Cultivating the women on farms gathering community: a digital approach

Natalie Lee-San Pang

Monash University



This paper explores the potential of virtual place as a site where community identity can be cultivated through empowering, enabling, and constraining the collective memories of the community, and by the construction and reconstruction of individual knowledge. Insights from the discussion are applied to a particular case. A project titled ‘Cultivating memory: investigating the intersection of public history, museology and community informatics in the Women on Farms Gathering (WoFG) heritage collection’ concerns a collection of iconic objects, texts, oral history recordings, videos, photographs and memorabilia relating to the lives of women on farms. The project explores how best this collection can be placed and extended both physically and virtually, in terms both of content and use. The digital collection contributes to the establishment of a ‘knowledge commons’; a virtual space dedicated to the sharing of understanding, memories, and knowledge within the community. Using this concept of the commons, this paper demonstrates how the digital collection enables the reclaiming of understanding, the construction and representation of knowledge, and the cultivation of memories within a community.


Using the case of the WoFG collection, this paper explores the potential of virtual place as a site where community identity can be cultivated. The approach is partly based on structurational theory by Giddens (1984), who offers the following insight:

The best and most interesting ideas in the social sciences (a) participate in fostering the climate of opinion and the social processes which give rise to them, (b) are in greater or lesser degree entwined with theories-in-use which help to constitute those processes and (c) are thus unlikely to be clearly distinct from considered reflection which lay actors may bring to bear in so far as they discursively articulate, or improve upon, theories-in-use (Giddens, 1984: 34).

In other words, meanings, actions, and structures are closely and continuously interdependent. According to Giddens, community cultures are generated and re-generated through the interplay of action and structure. Social structure both supports and constrains the endeavours of individuals, communities and, societies.

Within this context, we explore a number of intersections in this paper. Cultural institutions are defined here as organizations whose charter is to promote and support education, arts, and sciences through creating, preserving, sharing and transmitting knowledge. This definition is consistent with UNESCO’s World Culture Report (UNESCO, 2003). Over the years, cultural institutions have become increasingly sensitive to their communities and become more innovative in the designs and redesigns of their services, information systems, and work spaces to cater to the needs of these communities (Allmang, Liu and Sanders, 2005). Change is no doubt a constant with all organisations; but we investigate how this change reflects, at a visionary level, a step by cultural institutions towards what this paper refers to as the knowledge commons. Benkler (2003) refers to the knowledge commons as zones or spaces where resources are shared by people, but subjected to certain enclosures.

Dale (2003) argued for the case of museums as agents of change in communities. As mainstream cultural institutions, museums have a significant role in ‘creating public understanding and knowledge of the world’ (Dale, 2003). In her paper, Dale (2003) suggested pragmatic examples of how museums around the world are repositioning themselves as agents of cultural change, by collecting, preserving and facilitating alternative discourses and knowledge.

This paper not only explores, through discussion of the case study, how a digital collection can empower, enable, and constrain collective memories of the community through the construction and reconstruction of knowledge. It also puts forward a lively illustration of how the museum as a cultural institution can transform itself into a knowledge commons using as a digital collection as one of its many tools.

The Women on Farms Gathering (WoFG) Collection

The first gathering was held by Victorian farm women in 1990, Warragul, Victoria. It became an annual event thereafter, with each gathering held in different locations. The gatherings produced a collection of symbolic objects and stories, including two large banners, videos, photographs, oral histories, a memorial plaque, a range of memorabilia (t-shirts, mugs, bags), and symbolic icons such as a cow pat, an irrigation shovel, a magic wand, a cheque, a Mallee stone, a Mallee root, a peaked cap, a computer motherboard, a jar of Mallee soil and seeds, a farm work boot, a horseshoe, a pair of ceramic hands and an open lock and key. As the years went by, these gatherings grew in attendance and depth, with themes selected for each gathering and the number of artifacts increasing.

Yet the conception of items collected as a heritage was not realised until the gathering in 2001, when, items from past gatherings were brought together to contribute to a series of history boards displayed at the Beechworth Gathering in 2001. Committee members of the Gathering then contacted Museum Victoria seeking a neutral, central institution which could ensure the sustainability of the collection. From there, a Heritage Group was established consisting of twenty-one women from across Victoria, each representing past gatherings. In 2003, representatives of the Women on Farms Gathering Heritage Group and Museum Victoria signed an agreement to work together in making visible a story that has long been ignored: the vital and creative role of Victorian women in sustaining their rural industries and communities. Over 260 participants signed a three-metre long scroll as witnesses to this special occasion.

The scope of the collection comprises of iconic objects, texts, oral history recordings, videos, photographs and memorabilia relating to the lives of Victorian women living and working on farms. Since the first gathering the collection has seen the inclusion of stories – both oral and written – about and brought to the gatherings, and physical artefacts: all working together to facilitate the promotion, sharing, development, networking, and celebration of the diverse roles and memories of Victorian women on farms and in rural communities.

With the involvement of the Museum, the collection grew considerably in both depth and breadth. As the collection and engagement with the community grew across time and distance, the need came up for a medium to communicate and exhibit the collection to members of the public and members of the community. This led to the formulation of a digital approach to place the WoFG collection in a virtual space.

Because the gathering was a self-initiated ‘grass-root’ endeavour, the WoFG community was seen as a particularly valued partner by the Museum. They provided unique experiential knowledge, instantiated both in objects and stories. The involvement of the Museum as the cultural institution in the partnership was intentionally kept in participatory engagement with the WoFG community. Instead of engaging members of the community in the activities of the Museum, many of the activities and practices around building the collection take place by having the Museum involved in the activities of the community. At the same time, dialogue with members of the community was maintained through regular meetings where there are open discussions on how the community can take active ownership of the collection. Such guiding principles were largely based on participatory action research philosophies, which saw the community as a knowledgeable partner and the researchers as collaborators, with a primary goal to contribute to the betterment of the community (Nyden, 1997; McKay and Marshall, 2001).

Structuration Theory and its Application

The project evolves around the building of a digital collection in an existing partnership between Museum Victoria and a rural community. There is a need to account for the potential impacts on the two entities, while making sense of the technological assumptions implicit in the project. In other words, an appropriate theoretical framework would be one that explores subjective experiences and objective properties of the technologies involved. This is explored by using structuration theory.

In the study of the social realities of information technology, there are broadly two traditions: the assumption of social reality as subjective or objective (Orlikowoski and Robey, 1991). This opposition in theory is reflected in the assumption of social systems (of which information technologies are part). Subjective social reality is the result of ‘meaningful human behaviour’; while the other focuses on the organisational aspects of social systems, independent of and constraining human actions, representing social realities as objective (Bhaskar, c.f. Orlikowoski and Robey, 1991). Research assuming the subjectivity of social systems focuses on the subjective human experiences, interpretation of them, and elements of human behaviour modifying the social world. The contrasting view of objectivism focuses on the definitions and properties of institutional elements which shape social systems, and through this process, provides explanations for their influences on human actions and relationships. Giddens asserted that the grounds of mutual exclusiveness between subjectivism and objectivism is flawed and therefore developed the theory of structuration to accommodate the two traditions. Structuration theory views the subjectivity and objectivity of social realities as equally important and is therefore used to analyse the role of technology and design in the work of cultural institutions and communities, as discussed below.

According to structuration theory, the cumulative effect of people’s living and working within social frameworks is the production and reproduction of culture. The cultural context is generated and regenerated through the interplay of action and structure. Social structures both support and constrain the endeavours of individuals, communities and societies. This is also referred to as the duality of structure (Giddens, 1986), which sees that the institutional properties of social systems are created by human actions, and in turn shape future actions. It recognises that ‘man actively shapes the world he lives in at the same time as it shapes him’ (Giddens, 1984).

The self-conscious deployment of content and stories in the digital collection draws on similar paradoxes. The use of information systems necessarily imposes certain forms of structure on the communities that use these systems. The notion of involving users in design, on the other hand, stresses the role of human action in shaping the evolving structure of information systems.

It is this engagement and involvement of a community of users within the design process that the paper is addressing. Many information systems researchers argue the case for iterative design (Carroll, 2000; Preece, 2002) seeing it as a way to factor in the effects of human actions. But more critical for cultural institutions is the importance of factoring actions in a way which reflects the cumulative actions of communities as a whole, and incorporating this in the design methodologies of information systems, services, and workspaces. As Rose and Scheepers (2001) pointed out, while the use of structuration theory to theorise the field of information systems and its empirical scenarios is not new, there is little effort in using the theory to influence the field in practice.

Of course, there are debates about structuration theory; the main one being the theory is too general and formal and there can be major difficulties in applying it to empirical situations (Cohen, 1991). Structuration theory is complex and can be adapted only in relevant contexts. The work of Orlikowski and Robey (1991), in applying the theory to technology has been instrumental in adapting perspectives from structuration theory to the project.

The Duality of Structure

Perhaps the most important application of this theory to any information system lies in the recognition of structure and agency as ‘duality’ – making clear the distinctions between structure and agency yet recognising them as dependent upon each other iteratively. The application of this theory recognises that the structural properties of social systems impose themselves as influencing mediums and at the same time, exist as outcomes of the social practices they ‘recursively organise’ (Giddens, 1984, pp 25). These dimensions are illustrated in the well-known diagram as below (figure 1):






interpretive scheme







Figure 1: Dimensions of the duality of structure (Giddens, 1984)

As illustrated in figure 1, social structure and human interaction are broken down into three columns. Each structure and interaction is then associated with each other recursively via the linking modalities. For example, as humans communicate, they use interpretive schemes to help them make sense of their interaction; at the same time these interactions change or reproduce the same interpretive schemes that are embedded in structures as signification. The facility used to allocate resources is manifested in the wielding of power, which in turn produces and reproduces facilities influencing social structures of domination. Norms on the other hand, referred to also as moral codes; provide sanctions for human interactions, which ultimately also produce legitimation within structures.

Orlikowski and Robey (1991) have done much work in theorising aspects of information systems using structuration theory. According to them, ‘in its constituted nature – information technology is the social product of subjective human action within specific structural and cultural contexts – and its constitutive role – information technology is simultaneously an objective set of rules and resources involved in mediating (facilitating and constraining) human action, and thus hence contributing to the creation, recreation and transformation of these contexts’.

Information systems are forgotten as often as they are remembered in the conduct of everyday life, and have long since overflowed their original ambit of the workplace to include almost all other aspects of living. So extensive are the potentials of information systems in the current state of the world that the term ‘information systems’ has become too diverse a concept to be captured in any short definition. Information systems – when considered as an object of study – require constantly renewed effort at definition depending on context. It is now a reality of the techno-social condition that people need to grapple continuously with the multiple personae of ‘information’ and ‘information systems’ while interacting with them to fulfil their everyday activities.

Orlikowoski (1992) further explores the interactive aspects of the structurational model as it applies to information technology. This is shown in figure 2. In this context, human agents are interacting with technology as a result of the institution, and technology is both the subject and object of interactions. Institutional properties place certain conditions on human agents in their interaction with technology (arrow a). These human agents shape technology as reflected in the arrow denoted as b. This is a recursive effect, as technology is also acting as a medium of human actions – both constraining and empowering the actions of human agents (arrow). Through their interactions with technology, institutional properties are then recursively shaped over time and space (arrow d). This is a constant interplay between technology, institutional properties and human agents.

Figure 2: Structurational model of technology (Orlikowoski, 1992)

The recursive nature of technology based on structuration theory is reflected in the structurational properties of technologies as being created and changed by human action; but also used by humans to accomplish actions.

The Knowledge Commons

I have learned that excellence in cultural institutions means constant engagement in the problems of public knowledge. As proliferating themes of education and the culture of information remind us, what a culture knows, how it finds knowledge, and how it conducts its conversations about ethics, imagination, and policy are vital to its character and actions. These themes are also germane to understanding the promise of cultural institutions, where we can live out the unspoken parts of our experiences. Consequently, over the past several years when I have met audiences…I have done so as an advocate for the idea that we create and sustain these institutions because we want to become different people. We go to these places out of hope and will, and out of the desire for self-rescue. (Carr, 2003, pp xix)

It is necessary at this point to explore the construct used for the study. The knowledge commons, derived from the historical commons, is defined by Benkler (2003) as ‘institutional spaces, in which we can practice a particular type of freedom – freedom from the constraints we normally accept as necessary preconditions to functional markets’. Beagle (1999) also defines the information commons as two halves: the composition of physical space, and the virtual composition of resources and values. The term of the ‘commons’ therefore is used to refer to the infusion of digital technologies and resources with actual physical space and resources to be used freely by communities (MacWhinnie, 2003; Hales, Rea and Siegler, 2000; Beagle, 1999; Bailey and Tierney, 2002; Bollier, 2004; Cowgill, Beam and Wess, 2001; Lukasik, 2000).

Within this context, the importance of cultural institutions such as museums to the protection of the commons is clear. They fulfil their mission to serve community needs by preserving resources that seek to define those communities, by facilitating relationships within the communities, and by making those resources available free from market constraints. The commons can be a distressingly messy concept, subject to many different interpretations by various disciplines, institutions, and academics. Before we go any further, let us first establish a working definition of the knowledge commons in the context of this paper. We refer to figure 3, a drawing made in Mexico by Quim Gil, who was inspired by rural life of certain states such as Chiapas (Claude, 2002).

Though this is a representation of the traditional historical commons, it brings together essential elements of the knowledge commons that we use here. There exists, at a base level, resources that brings about inspiration, creativity, and action within the community. In Gil’s impression, this is represented by the sun, and water and everything built on the earth. The sustainability of the community is ensured through grass, other plants, and animals; skills and cooperation by individuals and between individuals improve the community as a whole; while discussions, art and leisure ensures a healthy and happy community. The commons may appear to be a somewhat idealistic state of affairs – open only for criticism. In fact, Hardin (1968) describes the commons as a ‘tragedy’; a state that sets itself up for disaster. His rationale is based on the assumption that ‘every man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.’ (Claude, 2002).

Figure 3: The Commons by Gil (Claude, 2002)

There are two inherent flaws in this ‘tragedy’ in the context of the case study discussed here. One, it rests on the assumption that the use of a scarce resource in the commons leads to degradation, or depletion of the resource. Indeed, this may very well be the case if we look upon information as a scarcity. Information held in physical forms, such as printed sources, can be limited only to those who have access. Yet in its digital forms, the risk of depletion decreases. Information, in the form of text, images, and bits of data whether on physical or digital mediums, is used for the purpose of deriving knowledge. Knowledge as a resource ‘has the characteristic of not being degraded when used, but rather to increase in value’ (Drucker, c.f. Hellstrom, 2001). A good contemporary example is Wikipedia, where value and quality lie in the increasing use of the resource. Recent evidence has also shown how the quality of resources in Wikipedia increases the more they are edited (Wilkinson and Huberman, 2007). This characteristic of knowledge helps to decrease the risk of the ‘tragedy’ of the commons (Hardin, 1968).

The second inherent flaw, as Levine (2002) pointed out, was Hardin’s (1968) assumption that the commons was uncontrollable and unorganised. Indeed, if it were assumed to be left to be uncontrolled, unorganised, and exploited by individuals seeking personal gain, it could very well be a tragedy. Levine (2002) suggested to prevent the tragedy, the desirability of state, non-profit, or voluntary ownerships of the commons by the concerned community. Such ownerships allow for the management of the commons.

Museum Victoria’s cultural partnership with the Women on Farms Gathering community to create and develop a digital commons for that community denies the necessity of the tragedy which Hardin (1968) spoke of. As mentioned above, the involvement of the Museum in the community started not with the first gathering; but only when the collection and the community grew to a level of significance. Even after this institutional involvement, the partnership between the community and the Museum was kept at equal engagement; cautious to not impose institutional boundaries on the community. Congruent with Levine’s (2002) suggestion, this partnership reflects voluntary ownership of the commons by the community (i.e. Women on Farms in Victoria) while the Museum took up a neutral and central responsibility as a cultural institution to ensure the sustainability of the resources and collections in the community.

The collection was developed around stories – both written and recorded orally, organised around the annual gatherings of the Women on Farms community. Each gathering was filled with stories – about the gatherings, life stories of farm women brought to the gatherings, and stories about the objects collected at these gatherings. The stories museums tell are often influenced by the nature of their collections (Dale, 2003). Traditionally, this has been done through using objects for exploring meaning and memories; but Gurian (1999) highlights that a significant shift towards centring collections on stories. This is a shift also towards an adoption of a people-centred methodology by museums (Dale, 2003). The adoption of this methodology allows the inclusion of memories, photographs, video and audio recollections of the community in the collection. It is this focus that has been used to develop the digital collection, contributing to the whole picture of the knowledge commons. Figure 4 shows a screen capture of a page from the collection.

Figure 4: Shared stories from a page in the collection

A Sense of Place: Intersections within the Commons

An important aspect in the picture of the commons according to Gil (see figure 3) is the existence of boundaries that seek to empower the community within its spaces, but at the same time imposing certain sanctions on the community. This is consistent with the analytic structures of structuration theory. Sanctions contribute to the definition of accepted norms in the community which also gives form to the legitimate structures working within the commons. Power relationships gave rise to structures of domination, and the way people communicate within the community gave significance to some resources over others. In the context of the WoFG collection, the understanding and accepted working norms within the community (which have been around for more than ten years) gave rise to the structures defining the accessibility, domination, and signification of the collection. For example, the process of sharing stories and bringing together meaningful objects to annual gatherings has also become, quite implicitly, the signification of objects in the collection. It is important to highlight the role of the Museum influencing this structure, which contributes at the same time to the norms and sanctions shaped within the community. One good example has been the role of curators filtering and adding meanings to the objects signified at gatherings before including them as part of the digital collection.

It should be highlighted that the establishment of boundaries within the commons is one that is continuously negotiated within the community and the Museum. In the context of the digital collection, by way of sharing stories and meaningful objects between members of the community, and having the participation of the Museum, boundaries defining participation and access to the collection are continuously shaped. Before establishing the digital collection, contributing to the collection implied participation at the annual gathering – but with the digital collection participation is now open to all – even to those who are not direct members of the community. Having stories and other objects of meaning shared through the digital collection helps to reclaim understanding about the communal identity of the community. Indeed, this is clear in hindsight as we examine the responses to the stories displayed in the collection. As the digital collection began to manifest when objects were put online, members of the community expressed much enthusiasm. One member commented:

This is an exciting opportunity for us – to be able to connect with other women who understand and share similar stories, some of them we’ve never met before – and to connect with the public as a community. I’m beginning to realise how this is a new kind of space for us to interact in.

Such responses reflect a reclaiming of identity and understanding in the community, and in the process extend its citizenship to people beyond the usual community. This reclamation has at once an empowering and constraining effect on the collective memories of the community. While it empowers the community by providing a greater sense of belonging as a collective community, it also made it clear to the community the resources and the others who fall outside the community – with the latter expressed as ‘the public’.

At the same time, communications within the community are exchanged within the commons using interpretative schemes of the community, embedded in structures of signification working in the community. Such structures of signification are manifested by the stories and objects collected in the digital collection. While this may seem obvious, they come about only through intergenerational communication within the existing interpretative schemes of the community-Museum partnership. Again, it must be remembered that there is duality in this negotiation of exchange. The dynamic interplay of communication and signification moderated by interpretative schemes in the community is powerful in painting part of the picture of the knowledge commons, where people in the community interact in public discussions and social spaces, giving rise to signification of common resources owned by all in the community. This is exemplified by having the digital collection as common pool resources shared by members of the community, and with the Museum facilitating such sharing.

Again, this intersection and interplay within the commons allows forth the growth of a sense of owned place for the community. As the digital collection seeks resources and stories from people in the community, meanings are constructed and established within the commons through the sharing of stories, memories, and objects. Through the intergenerational reviews, editing, and publishing of these resources, they reach a certain level of signification and knowledge are eventually revealed and represented. The representations of resources, memories, and identities of the community are manifested tangibly in the access of the digital collection; but more importantly, the process eliciting this outcome lies in the dynamic interaction between members of the community.

Levels of power demonstrated by interaction are manifested by the facilities used to allocate resources, and in turn they produce and reproduce facilities influencing structures of domination. Within the digital collection, modalities have been developed as facilities to allocate resources to be accessed and used by the community (e.g. stories about certain objects in the collection). Such facilities influence and are influenced by structures of power (for example, certain stories are restricted or approved for public access by selected members of the community). Entry into conversations on the digital common is limited in the current version of the website by a protocol making clear where power lies in terms of copyright and access to the collection; this process will require further negotiation.

I permit Museum Victoria to make a recording of my recollections as part of the Women on Farms Gathering Heritage project. The Museum wishes to use these recollections for a variety of purposes including exhibition, research, education material, public presentations and website. Written permission will always be sought where members of the public wish to reproduce, broadcast or publish the recollections.

Conclusion & Future Work

The paper has discussed, using a case study, a partnership between the Museum as a cultural institution and a community. In the context of the knowledge commons, we explore how this interaction can be leveraged to produce benefits for all parties. We first explore the applications of structuration theory to technologies, and then in doing so, examine the relevance of a digital collection working within the knowledge commons. Such intersections can lead to the development of a sense of place for the community, through reclaiming understanding and memories, and though constructing representing knowledge for the community. This understanding comes about only through situating the digital collection in the context of the commons. This is an ongoing project and work continues; reshaping the design of the site to meet the needs of the community, and evaluating the impacts of the information system in both the community and Museum. Findings from the project can also shed potential insights on the broader role of cultural institutions in addressing the issues and problems of public knowledge and common pool resources. There are, however, possible limitations due to the qualitative nature of the case study. Case studies are often criticised as being too exploratory (De Vaus, 2001) and more empirical insights will help in validating the findings from the study.


We would like to acknowledge the members of the Women on Farms Heritage Group, and the Museum of Victoria for their inputs and participation in the project. None of this would also have been possible without the generous funding of Monash University, Arts/IT Small Grants.


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