$40 million Alaska Native collection is debuting in Anchorage this
month, representing a homecoming for 600 rare objects, most of which
have never before been seen in public, much less touched.
Ongtooguk, an Iñupiag from the north of Alaska, said in an
interview at the Anchorage Museum that he is looking forward to
the "family reunion."
new Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum, opening
May 22, will display clothing, baskets, masks, weapons, utensils,
drums, games and more in a first-of-its kind permanent loan arrangement
between the Alaska museum and the Smithsonian. As part of the unusual
agreement, some Alaska Native community members such as Ongtooguk,
one of the consultants on the project and an assistant professor
of education at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, will be allowed
to remove the objects, with assistance from curators, for further
study and interpretation.
artifacts come from the National Museum of Natural History and the
National Museum of the American Indian, where they've mostly been
in storage. The initial agreement commits them to the Alaska museum
for seven years.
choosing the objects, which represent nine native cultures across
the state and date mostly from 1850 to 1900, Smithsonian anthropologists
examined about 30,000 items in Washington. The effort was headed
by Aron Crowell, director of the Arctic Studies Center, who has
represented the Natural History Museum on the project since 1994.
was a daunting task, Crowell said when I interviewed him in Anchorage.
But he and his colleagues had help. Beginning in 2002, 40 native
elders, artists and educators, chosen by regional Alaska native
organizations, made seven weeklong trips to Washington to go through
thousands of items. Hundreds of other Alaska natives also had input
into the project.
participants were videotaped telling stories about the objects and
describing the memories they brought back, and these videos are
part of the exhibit, which is called "Living Our Cultures,
Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska." The videos
will run continuously on large screens throughout the 10,000-square-foot,
second-floor gallery space in the Anchorage Museum's new wing, part
of a $106 million expansion at Alaska's largest museum.
enthusiastically showed off the new space on a cold day in February.
The delicate shipments had not yet arrived from Washington, but
glass cases -- specially designed with armlike mounting brackets
so that items can be removed and carted to a study area -- were
in place and had him gleeful. Alaska native artists, elders, historians
and others with expert knowledge will have access to the objects
by appointment. Webcasting will allow those in remote locations
to witness their interpretations of the items.
is not hands-off, and kept behind glass. It's a community resource
and study collection, and we are thrilled to make use of it in that
way," Crowell said. "That took a lot of negotiation."
Many of the objects are fragile, and some needed repair before they
could be exhibited.
to the gallery will see a short introductory film before viewing
the displays, which are arranged geographically from the Tsimshian
people in the southeast to the Iñupiag people in the north.
Hands-on interactive screens similar to those at the American Indian
museum will allow visitors to zoom in on the objects and to get
more detailed commentary.
a far corner, an audio gallery, the Listening Space, will run a
cycle of stories told in English and about 20 native languages.
said that for many of Alaska's more than 100,000 indigenous residents,
the objects in the exhibit are already family.
talk about these pieces in our families the same way we talk about
relatives," he said. "These objects our like our great-grandparents
that are being brought home again."
particular interest to him is an Iñupiag bola, a throwing
weapon made of weights on long strings. He said that an uncle had
taught him to use a similar one to hunt ducks. "He thought
I should know a traditional way to bring in food," Ongtooguk
said. "You throw with your foot, legs, shoulders and arms and
should hear a 'zoot' sound when it's released."
said that many of the other pieces also have deep meaning.
parka made of seal gut, from the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island
in the Bering Sea, for instance, evoked from elder Estelle Oozevaseuk
a story about the village of Kukulek, lost in an epidemic and famine
in 1878-80. A recording of the story in both Yupik and English will
play for visitors in the Listening Space.
Worl, director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau and
a Tlingit consultant to the center, said that she felt an emotional,
even spiritual connection to the objects. "It's important to
our ancestors that they be viewed," she said. "In drawers,
in Washington, no one ever sees them. To see them here is really
is a Boston-based cruise and travel writer and co-author of "Frommer's
Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call."
Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St. Open 9
a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May 22 to mid-September, closed Mondays other
times of the year. $10, $8 seniors, students and military, $7 ages
3 to 12.