for public access currently in the VKS and limited resources for the maintenance
and upgrade of network infrastructure to facilitate both internal and public access.
Despite these limitations, the database has created a template for restructuring the
ways in which VKS staff and users interact with the archives, but also alters how users
interact with VKS staff and with the archives. Eventually, the system will be able to make
some information accessible without the need to interact with staff, and thus it will
change the role of staff as gatekeeper of the archives. Staff will still control the level of
accessibility of information stored in the archives, but once the appropriate staff
member assigns a level of accessibility, then anyone who is granted that level of access
can potentially access that information without the knowledge or assistance of that staff
member. In short, while VKS staff control the parameters for access to individual
objects, some of the role of keeper and gatekeeper of knowledge is transferred from the
staff member to the database system as it is now the user who interacts with the system
to retrieve cultural information.
This approach can potentially save VKS staff time in locating and retrieving objects
while also ensuring that knowledge is not lost through staff turnover or damage to the
archives. However, it also changes the role of the staff member and the dynamic
between staff and users, changing the transfer of knowledge from an oral to a written
process and potentially reducing personal contact between VKS staff and users of the
archives. What effect will this have on the relationship between VKS staff and users of
the archives? What impacts will any changes in these relationships have on cultural
research? One could argue that these changes decentralize the authority of the museum
and challenge the ideal of the nation as a centralizing force in representing and aes-
theticizing its citizens.

Conclusion: new objects, new relations?

The proliferation of digitization projects in museums, the revaluation of audio-visual
output as part of, rather than documentation of, collections, and the growing use of
digital technologies in the making of new collections (most new audio-visual collec-
tions are now made directly using digital equipment) have not only affected the prag-
matics of collection, preservation, and care, but have altered the ways in which museum
objects may be conceptually understood and thereby framed through cataloguing
practices. With the potential for endless replication and multiple presences, on the one
side, and the dependency on a complex nexus of specialized equipment and skills, on
the other, digital technologies are increasingly redefining the object-like qualities of
museum collections, incorporating the intangible and the tangible, and challenging our
philosophical assumptions about the boundaries or limits of the objective world as it is
represented through the conventions of museum display and practices of preservation,
conservation, collection, and archiving. We argue that the digital domain forges a new
relational aesthetic (see Bourriaud 2002) it formalizes pre-existing networks and
facilitates the visualization of new relations.
Through discussing how to deal with the issue of place in cataloguing these images
in the database, it was clear that for the Database Committee the form of the database
was mapped directly onto the handling of the material in question: for example, there
was no distinction made between the virtual information within the database and
the objects masks, cassettes, photographs, videos, and other documents and

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documentation to which the records referred. This conflation is supported by the

decision of the VKS to use the hard drive, or very substance, of the database as its
fundamental unit of storage. Increasingly, these gigabytes of storage are the very form
of the collection, particularly as the VKS focuses its work on audio-visual documen-
tation. Therefore, when browsing the image or music files of the newly digitized
collection of oral traditions or of photographs, one is able to connect directly with the
source of the reference to download the museum-quality image or to listen to the
recording itself. The difference between an idea of the original object and any other
copies is therefore not really an issue in this digital space. This is in keeping with local
understandings of objects, in which it is the reference point or knowledge behind the
form that is the essential object rather than the momentary form in which it might be
Unlike most databases, which are perceived to be almost shadows or partial repre-
sentations of the collection, which itself is housed elsewhere, the VKS database increas-
ingly configures the collection as the work of the VKS. Object collection has always
been a subsidiary occupation of the VKS, with photography being perhaps the arche-
typal material collected (the principle of photography, with its basis in evidential and
objective recording and the potential for multiple reproduction and circulation, is
much more suited to the main interests of the VKS in cultural regeneration and
activation than the more object-led model of salvaging material which is supposed to
stand in for disappearing or diminished cultural practice). Instead, museum objects
(photographs, video, film and audio recordings) are very much viewed as momentary
manifestations of cultural practices, the recording of which, as a process, contributes to
the perpetuation of practice, both within and without the museum walls (see Geismar
Focusing on the ways in which the database participates in creating networks focused
on place, secrecy and restriction, and language exposes that the digital space is more than
justarepresentationof otherspaces,butisitself partof theprocessesbywhichthesespaces,
and relationships, are forged.We need to be aware of the interaction between technology,
software, and programming forms and the decision-making protocols established by key
actors on the Database Committee in order to move away from an understanding of the
digital catalogue as merely a reification of archiving practices imported from elsewhere.
Instead, we see how the importation of certain technologies (and the attendant impor-
tation of flexibility and cultural sensitivity that they permit) engenders a dialogue that is
made visible via the aesthetic of the database itself.
Most fundamentally, the VCIN makes pre-existing relationships among data
explicit, by connecting objects and information to each other, as well as to place,
language, and people. These are relations that in some cases would otherwise appear
invisible. This is, in effect, a re-contextualization of objects in the archives into their
social, spatial, and archival contexts permitted by the ways in which digital technologies
are able to be moulded to local concerns and rigidly frame these concerns within a
formal structure. This catalogue does not project onto an existing reality but responds
to the social situations, discussions, disagreements, and ideologies that surround the
organization of material within the national museum. This museum is national in a
way that can potentially decentralize as well as centralize. In doing so it constitutes both
new social possibilities and clarification of existing relationships. The database is not
another level of organizing knowledge but is connected to knowledge relations in other
domains. In terms of constituting subjectivity, as well as objectivity, the database draws

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connections between people, fields of information, places, and hierarchies of knowl-

edge. Its users are not abstract citizens, or a broadly defined public culture, but people
invested in the networks that lie within. This is a powerful aesthetic that articulates
tensions around nation-making within contemporary Vanuatu.

The authors would like to express gratitude to the Database Committee of the VKS, and to Malcolm Serial,
Billy Bakeo, and Ralph Regenvanu for their support and collaboration during research. Research was sup-
ported by CUSO (now CUSO-VSO), a Small Research Grant from the British Academy, and the Cambridge
University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Thanks also for feedback from Robin Boast and the
NYU Science Studies Reading group, convened by Emily Martin and Rayna Rapp, at which a very early
version of the paper was presented.
Nicolas Bourriauds discussion of relational aesthetics observes how art itself is a relational form.
Relational Art is that which self-consciously takes as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions
and its social context rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space (2002: 14,
original emphasis). Such art is exemplified by Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose work has included a kitchen, installed
in the gallery, in which he cooks Thai curries for gallery-goers.
For example, Huffman writing of the national census of 1989, describes the perpetuity of traditional
local networking:
[T]he census office in the capital, Port Vila, sent a series of messages over the national radio to the
persons of Pentecost asking the men to please remain at home to be counted. The problem was that
so many of the men were away following trade links through the island on the perpetual bisnis pig
circuit (1996: 194).

The activities of the census, so crucial to nation-building (see Anderson 1991), are therefore subverted by the
networked nature of the archipelago and the ways in which people define themselves in relation, and through
movement within the network, rather than solely in relation to a fixed node (see also Bonnemaison 1996).
Sometimes the VKS will put the camera equipment on a plane by itself to be collected by a fieldworker
on another island. This speaks both to the decentring of VKS operations and to the crucial role of technology
in mediating the work of the museum.
A Microsoft Access database had been developed and populated for some of the VKSs holdings, but was
not in active use owing to the lack of a network and minimal internal promotion of the database. Electronic
catalogues in active use included Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, flat text files, and a DOS-based version of
inMagics Bookmark system for library catalogues.
CUSO was a Canadian international development and social justice organization. CUSO merged with
VSO Canada in 2008 and became CUSO-VSO.
The database system was initially developed with a web interface built on Macromedias ColdFusion
application development framework (now Adobe ColdFusion) and using Microsoft Access with Microsoft Jet
as the database management system (DBMS).
Some examples of these projects, spearheaded by Kimberly Christen, may be found at http://,, and http://
This is a common philosophy behind many different objects in the Pacific, notably Malanggan. For a
comparison between photography and Malanggan, see Bell & Geismar (2009) and Geismar (2009).

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Relations sociales et relations numriques : repenser la base de donnes du

Centre culturel du Vanuatu


A partir dune tude de cas sur le dveloppement dun systme de base de donnes intgr pour le Centre
culturel du Vanuatu (Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta VKS), les auteurs sefforcent dclaircir et de questionner
lesthtique de cette base de donnes ainsi que les liens entre relations numriques et sociales lintrieur
de ce muse et au-del. La base de donnes du VKS met en vidence des relations entre savoir, pratique et
collection et cre des liens dans un nouvel espace national trilingue. Quelles sont les implications dune
cartographie du social dans le numrique, et vice versa ? Quelle est lefficacit dune connexion numrique
aux pratiques du muse et aux autres rseaux sociaux ? Le domaine numrique cre-t-il une nouvelle
esthtique nationale des connexions et des relations, et comment peut-on repenser la nation dans ce
nouveau cadre esthtique ? Comment les relations numriques affectent-elles la production de nouvelles
collections et de nouvelles relations au monde des objets ? Comment cette infrastructure lectronique
gnre ou perptue-t-elle les hirarchies du savoir et lconomie politique de linformation ?

Haidy Geismar is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies at New York University. Her
research interests include intellectual and cultural property, value, and materiality in the Pacific and in

Department of Anthropology and Program in Museum Studies, New York University, 240 Greene Street, Room
403, New York, NY, 10003, USA.

William Mohns is an Environmental Information and Reporting Officer with the Government of British
Columbia. He also works with the Vanuatu Renewable Energy and Power Association (VANREPA) and the
Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS). His interests include the sociologies of environment, energy, and informa-
tion technologies.

Knowledge Management Branch, British Columbia Ministry of Environment, PO Box 9341 Stn Prov Govt,
Victoria, BC, Canada V8W 9M1.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.), S133-S155

Royal Anthropological Institute 2011