Museums Revisioned, Connecting Culture

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How will museums of the future design experiences that give community cultures voice? As museums embrace the experimental, Arizona State Museum (ASM) is differentiating itself through engagement and curation that crystallize the museum’s role in new community learning experiences.

Visitors to the Arizona State Museum
Visiting ASM’s Photo ID exhibit

Museums are at a crossroads and exploring programs that matter the most in community conversation about culture, says ASM Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships Lisa Falk. (See more about participatory museums at Museum 2.0 blog, by Nina Simon).

In this evolution of how a museum engages, ASM is valuing the knowledge of community while balancing curatorial instincts and facilitating participation. Emblematic of this intention to soar above the mainstream of gallery walls was the collaboration behind an expanded version of a traveling exhibition that raised awareness of type 2 diabetes prevention among Native Americans, called Through the Eyes of the Eagle: Illustrating Healthy Living, which made a stop at ASM in 2011.

Lisa had seen the exhibit with her family at the Smithsonian National Museum of the Indian (Washington DC) and believed an ASM iteration would ignite passions about a key contemporary issue, diabetes. She saw an opportunity for the exhibit to generate dialogue around traditional ways and health.

As early as 2010, the institution started inviting the community to come together to help plan, from Tucson-based Native American artists to health organizations and community groups including Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA). “Together we knew we could develop an exhibition that felt special. We wanted it to become an interactive hub for our community in understanding and acting on healthy issues that speak to history, culture, creativity and positive action,” she says.

The Through the Eyes of the Eagle exhibit was inspired by a children’s book series that included original watercolor paintings by Patrick Rolo (Bad River Band of Ojibwe) and Lisa A. Fifield (Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin), with writings by Georgia Perez, a community health representative for New Mexico’s Nambe Pueblo. ASM took the traveling exhibit higher through locally-inspired elements which included a graphic manga-styled comic, It’s Up 2 You!, co-created by Chemehuevi/Navajo author Ryan Huna Smith, a Tucson-based artist/educator. The comic was created to engage Native teens and was available as a downloadable app, and today can be seen as a traveling exhibit (next venue: White Mountain Apache museum over the summer).

The museum also gathered prehistoric and contemporary objects from its collections and the community for the exhibit, with a section curated by Terrol Dew Johnson of TOCA along with TOCA photographs to illustrate traditional food practices, health impact on the Tohono O’odham due to destruction of local food systems and current programs to revitalize endangered traditions. There was artwork, videos, hands-on activities and objects cases that included Native footwear from woven sandals to moccasins, contemporary skateboard shoes and Nike’s N7 Air Native American-inspired trainer gear; Native artist-designed skateboards; and a timeline of the diet of the Sonoran Desert over 13,000 years.

At the Arizona State Museum
Through the Eyes of the Eagle displayed the progression of native footwear

Outside the museum walls, a multi-cultural health fair was held, with cultural performances, nutritional clinics and games, and a Native Farmers Market and culinary stage. There was a passport to engage people in the fair, as well as distribution of the comic and Eagle book series. In addition, two of the Eagle books were displayed at the UA College of Education’s World of Words Library, which collaborated on ASM’s school field trip program.

“We showed people new ways to learn at the intersection of health-history-culture, and encouraged participants to investigate their own personal solutions to living healthier,” Lisa notes.

“Collaboration is what brought richness to the exhibit and drew diverse visitors,” she continues. “This project unfolded new ways to explore culture and tradition though the lens of a pressing contemporary issue.

“As roles are being rethought, museums are evolving participatory programs that bring together museum curators, educators, and students in dialogue,” says Lisa. “Local citizens are continuing to respond enthusiastically, as are collaborations, to each new program or activity.”

Last year ASM partnered with Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School (a Native American high school in Tucson), to re-envision Edward S. Curtis’s early 20th-century photographs of American Indians in relation to ASM’s Reframing Curtis: the Arizona Portfolios exhibit (through July 31). Lisa worked with Ha:san art teacher Koletta Saddleback and her students to create the exhibit Photo ID: Portraits by Native Youth. This exhibit explores perception and identity, as well as Curtis’ studio-based photography style. An online version is on ASM’s website and the traveling exhibit will be on display next at the Tohono O’odham Nation Museum and Cultural Center.

“We want exhibits to be accessible and provide something unexpected about local culture that will remain with our visitors,” says Lisa. “We want to put our collections to work and make them relevant for all in the community. Sometimes we engage visitors with our objects via hands-on activities or using technology such as QR code discovery hunts or apps. But, truly, it’s the collaborations that make exhibits sing and have personal meaning.”

If that means new learning, ASM is leading the way. It’s all about rethinking our cultural institutions to allow visitors to enjoy and engage.


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