New approaches to authentic historical narratives: Part 1—Alaska Exhibition
As mirrors of the culture and communities they inhabit, museums have shifted dramatically in recent decades in their approach to telling historical stories. In this three-part series, we showcase three projects that illustrate how we're embracing this cultural shift.
Whereas a 20th-century museum might have based its curatorial approach primarily on the research of historians, today, the value of first-person accounts and incorporating (sometimes conflicting) multiple community perspectives are prioritized. Even more so when an exhibition features the stories of peoples and communities whose voices have been historically overlooked, such as Indigenous communities. The museum is no longer seen as a source of a singular truth, but an opportunity to engage in conversations and ask difficult questions.
At GSM, we’ve had the privilege of working on several historical exhibitions in recent years, such as the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History, the Alaska Gallery at the Anchorage Museum, and a new project in the United States to be revealed soon. In this three-part series, we’ll take a look at the distinct approaches that we adopted in partnership with each institution, as well as insights into the expertise we’ve developed in working on historical exhibitions in recent years.
Alaska Natives: Representing Thriving Communities
From 2015 to 2017 we worked with the Anchorage Museum to recreate its Alaska Exhibition. In this case, the curators’ emphasis was in creating a connection between the landscape and people of Alaska with a particular intent to include Alaska Natives narratives throughout the exhibition. The museum adopted a three-part strategy in order to achieve this: incorporating documentary-style first-person narratives, using contemporary art-style installations to provoke conversation, and involving Alaska native curatorial staff directly in the creative process and ongoing programming.
One guiding principle throughout the exhibition was was to feature Alaska Natives in contemporary everyday settings, to prevent visitors from thinking that these communities only lived in the past. Documentaries were an excellent means of illustrating how Alaska Natives have adapted to new conditions over time, using traditional hunting and fishing knowledge passed down through the generations, but adapted to today’s realities. In one section about traditional wolf dances, for example, we not only see this in a historical context, but contemporary footage of people still performing these dances today in Alaskan community centres.
Contemporary installations incite conversation
A contemporary art approach was also used throughout the gallery to incite questions and conversation. For example, one of the first zones of the gallery focuses on how Alaska Natives have adapted and continue to adapt to their environments through the raw materials available to them. Throughout most of Alaska, four particular elements make up most of the building materials — birch, cedar, whalebone, and driftwood. Rather than loading down the content with long exhibition texts, visitors find themselves walking past an installation of these four elements. Positioned directly next to the display of canoes and kayaks, the message comes across clearly and without much need for further explanation: these are the materials, and these are the result.
Increased resources are also being put towards visits with facilitators and educators in order encourage questions and conversations. Why did this happen? Why is it still happening? The danger with historical stories, especially ones depicting an injustice towards a group of people, is to judge these events using today’s values. In these cases, a facilitator’s role in giving the context from the past is crucial. Guided tours are not new, but this larger shift of the museum as a place of conversation rather than a place of knowledge is of note. Social experiences, whether amongst visitors, or with museum staff are playing a larger role in the museum experience.
Iñupiaq artists are involved in ongoing programming
Working directly with the Alaska Native community was part of the Anchorage Museum’s process from the outset. The content was led by an Indigenous curator, Aaron Leggett, Curator of Alaska History and Culture. Alaska Native contemporary artists were also invited to brainstorm with us throughout the creative development of the exhibition. This close collaboration continues now that the gallery is open, with members of the community involved in ongoing programming. The Iñupiaq performance artist Allison Warden, for example, held a 2-month long residence in the gallery last fall, taking the form of an Iñupiat ceremonial qargi. She describes her modern qargi as a place to decolonize your spirit:
“[It’s] a place for conversation, for taking a nap, to unwind, reflect, relax, get to know other people and get the vibe of the ancestors being around. I want to provide a space for people to be human."
Iñupiaq performance artist as quoted in the Anchorage Daily News
Incorporating these distinct points of view and lived experiences is central to the Anchorage Museum’s approach to telling Alaska Native stories authentically. The context is somewhat different from the national Canadian Museum of History, in the sense that the Anchorage Museum is a private institution, not a publically funded national one. They, therefore, had more editorial leeway in their approach and in what they chose to include — or not. This does not mean it was a less rigorous process, but that they weren’t under the same amount of pressure from the public to be exhaustive in their telling of Alaska’s stories. Their responsibility was primarily to be authentic to the communities they serve.
Our key considerations when designing historical exhibits
Before we get to designing an exhibition, we’re careful to choose projects where we know the institution in question has done their due diligence in terms of research and consultation with the communities they’re representing. This is almost always the case, but we would not hesitate to turn down a project if ever we felt that the research and curatorial ethic did not reflect our values. In the case of the Anchorage Museum, it was obvious that we were on the same page. The curators, historians, and our teams were aligned - we weren’t worried about telling certain darker parts of Alaska’s history.
Another key factor when treating especially sensitive historical content is how to design for emotional impact. The space in which a story is told, the mood that is set, the sound, lighting, all influence a visitor’s experience and ability to grasp the messages that the curators are trying to convey. For example, if we’re telling a story that we know might incite sadness, anger, reflection, or a combination of all of these emotions, we are careful to place it in a quieter part of the gallery, allowing visitors the physical and emotional space to absorb the content. In the Alaska Gallery, for example, a series of videos we called “Displaced People” featured five stories from the Second World War at a time when many residents of Alaska were forcibly moved or relocated by the State in the name of security. These videos are displayed in a quiet nook, sheltered by a huge artifact, the wing of a WW2 small plane. Lastly, wee also help curators to prioritize messaging, helping them structure their content, and ensure that the most important messages come across, always ensuring to design for emotional impact which cannot be conveyed through facts alone.
The gallery as one aspect of a larger narrative
In the best exhibitions, the gallery itself is part of a broader effort at connecting with communities, whether through online storytelling, on social media, pop-up exhibitions and ongoing workshops and events. This is definitely the case at the Anchorage Museum, where feedback is not only welcome, it’s solicited through invitations to Alaska Native community members to get involved and let the curators know what they think, whether good or bad. The ultimate takeaway in working on exhibitions such as these is that we, as institutions, designers or curators, can no longer speak for others. Yes, consulting and co-creating will always require strong leadership, time, energy, and resources. But the positive outcomes for the museum, and their communities, far outweigh the investment.
How are you involving your communities in your exhibition design process? We’d love to know - drop us a line, and stay tuned for the Part 2 in our historical approaches series about our work on the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History.