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New Smithsonian center embraces Alaska Natives' past, present

Alaska Natives are not ancient Egyptians.

That's one way of summing up the philosophy behind the new Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum, which opens to the public on May 22. Nearly a decade in development, the new collection, valued at $40 million, was selected with input from more than 40 Alaska Native elders. The idea, according to Anchorage Museum director James Pepper Henry, is to acknowledge that Native culture isn't a thing of the past, but a thriving, evolving present-day reality.


The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center opens to the public as part of the Anchorage Museum Opening Celebration, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., May 22.


"These objects were not selected by anthropologists or scholars," Pepper Henry said. "These objects were selected by Native elders and community members."

The Smithsonian gallery takes up the entire second floor of the museum's new wing. A wall near the entrance bears the message "welcome" translated into 20 indigenous languages. Artifacts are displayed in low-lit glass cases arranged geographically from south to north, each row of cases marked at one end by a 4-foot-tall monitor playing archival footage and interviews with contemporary elders. A "listening space" against the west wall features audio recordings of elders telling traditional stories in Native languages and in English.

"This is literally a Smithsonian inside the museum," Pepper Henry said. "There is nothing like it anywhere in the world."

Tucked among the expected mukluks, sealskins and masks are more unusual objects -- an Alutiiq hunting bag embellished with graphite and mica so it sparkles as though dusted with glitter. A beaded, tufted, jingle-belled Athabascan dog blanket. A Haida headdress decorated with dozens of ermine pelts and topped with a wooden face carved to look like the 12-year-old girl who would have danced in it.

Because the Smithsonian worked closely with Alaska Native elders to develop the exhibit, curators were able to learn much more about the artifacts than they would had they gone it alone. For example, museum spokeswoman Sarah Henning said, they now know that the walrus whiskers sewn around the top of the Haida headdress were used to hold eagle down that would have fluttered out softly from between the whiskers as the young girl danced.

Although many of the artifacts are beautiful, the objects on display were chosen not for their aesthetic value, but because they are representative of their cultures.

"We're merging cultural contexts here ... This is one step short of these objects actually going back into the community," Pepper Henry said. "These cases are designed to be opened." Displays are not sealed shut; they can be opened by museum personnel so artifacts can be removed for review by members of the Alaska Native community. It's an opportunity the Smithsonian and the Anchorage Museum hope will benefit not only the visitors who get to handle the objects but the exhibit itself.

"As we learn new information about the objects, we publish it to these screens," said the Arctic Studies Center's Alaska director, Aron Crowell, indicating a large iPhone-style touch screen installed in front of a display of masks from different Native cultures. Visitors can use the touch screens to zoom in on the artifacts and read additional information about the items on display. Eventually some of the touch screens will incorporate 360-degree views of artifacts, according to Henning.

"It enhances your appreciation of the real object, which is also right there," Crowell said, gesturing from a zoomed-in image of an Athabascan "wild man" mask on the touch screen to the real mask hanging in a glass case a few feet away.

The items in the new gallery are on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. That doesn't mean it's a temporary exhibit, however. At the end of the seven-year loan period, provided the museum continues to have the funding necessary to keep the center operating, the loan can be extended. Some of the more delicate items may need to be put away at that time to give them a break from sitting under gallery lights, but they'll be replaced with other artifacts. Many of the objects on display have never been exhibited before; they're just a small sampling of more than 30,000 items held in the Arctic and subarctic collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian.

Paul Ongtooguk, an Inupiaq who participated in the gallery's development, said the new exhibit has a "real mission" -- to challenge the idea that Alaska Native culture is fixed or permanent. It's constantly evolving, he said, and the objects on display illustrate that evolution.

"They really represent imagination and ingenuity," he said.

And, Ongtooguk said, it's been an incredible opportunity for present-day Alaska Natives to touch base with the past.

"Having elders reconnect -- it's like a family reunion."

Contact Maia Nolan at maia(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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