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May 9, 2002 Echoes of the islands: Christine Jourdan's award-winning site



Christine Jourdan

Christine Jourdan, associate professor of sociology and anthropology

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Julie Roy

Ethnolinguist Christine Jourdan and members of her FCAR research team, Pierre Maranda and Sylvie Poirier, of Université Laval, together with a team of experts from the Musée de la Civilisation du Québec, have brought multimedia and anthropology together for a new Web site on Oceania.

The work, the product of a collaborative effort of academics, curators and computer programmers, has earned the team several awards.

ECHO (Encyclopédie Culturelle Hypermédia de l’Océanie/Cultural Hypermedia Encyclopedia of Oceania) was conceived by Maranda and Jourdan around 1993. With two consecutive FCAR grants, a CRSH bursary and funding from the Canadian and French governments, among others, the project was set to begin. It linked anthropologists who, like Jourdan, were specialists in Oceania, the islands of the Pacific.

Defining central cultural terms

ECHO’s goal was to create a new, encyclopedic approach by using the terms and concepts of Oceania’s people. The researchers made use of concepts borrowed from neuroscience and semiotics to develop their own architecture based on the concept of “attractors” and “attraction basins,” clusters of meaning that gravitate around an attractor.

Anthropologists from around the world selected terms that were defined as central to the cultures of Oceania. About 400 of them became attractors. Out of them, the team developed attraction basins with words relating to the main attractors. Graphics-wise, this looks a little bit like an Amerindian dreamcatcher.

Wantok is one of those attractors. It is the pidgin word for “one-talk,” meaning the act of coming together and sharing one language, mainly in plantation and urban contexts. Wantok is the centre of an attraction basin in which related terms are linked with knots and threads. Such knots include “housing,” “family,” “friends,” etc. Each term in the attraction basin opens up to a new page of information, accompanied by audio clips, photos and sometimes, short movies.

While looking for concrete applications of this research, Jourdan and her colleagues entered into a partnership with the Musée de la Civilisation, in Quebec City, which had the infrastructure necessary to implement ECHO in the form of a virtual exhibition showcasing their collection of objects from the region. That’s how Peuple des eaux, gens des îles (Habitants of waters, people of the islands) came to be.

The project for the museum — an ECHO prototype — shows only three attractors: “wantok,” “house” and “ancestors.”

“This is only the tip of the iceberg. ECHO aims at describing 400 attractors,” Jourdan said. The challenge here is to find an interface that can accommodate 400 attractors in the same fashion as the existing Web site does with only three. “We have started working with computer science specialists here at Concordia [Peter Grogono and Gregory Butler] and have been working on a grant application to take the project further and find the best way to do just that.”

ECHO has also won the prestigious 2001 gold MIM for the education category. This award is given through the Marché International du Multimedia (thus MIM) to outstanding achievements using multimedia.

Jourdan, an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, is fully aware of the new possibilities multimedia can bring to her field.

“Multimedia has become a new way to represent anthropology. It enables us to popularize information and to make it more accessible. I even use it in the classes I teach, and the students like it very much.”

The Musée de la Civilisation is hosting the ECHO prototype with the three attractors through the www.oceanie.org Web site until 2003. There is also a possibility that this enclyclopedia might be published as a CD-ROM, but nothing has been confirmed yet.