Previously unseen Alaska Native artifacts displayed at Anchorage Museum

The recently completed $106-million expansion of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center features, among other exhibits, an intriguing combination of Alaska Native artifacts and cutting edge technology.

The new Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center houses more than 600 Alaska Native artifacts on loan from National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The center displays the artifacts alongside large iPod-like touch screens that allow visitors to zoom in on artifact photos or view them in 3-D or access more detailed information, such as oral histories.

The 10,000-square-foot Arctic Studies Center’s main exhibition, “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska,” demonstrates how each Alaska Native culture is unique but connected to the others. The center’s exhibits represent Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Athabascan, Eyak, Unangax, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and Iñupiaq cultures. The exhibits explore three universal themes: Living from the Sea, Land and Rivers; Ceremony and Celebration; and Community and Family.

Examples of the artifacts displayed at the Arctic Studies Center include an Inupiaq caribou skin parka from the 1880s and a Tlingit crest hat made of woven spruce root and mounted with a raven carving.

The center’s west wall is a 3-D sound art installation that provides an auditory Arctic experience through recordings of Alaska Native storytellers and sounds from the Arctic environment. The center also includes a video installation about Alaska Native life on seven large screens.

Starting in 2001, more than 40 Alaska Native elders, scholars and artists helped select the artifacts for display and interpret them. Most of these objects have never been displayed before or seen by contemporary Alaska Native people.

“From concept to installation, Alaska Native elders and advisors were intimately involved in this exhibit’s development,” said James Pepper Henry, Anchorage Museum director and chief executive officer. “The knowledge gained from this close interaction between object and person will be shared with the community and become an important resource for future generations.”

The custom-designed artifact cases are unique in the United States. They are not sealed, and the mounts are removable. This allows Alaska Native elders and culture bearers working with the Smithsonian to access and examine the objects. The Cultural Consultation Room at the center is reserved for such study and collaboration.

The Arctic Studies Center also includes the Gillam Archaeology Laboratory, which allows archaeologists and Alaska Native communities to study artifacts gathered from ancient settlements in collaboration. The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, established in 1988, is a federal research and education program that focuses on peoples, history, archaeology and cultures across the circumpolar North. The center partnered with the Anchorage Museum in 1994 to open a local location.