Cultural Sensorium: An Indigenous Ethnography of the Senses

Principal Investigator
Jennifer Biddle, The University of New South Wales, Australia

Sarah Kenderdine, The University of New South Wales, Museum Victoria, Australia

Partner Investigators
David Howes, Concordia University, Canada
Christopher Salter, Concordia University, Canada

Project Description

In direct response to the national and global focus on safeguarding intangible Indigenous World Heritage, this project proposes an original ethnography and a dynamic public platform for the communication of culture as living heritage. It develops a new approach to under-researched and largely invisible aspects of knowledge and tradition by combining sensory ethnography with pioneering advancements in digital culture. The project develops the emerging field of the anthropology of the senses, delivers new research for cultural maintenance, and provides innovation in technological capacities for sustaining Indigenous futures.

The project forges alliances between the visual arts, anthropology and digital heritage. It brings together a team of Australian and Canadian Indigenous artists and curators, cultural anthropologists, and immersive visualization experts to pioneer a sensory-based approach to Indigenous heritage combining ethnographic methodologies with technological innovation.

The project has two aims:

1. To model intangible sensory heritage in Indigenous cultures conceptually (ethnographic and aesthetic),
historically (the ethnographic archive) and practically (identifying, documenting and reproducing sensory-based data);
2. To develop innovative modes of engaging sensory heritage and activating audiences in the understanding and promotion of Indigenous cultural knowledge.

A practice-based collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and artists across two former British colonies, with expert focus on technological innovation in Indigenous heritage, has not previously been undertaken and represents a significant national benefit. The project speaks to the ARC Discovery Project scheme objectives of ‘enhanc[ing] international collaboration’ that ‘expand[s] Australia’s knowledge base and research capability’. This project builds high-level global collaboration, and shapes purposeful long-term dialogue between universities across Australia and Canada, including First Nation and Australian Indigenous artists and community members in each country. Its public communicative reach, through national exhibition and international publication, ensures effective delivery beyond academic or strictly scholarly audiences.

In pursuing a vanguard application of the new field of Indigenous sensory ethnography, this project positions Australia at the forefront of innovation in immersive heritage research and development. The project will be the first to model not only a comprehensive framework of Indigenous sense perception, but the means to convey sensory knowledge directly. A new model for intangible sensory heritage will be established and evaluated for the first time. By premiering a cutting-edge multimodal sensory environment, the project represents real advancements towards the 2003 UNESCO mandate on resourcing intangible Indigenous heritage for the future (see above, C1.3.1). As such, the project contributes directly to Australian Indigenous linguistic and cultural revival and survival, and actively redresses public affective understanding through the creation of new kinds of engaged and participatory encounters with Indigenous ‘ways of sensing’. In a context where depiction of contemporary Aboriginal life is dominated by the media, the potential impact of this contribution is high. ‘Trauma-fatigue’ currently plagues representational approaches to the plight of social suffering in public culture (Feldman 2005). This applies specifically to the relentless accounts of Aboriginal dysfunction in the national media (Altman & Hinkson 2010). The project aims for a broad, positive national impact to counterbalance this dysfunction.

This project then offers the rare opportunity to provide an entirely novel and publicly appealing approach to closing the gap that is based in solid research and expertise.

“Cultural Sensorium: An Indigenous Ethnography of the Senses” is generously supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council for the period 2017-2020.