Are Museums Effectively Sharing Indigenous Cultural Experiences?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

Dancers at the Alaska Native Heritage Center - Museums

Anchorage, Alaska is perhaps best known for being the largest city on the last great American frontier. Visits to the region often include watching the Northern Lights, viewing wildlife, and generally getting back to nature. But an important part of the Alaskan experience is understanding the wide diversity of tribal groups that call the region home. Many museums throughout Alaska have artifact collections or exhibits dedicated to groups ranging from the Tlingit to the Inupiaq Eskimos. But one institution in particular is doing an outstanding job of sharing the local stories and cultures with visitors.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC) is divided into five distinct sections, representing 11 cultural groups speaking 11 languages and twenty-two dialects. A visit to the Center is a metaphorical journey from the State’s southernmost point to the outer reaches of the Arctic. In order to effectively tell these diverse stories, the institution has organized itself around the five culture groupings which are anchored on ethnic similarities or geographic proximity. The Center is framed as an interactive experience, rather than just a museum. As they frame their mission, “the Center provides an opportunity to explore the indigenous cultures of Alaska firsthand – cultures that continue to adapt to modern society, yet still maintain a vibrant identity for the Native peoples of Alaska.”

ANHC Exterior Map

The Center itself brings an in-depth exploration of the different groups highlighted there to life through storytelling, artist demonstrations, dance performances, game demonstrations, artifact collections, and hands-on workshops. Everything has been developed in close consultation with Native experts, who are often on hand to interact with guests. But perhaps the centerpiece of a visit to the ANHC is their outdoor space, which features representations of living quarters at six distinct sites. These buildings, situated around a meandering wooden path that surrounds a lake, takes guests through life-sized ancient dwellings that represent the 11 culture groups of Alaska. Interior details show how homes and communal spaces were constructed, what adaptations were made to survive in the area’s harsh climate, and what life looks like today for different groups.

Innovations in the area of cultural attractions are happening far to the south as well. Last year, we highlighted the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC), which received a Thea Award as a result of a $100 million renovation. Their mission focuses on sharing native Hawaiian culture – and the traditions of broader Polynesia – with the millions of visitors who come to Hawaii each year. Destinations often lack an institution that integrates all the different aspects of a place – historical, archeological, environmental, economic, and more – into one cohesive experience that’s interpreted through a cultural lens. The PCC  does that, while also prioritizing preservation, and showcasing cultural traditions and activities that may not be accessible to the average tourist.

From these large, integrated cultural centers to smaller tribal museums, several factors stand out for groups seeking a blueprint for how to effectively integrate the indigenous perspective into a museum context or tourist experience. Telling the stories of specific cultural groups is best handled through the lens of that individual group. Curatorial and contextual decisions should be internally directed, wherever possible, with outside resources acting as consultants and advisors.

Polynesian Cultural Center

From an engagement perspective, audiences are excited about the ability to go beyond static collections of artifacts and interpretation boards. While this can be said of any museum or cultural environment, heritage centers provide a particularly rich opportunity to go more deeply. In one recent study, museum goers revealed the desire for more hands-on activities and expert talks. Heritage centers are a natural venue to offer visitors these types of experiences.

Clearly defining the audience and goals are also important. With a cultural center, conservation, preservation, and communication is often done with the local indigenous group’s needs primarily in mind. The end result is something that seeks to engage a wide range of audiences, but fills an institution with a deeper meaning and stronger community connections. When the roles of effectively communicating cultural details can be blended with best practices from entertainment design, the outcome is a win-win for indigenous groups and visitors alike.

 Images sourced courtesy of the PCC, Blogspot, TripAdvisor, ANHC

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