MUSEUM: Native advice shapes high-tech displays at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center

Posted on August 3rd, 2010 by americanindiannews in Recent News

Anchorage—A landmark exhibition of 600 Alaska Native objects loaned by the Smithsonian Institution uses new technology in everything from display cases to interactive computer panels to make the objects more accessible to museum visitors.

Courtesy of Clark James Mishler Photography, Anchorage, Alaska - A visitor to the "Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska," an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage, examines a detail on an interactive computer module. It is one of several innovations on display in this exhibition of 600 objects loaned by two Smithsonian museums.

In planning since 2001 with elders and culture bearers from Native communities across the vast 49th state, the exhibition brings back to Alaska objects collected by  Smithsonian ethnographers as long as 160 years ago.

As breathtaking as the objects are in “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska,” technological innovations are also on display in the 10,000-square-foot gallery of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center, located in the Anchorage Museum. Not the least of the innovations was the Alaska Native advisory panel itself, which consulted on every aspect of the exhibition.

“Their overarching idea was that the objects needed to be able to come out of the cases,” said Dawn Biddison, the Arctic Studies Center’s assistant curator. “And of wanting to have objects presented in a more representative and realistic way. Cultural interests were driving the front end of technology.”

Eight floor-to-ceiling glass cases, which were custom-made in Scotland, make the materials in them visible from all sides, unlike traditional museum cases that are only viewed from the front.

The glass cases allow visitors standing at one end to simultaneously see cultural materials hailing from an area 800 miles south to north, and 1,200 miles east to west. The Native Alaskan advisers wanted it that way. They wanted the exhibition to show the differences, which are evident in materials and design of objects, and similarities, such as shared materials as well as relations, clan systems and social interactions among Native Peoples that pre-date statehood by millenniums.

“They wanted people to be able to walk among the cases and discover the connections,” said Aron L. Crowell, the Alaska director of the Arctic Studies Center and curator of the exhibition.

The age and beauty of the objects is evident. They range from an Iñupiaq bentwood vessel with ivory carvings of whales and other sea life hanging from its rim to a Haida wooden ceremonial hat carved with Beaver clutching two Eagles in its paws to a St. Lawrence Island Yupik decorated parka made from winter bleached intestines of walrus or bearded seal.

Beginning in 2001, 40 Alaska Native elders traveled with Crowell to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There they viewed many of the 30,000 objects in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian.

Conversations about the objects were videotaped and comments from the elders about the names of objects in different languages, the materials they were made from and their uses were transcribed and can be read on interactive computer screens at the end of each case. The information can also be accessed on the Arctic Studies Center website, along with photographs of every object in the exhibition.

Eventually, more than 100 elders, artists and culture bearers from Alaska Native communities were consulted. One of the primary objectives was that pieces be accessible to the Native people, who haven’t in many cases seen these objects made by their ancestors in their lifetimes.

So the National Museum of Natural History and its Arctic Studies Center, as well as the National Museum of the American Indian, working with an international cast of specialty consultants, invented display cases that open from the front—and methods of suspending objects on individual brackets so that an object on its mount can be safely taken out of the case. The objects are secured onto specially designed carts that can be wheeled into a private room for an Alaska Native artist, elder or researcher to examine.

The rods from which the objects are suspended are locked into the support beams of the 10,000-square-foot expansion of the Anchorage Museum, making the cases earthquake-proof.

“The building could fall down, and these cases would still be standing,” said William Fitzhugh, the Washington, D.C.-based director of the Arctic Studies Center.

Fiber optics run through the ceiling to the cases, temperature-controlled light shines down from the ceiling and in from exterior lights between cases. Outside the cases, the exhibition area is cool and dim to protect the objects. The effect illuminates the objects, making subtle vegetable-dyed color and even marks from their makers’ hands visible.

“It was like magic,” Biddison said. “Lights were focused on the objects, making it look like they were floating in space and not drawing attention to the hardware. There is a lot of hardware in there.”

Arm-like mounting brackets hold the objects in space. Mounts were painstakingly hand-painted to match the color of each individual object, and to fade into the background.

Courtesy of Clark James Mishler Photography, Anchorage, Alaska - A Yu’pik mask, the kind remembered by elders from the Lower Yukon River is seemingly suspended in air, inside a glass case at "Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska." It is on loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to Arctic Studies Center for the exhibition at the Anchorage Museum.

Objects stored in flat drawers for more than a century are now displayed on a human scale, per the Native advisers’ request. Baskets and shoes sit on the ground; gloves are suspended at waist level, and shawls or tunics at chest height. Masks are displayed at eye level, causing the visitor to meet the masks face to face.

Clarence Jackson Sr., a Tlingit adviser, joked that past museum displays always thought his ancestors walked around with their arms sticking straight out on either side, due to the way museums have historically stored shirts and jackets.

To get the objects, including clothing that was once worn by people, ready for this exhibition, Smithsonian conservators had to get them to relax and hang in a natural way.

“No one realizes how long that took,” said Kelly McHugh, a conservator from the National Museum of the American Indian.  The conservation on the 600 objects collectively took years.

McHugh and others at the two Smithsonian museums had to make hard decisions about which objects to send, and which of the choice pieces were too delicate to risk. An Athabascan child-sized parka made entirely from white rabbit fur is one of those fragile pieces, which worried conservators. But it was sent because it seemed so important.

Eliza Jones, who is Koyukon Athabascan from Koyukuk, Alaska, remembers wearing a similar parka as a child. She said, “It was itchy.”

By today’s museum standards of care, delicate objects are typically not displayed for the life of this loan—up to 10 years—because of concern that light and other conditions will diminish their condition.

“For a conservator,” Biddison said, “the idea that ‘this object will not change in its condition’ has to be balanced against the need of a community to see it. Our priority was to bring things back to the communities, because what’s important is for the objects to be experienced by communities.”

In Alaska, there is a two-decade history of smaller loans and traveling exhibitions inspiring cultural revitalization among Alaska Native communities. Now the innovations in technology at this exhibition will make these objects more accessible to the descendants of those who made them than ever before, said National Museum of the American Indian Director Kevin Gover, who is Pawnee.

“As much as we love these collections, the fact is that no one will ever see them in storage,” Gover said. “It is phenomenal to bring them to the communities where they belong.”

View the objects featured in the exhibition “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska” online at

By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

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