A Q&A with the designers behind the Alaska exhibition
This past week, we delivered one of our biggest projects of the last few years. From concept to reality, we worked with the Anchorage Museum to completely revamp the original permanent exhibition on Alaskan history that opened in the 1980s. Now that the dust has settled, we take the time to chat with our in-house creative team that led the design and build of the exhibition. Here, Content Director Jeremy Taylor and Creative Directors Geneviève Angio-Morneau and Nicolas St-Cyr share their thoughts on bringing the ambitious project to life.
The Anchorage Museum talks about the revamped Alaska exhibition as an example of “a new way of thinking about the ways museums represent culture and history”. How did you develop an exhibition that explores an entirely new narrative about Alaskan identity?
“We have to give a lot of the credit to the museum, to be honest. I remember being three or four workshops into the process when the CEO of the museum, Julie Decker, surprised us all by reading out a series of short statements about Alaska. Alaska is resources. Alaska is wilderness. We had been working with her team on a fairly chronological history of the place, and she dropped this list of identity statements on us, challenging us to use them as the backbone of the story the gallery was going to tell. It was a bit of a left-turn mid-stream, but it’s this kind of clarity of vision and fearless direction that results in really meaningful visitor experiences.”
“Totally. Julie has a contemporary art background, and what I find so compelling in the contemporary art world is that curators don’t feel it’s necessary to give visitors all the answers. They’re totally OK with, and even encourage, open-ended questions.”
“I think that’s a big part of how this gallery is different. It leaves a lot open for interpretation and really asks the visitor to make up his or her mind about the good and bad in the story of Alaska.”
The Alaska exhibition is unlike most permanent history galleries. It’s daring in the way it uses high-impact artistic installations, contemporary design and a certain tongue-and-cheek to tell the story of Alaskan identity — past, present and future.
Considering the great distance between Montreal and Alaska, how did our team take on a project that explores the cultural identity of a place over 7000 km away?
Jeremy, Content Director:
“We had to pinch ourselves pretty regularly — how did we get the chance to tell the story of this incredible place and its people? But the truth is that we approached it the same way we approach any subject. In the first year or so of our collaboration with the museum, we visited many times, staying for a week at a time, meeting with the historians and curators at the museum, listening to and understanding the stories they wanted to tell, and getting to know what Alaska is all about.”
Geneviève, Creative Director:
“For sure, the intensive weeks spent sitting around the table with the team at Anchorage Museum were incredibly insightful — better ideas were sparked as we challenged ourselves to define what makes Alaska unique, together.”
“In all, I think our team made about 100 trips up to Anchorage. I remember coming out of day-long workshops, and Genevieve and I would spend our free time going out into Anchorage, or out of town, when we could, looking for first-hand evidence of the things we were hearing in the room. They would tell us, “Alaska is this, Alaska is that,” and then we’d go out and find those things for ourselves.”
The new Alaska exhibition is rich in media content produced by GSM Project. What was your creative process like?
“ We worked closely with a wide range of experts in Alaska – directors, archivists, historians, descendants of the people we were telling stories about – to bring these aspects of the Alaska story to life in the form of short video clips.”
Nicolas, Creative Director:
“Some of the video content takes a documentary approach. So working with the museum and local directors in Anchorage, we defined the stories and their synopses, found the right locations and people that would bring them to life, and dug through lots of archival footage. I definitely feel that the final result brings a lot of authenticity and a human presence to the exhibition”
The exhibition is also pretty playful. What are some of your favourite interactive features of the exhibition? What do visitors get to do and learn?
“In the “Alaska is Wilderness” zone that explores the myths of the Alaskan wilderness, visitors get to deep dive into all kinds of stories of people that have escaped into the wild. Through at a digital media station we call “the viewfinder”, that’s a cross between the childhood toy we all remember called the View-Master and the sightseeing binoculars you see in parks, visitors can flip through photo stories and archival images.”
What design features of the new exhibition do you find especially impactful?
“There are so many, but one of my favourites is the stunning Alaska introductory wall, which combines a beautiful series of boots from the Anchorage Museum’s collection, spanning time periods, fashions and techniques, and that subtly nods to the warm and messy rooms inside Alaskan homes called “Arctic entries”, where people take their coats and boots off before entering a house.”
“There’s also the “Alaska is Strategic” zone where visitors get to observe a giant map of Alaska from above; a radar screen showing more than 100 years of Alaska Transportation activities. Overhead, wooden airplanes float in the sky and some really fascinating artifacts are on display like the wing of a US airplane that flew in World War Two!”