Museum closure brings thousands of Native artifacts closer to home across Alaska


Not much is known about the jacket. But here are some basics.

It is made of tanned moose hide for an Athabascan chief. The metal zipper cutting across its front suggests a mid-20th century origin. A recent consultation with locals in Gulkana about its possible provenance revealed that the beaded flowers running up the lapels indicate that it probably came from around Tanacross.

The jacket was recently moved to a display case at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. It is one of 1,744 works of Indigenous art and material culture that are part of a transfer so massive it doubled the organization’s collection.

“As these objects come home, people will be able to identify where they came from. They might even tell us who made them,” said Angela Demma, curator of collections at the Heritage Centre.

The transfer came because another museum closed. In the fall of 2020, when many cultural institutions were still closed to visitors, Wells Fargo announced that it would permanently close 11 of the 12 museums it operated across the country. This included his Alaska Heritage Museum in Midtown Anchorage, a collection of thousands of artifacts and artworks started in 1968 by Elmer Rasmuson while running the National Bank of Alaska, which Wells Fargo has taken over as part of its purchase of the local bank branch in 2000. .

Rasmuson’s intention was to keep Alaska’s fine art and heritage pieces in the state, rather than let art buyers, tourists, and institutions elsewhere remove them forever. The Anchorage Museum was unique in Wells Fargo’s portfolio, most of which was devoted to the history of regional banking and gold mining. After its decision to close the Alaska Heritage Museum, the bank planned to relocate its collection of 14,000 objects to 35 different organizations, nearly all of them in Alaska.

“Culturally sensitive things, related to religion or cultural heritage, have been returned as close to the centers of this population as possible,” Demma said.

This includes tribal-affiliated nonprofit organizations throughout the state, such as Sealaska Heritage in Juneau, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, and the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiagvik, among others.

The Anchorage Heritage Center has been primarily concerned with material culture that has artistic elements, that is, objects made for survival and social welfare that have some degree of decoration.

“If there’s art on it, then it comes to the center,” Demma said.

It’s a broad category. Alongside the chief’s moosehide jacket is a birchbark baby carrier, beaded boots and fur-lined mittens. Adjacent display cases contain curved ladles carved from mountain goat horn, a suitcase covered in sealskin, black baskets of woven bowhead whale baleen, and an intricately shaped box carved from argillite, a rare stone, by the master Haida artist Charles Edenshaw.

Some of this work would have been prohibitively expensive for an organization the size of the Heritage Center, which has a limited budget for new acquisitions. For example, the sudden inclusion of a rare walrus tusk carved in the three-dimensional style of Nunivak Island would otherwise have been unlikely, according to Demma.

As important as the transfer is, there is a lot of work to be done for curators and institutions to responsibly take all the elements. Demma is not indigenous, and follows the guidelines of the Heritage Center’s Cultural Advisory Committee to determine the criteria by which pieces will remain and which will be returned to bodies closer to the communities that produced them.

Before any of this happens, curators need to determine more precisely what they own now, details that weren’t always gathered by initial collectors.

“There are a lot of objects with no provenance,” Demma said. “Because they took it as bankers and thought what beautiful objects they were.”

The Heritage Center is launching a $10 million fundraising campaign to add resources to catalogue, store and curate its suddenly expanded collection. It’s a compulsion that has grown more pressing in recent years, as the organization has seen an influx of institutions and individuals seeking to return items to Indigenous, beyond the Wells Fargo acquisition.

“We receive requests every day,” said Nikki Aga-Askaa Graham, director of operations for the Heritage Centre. “We want to be able to take on whatever makes sense.”

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The gestures are part of a larger shift, as a constellation of ideas such as decolonization, repatriation, and indigenization have become mainstream enough to change how audiences treat the material works of Alaskan Natives and Native Americans. Native Americans.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, requires all public institutions receiving federal funds to return Native human remains and cultural objects to tribes or descendants whenever possible. In the decades since, many institutions have adopted policies that go beyond merely following the literal letter of the law and now aim to achieve its larger purpose.

“It’s amazing to see these individuals, these organizations, these private donors reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, we want to give this back to its original community,'” Graham said.

The flip side of this trend is that museums and heritage centers are navigating their roles as influential and resourced institutions, anxious not to repeat past mistakes and mistreatment of Indigenous communities.

“Some museums, including ours, have restricted what we absorb from the material culture of Indigenous communities,” said Monica Shah, assistant director of curatorial and collections at the Anchorage Museum. “If you look at our new acquisitions over time, there’s very little material culture added.”

Under a pre-existing agreement, the Anchorage Museum was gifted the entire Wells Fargo collection. But, Shah said, absorbing thousands of miscellaneous items into its permanent collection is no longer consistent with the institution’s goals of enhancing equity between itself and Alaskans. Like the Heritage Center, in recent years the Anchorage Museum has seen more people reach out to return Native and historic items that they have inherited or simply reconsidered. The Wells Fargo donation, according to Shah, is remarkable for its size and caliber, but part of the same sea change in sentiment.

“If it was 30 or 40 years ago, the whole collection would have come here,” she said. “We are rethinking the way ownership and control are perceived.”

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Instead, the museum chose to take only 700 objects from the full collection, mostly paintings, drawings and prints. They have also agreed to accept archival materials and additional books.

“With this particular donation, we did what we could to help not only acquire more and more, but also help material culture return to communities,” Shah said.

The Heritage Center is not a museum, and one of its greatest assets is its relationships with Alaskans and local organizations. Objects are not necessarily relegated to display cases, but can reconnect with artists, elders and knowledge bearers who could better explain their stories and nuances.

“I think it’s also healing,” Graham said. “There has been a lot of historical trauma that has happened to Alaska Natives, and this is just a step to step back and heal from things that happened in the past.”

She gave the example of a Juneau-area Chilkat dress woven in the early 1900s that is now in the Heritage Center. It is a remarkable object, but damaged by time and too fragile to be handled much. The center is therefore partnering with the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program to create detailed 3D analysis allowing contemporary weavers and researchers to examine techniques used more than a century ago.

Instead of keeping the piece as an artifact, the goal is to let it live as a “teaching robe”.

“It’s new life for these things,” Demma said. “That’s where they belong.”

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