Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska represents one of the largest and most fruitful loans of cultural artifacts ever made by the Smithsonian Institution. Curated by Aron L. Crowell and co-curated by Dawn Biddison, the exhibit was launched in May of 2010 in a new wing of the Anchorage Museum (AM) at Rasmuson Center. The impetus for this path-breaking project must be credited to the vision and tireless energy of Dr. William Fitzhugh, founding director of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center (ASC), and the superb group of scholars and colleagues he has gathered around him.
In Alaska, institutional support for the creation of a regional office of the Arctic Studies Center grew out of a memorandum of understanding signed nearly 20 years ago between the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and the Anchorage Museum. With the enthusiastic support of Pat Wolf, then Director of the Anchorage Museum, and Elmer Rasmuson, the leading AM Board Member, ASC-Alaska was fully realized along with the expansion of the Museum to accommodate a dedicated Smithsonian exhibition gallery. The appointment of Dr. Aron Crowell as director of ASC-Alaska in 1994 launched a vigorous program of research and outreach to Alaska Native communities. The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) strengthened the project when they signed their own agreement with the Anchorage Museum in 2008 under the current the leadership of James Pepper Henry.
Outreach and dialogue with ten Native Alaskan culture groups continued during the three-year conservation and bracketing phase of the project served to deepen a shared knowledge of the objects as well as inform conservation treatment and display intentions. During this time elders and community representatives again traveling to Washington D.C. to work with our team. Native consultants, conservators, curators, and collections managers at both Smithsonian Museums actively collaborated to strike a balance between direct access to the objects by community members and the long-term preservation of some of the oldest and most extraordinary Arctic collections held anywhere in the world. The balancing of aesthetic, access, and object-safety concerns represented major challenges for all concerned. This included working with an innovative vertical rod mounting system—that would allow objects to ‘float’ and be seen in the round—while developing seismic mounts that would ensure object-care and mount stems that would facilitate easy removal and access for community study. Much more than simply a traditional loan, the results have set a new standard in the field of ethnographic conservation.
the National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of the American Indian in
For ethnographic conservators the information an object can impart is thus viewed as a function of place and time. Objects are understood as cultural documents and as potential repositories of language, social relations, tradition knowledge, songs, stories and memories. An object’s meanings include not only its history as a museum object but the place and circumstance of its creation, use and or circulation. It is the totality of these concerns that inform the work of ethnographic conservators work which depends on engaged collaboration with Native consultants. This project created a space for dialogue in which such collaboration took place. The combined perspectives and knowledge of Alaskan Native consultants, conservators and curators illuminated cultural meanings, enabled past histories to emerge, and foregrounded indigenous aesthetics. Consistently it was Native knowledge and information, unavailable in the published literature, that enhanced our understanding and was brought to bear upon documentation, conservation decisionmaking, and display of the objects.
Above photos (right to left): Landis Smith, Chuna McIntyre, and Vernon Chimalegrea; Igor Krupnik and Michele Austin; Jeremy Jacobs, unidentified, Kelly McHugh, and Landis Smith.
the NMNH/ACL and
the NMAI, who
Botany and Divisions
Mammals and Birds.