Anchorage Museum Programs Bridge Past and Future

By The Anchorage Museum in Honor of CIRI’s 50th Anniversary

Staff from the Chickaloon Village Tribal Council and Anchorage Museum examine photographs. L to R: Selena Ortega-Chiolero, Angela Wade, Lorraine Wade, Ameria Alcantra and Julie Varee. Photo courtesy of the Anchorage Museum.

The Anchorage Museum tells the story of the people and landscapes of the North through its programs, exhibitions and collection. This includes promoting Indigenous ways of life and knowing and giving essential voice to Indigenous artists, culture-bearers and communities.

The Anchorage Museum collection highlights the environment, people and cultures of the Circumpolar North. Since the museum’s founding in 1968, the collection has grown to over 26,000 objects and more than 750,000 photographs and archives. The collection is a focal point for honoring the stories and legacies of these works for future generations—connecting people, building relationships and strengthening common understanding.

As stewards of the collection, the Anchorage Museum is committed to preserving these heritage items and photographs, while creating opportunities for public access. Public research and access to the collection is encouraged and welcomed. The museum happily hosts visitors, researchers, artists, scientists and interested members of the public to view the collection.

Two museum programs specifically provide opportunity for Elders and emerging artists to access the collection and to perpetuate the cultures and heritage of Alaska’s Indigenous peoples: Chickaloon Native Village Object Repatriation Project and Polar Lab Collective.

Chickaloon Native Village Object Repatriation Project

In partnership with Chickaloon Native Village, the Anchorage Museum is creating a new pathway to significantly expand access to the collection, while creating a new future for partnership.

Indigenous communities have consistently identified a need to bring material culture and archives home—to repatriate. In 2022, Chickaloon Native Village and Anchorage Museum began a partnership that creates a new framework of collections management—a framework reflective of Indigenous ways of knowing. The partnership takes the next step in providing access, relinquishing power and supporting the relationship between museum collections and the people who originated them.

With grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services Museums for America program, Chickaloon Native Village will work with the Anchorage Museum in the creation of an online database of Ahtna Denè cultural materials from the collection. One goal of the partnership is to provide digital surrogates for an estimated 200 material culture collections and 8,000 photographs. Elders from Chickaloon Native Village will work with the Anchorage Museum Collections team to help identify land and people in the images. The digital scans and data will be uploaded into a database belonging to Chickaloon Native Village. The Anchorage Museum will work with the staff of Chickaloon Native Village to help to create finding aids—a document containing detailed, indexed information about a specific collection of records within an archive—and educational resources.

The goals of this collaboration are to create a strong, long-lasting relationship between the Anchorage Museum and Chickaloon Native Village; create new ways of caring for collections while honoring the intent of repatriation; and support the Chickaloon Native Village in its own work to restore and rejuvenate traditional Ahtna Denè knowledge and values.

Polar Lab Collective 

Polar Lab Collective is a program for emerging Alaska Native artists to study the collections of the Anchorage Museum and the objects in the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center’s “Living Our Cultures” exhibition. The program provides an opportunity for artists to find inspiration, insights and technical information from the collections through research and documentation contributing to the collaborative relationship between artists and museums.

Polar Lab Collective provides a resource for research and study for advancing development as an artist. The program also aims to strengthen the relationship between Alaska Native artists and the museum by increasing accessibility to museum staff and collections; expanding outreach to Alaska Native communities; and prompting open-ended conversations. The museum works with emerging and community-based artists to provide infrastructure for empowering voices.

While museums traditionally curate objects, the Anchorage Museum is interested in curating conversations and convening people through the power of art and cultural history to host meaningful discussions about future scenarios and contemporary conditions. We think artists are experts at providing the narrative that provokes dialogue. Through the Polar Lab Collective, emerging Indigenous artists gain unprecedented access to museum collections and curate exhibitions of traditional and other objects/artifacts in a contemporary context.