Studying history plays a fundamental role in human thought, the actions of humanity, and the presumed meaning of historical events. Through history, we can better understand the forces, choices and circumstances that brought us to our current situation.
Museums have long held our common cultural and natural heritage in trust for future generations. The Anchorage Museum values this role and is dedicated to caring for the many thousands of objects, artworks, photographs and maps it holds as part of its collection.
This role is unchanging and so is our belief in history as a core part of our mission and a key tool for learning.
We also believe museums can be many things at once. They can be places of rich historical narratives and fascinating objects. They can be places for critical thinking.
They encourage us to examine, to analyze, to question, to challenge assumptions, situations and information. Rather than presenting the traditional authoritative voice, museums across the world encourage questioning around conventional wisdom, theories, history and politics.
Today's museum visitors come not just to learn about the history of our place, fascinating and important as it is. They come for immersive experiences, social engagement, shared moments and exposure to contemporary ideas.
These experiences don't replace the traditional museum experience. Both can coexist. The contrast of old and new is exciting because it creates a tension that sparks new conversations, new ideas and new connections. And, that creates new museumgoers and more critical thinking.
The changes affecting the landscape and the way of life in the north have brought increased attention to, and interest in, Alaska and the north. These changes span science, art, literature, geopolitics and culture.
The north speaks to climate, energy and logistics on a grand scale. It speaks to culture, conflict, adaptation and the future. What happens in the north is a provocative indicator of what will happen everywhere. Our location in the world is our key, defining feature.
The Anchorage Museum is a northern museum, distinctly positioned to convey an authentic narrative for the region that reflects place in all its complexity. The museum offers exhibitions, programs, local and international artist residencies, science exploration, and conversations about histories that place northern people at the center of a pivotal narrative about not just our own place and identity, but global change.
We think the museum has an important role to play as a convener. We curate and create conversations as much as we curate objects and exhibitions. We raise awareness of and advocate for a genuine voice of the north at a time when it is endlessly (and erroneously) portrayed on reality TV.
We work to spur transformative conversations about human culture and our natural environment. We are interested in artworks, ideas and actions that cite histories, stories and perspectives from specific local contexts that connect us to other people in other places.
Flexibility, innovation and adaptation has always been a way of life for northerners, and the museum is interested in conversations around these issues, convening people to host meaningful discussions about possible futures and contemporary conditions, in addition to our rich cultural and material histories.
Indigenous people were once denied a history and excluded from the present. Despite the legacy of the colonial museum, museums are key to having conversations around history that challenge that legacy.
Museums that embrace how heritage and public history intersect with Native and tribal ways of being, doing and knowing will remain relevant. These concepts are reshaping the ways collections are managed and exhibitions are developed. They are changing how staff engage with communities.
Our role as a museum is more complex than displays of artworks and objects. The public should demand that we continue to experiment with what a museum offers to its community and all its diverse inhabitants. Museums should enable and motivate visitors to imaginatively connect with their own personal histories, other identity groups, and a broader, collective story.
It's an iterative process and an evolving role. No special interest will feel completely satisfied at every moment. But, important questions will be posed along the way.
Julie Decker is the director and CEO of the Anchorage Museum. A lifelong Alaskan, Decker has extensive curatorial background combined with a long history initiating innovative Anchorage Museum programs and exhibitions. She is leading the museum beyond its current expansion to its position as a key cultural institution in the north.
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