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

October 19, 2010

Native advice shapes high-tech displays at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center
NOTE: The National Museum of the American Indian is a Tanka retail partner and offers Tanka products in all of its gift shops and cafes.

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.

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."

A vast display

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 Inupiaq 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.

Getting it together

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.

Strong structures

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.
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.

For more information: National Museum of the American Indian

Posted with permission from the National Museum of the American Indian.

Leave a comment

Also in BLOG

Tanka fans take a Scenic view
Tanka fans take a Scenic view

April 29, 2021 182 Comments

View full article →

From the farm to food security, Sacramento Co-op nurtures community
From the farm to food security, Sacramento Co-op nurtures community

March 17, 2021 72 Comments

View full article →

Happy International Women's Day!
Happy International Women's Day!

March 08, 2021 98 Comments

View full article →