Aboriginal museum in Washington features Igloolik exhibit

Community involvement makes U.S. museum successful


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Washington D.C. is a long way from Canada’s Arctic, more than 3,000 kilometres to the South and in another country, but you’ll find a bit of Nunavut inside the National Museum of the American Indian there.

The museum, which opened two years ago, has circular walls of rippling stone, designed to evoke a Hopi pueblo, and an entrance, which resembles a qaggiq.

About 8,000 objects from the Smithsonian Museum are on display at the museum, in exhibits, which don’t differentiate between Inuit or First Nations.

And the exhibits aren’t arranged by dates or location, either, but by themes. Each nook of the various thematic exhibits, called “Our Universes,” “Our Peoples” and “Our Lives,” focuses on a different native group.

Yet, somehow, the National Museum of the American Indian works.

It’s in “Our Lives” that you will find familiar faces and voices as well as a qamutik, caribou skin garments and an inuksuk. This section on Inuit from Igloolik focuses on change and more precisely, the change Inuit in this community have undergone.

Igloolik’s exhibit was the work of John Macdonald of the Nunavut Research Institute and Iglulingmiut including Thoretta Iyerak, Zipporak Inuksuk, Theo Ikummaq, Madeline Auksaq, Leah Otak and Arsene Ivalu who talk about hunting, country foods, sewing, the return of the sun and living on the land. “There have been a lot of changes,” says a quote from the late Elijah Evaluardjuk.

“People just like to sit on the sled and take it all in,” said Cynthia Chavez, the exhibit’s lead curator, in a telephone interview from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Chavez went to Igloolik to help prepare the exhibit.

“As a person and a museum person, I was impressed with how much everyone used technology to preserve and promote traditional culture. Even elders were doing video-conferencing,” she said.

People in Igloolik provided the direction for the exhibit’s content.

“We went to the people and asked them what they wanted to see in the exhibit, and we worked with them to make that happen,” Chavez said. “They knew not many people from their own community would see it.”

That’s unfortunate because Inuit culture is presented throughout the museum: a huge carving of a drum dancer by Karoo Ashevak is displayed outside a circular theatre where a 13-minute multimedia video called “Who we are” includes a segment on Inupiat whale hunters near Barrow, Alaska.

If you’re hungry while taking in the exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian, you can go to the Mitsitam native foods café where foods from four native geographic regions are presented. The menu includes cedar cooked salmon and buffalo burgers.

Some displays in the museum are overwhelming: a collection of Bibles in native languages, including Inuktitut, and the “wall of gold” featuring dazzling objects made before and after the arrival of Europeans to the Americas.

Mixed into all the exhibits is a powerful message. The message of native peoples’ resilience and strength is emphasized over and over. And history is presented as a kind of battleground — “the path to determination is an uphill battle” — reads one featured quote from a native leader. Florida’s Seminole say: “we will never surrender.”

Overall, the museum communicates a feeling of strength. If even one room in a Canadian Arctic museum can achieve this, it’ll be great.

But museums don’t need mega-budgets like the $200 million-plus that Washington D.C. spent on musuem building and exhibits.

“You can do it on a smaller budget if you’re talking about a museum that is closer to the people it represents and especially if you can get the people to invest in it as volunteers,” Chavez said.

Staying close to the people is the key to making a museum relevant, says Chavez, who is now director of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Centre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a tribal centre for the 19 pueblos in the region.

“You have to have a certain kind of humility and patience. You have to be a good listener, and you have to be able to organize a lot of information,” she said.
“It’s really about working with the people that you intend to represent … it’s a museum for an under-represented group of people. We went directly to the people. They were the experts.”

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