The Tongass Historical Museum of the Ketchikan Museums has brought to its city an exhibit that is looking at both art created up to 100 years ago and work created by artists today to have a better understanding of the past and the present.
After the 2016-2017 renovation of the Tongass Historical Museum’s main floor, the staff had the opportunity to start with a clean slate. Although they were only left with less than a month to install the temporary exhibit, previous months of preparation allowed for the creation of a well thought out and a well-executed use of their new space.
“It’s important to us that the museum has a welcoming space,” Anita Maxwell said. Maxwell is the director for both the Tongass Historical Museum as well as the Totem Heritage Center.
The new, temporary exhibition went up on April 28 this past spring. It’s called Upholding Balance because of how it connects Northwest Coast Design from the 1900s to the work of current artists in a manner that allows for insight and a newfound exploration of the art.
The decision to create an exhibit like Upholding Balance was heavily influenced by the 40th anniversary of the Native Arts Studies program that is run by the Totem Heritage Center.
The historical bulk of collections are located in the Tongass Historical Museum while the Totem Heritage Center puts emphasis on the totem poles that had been originally taken from local villages. Before the creation of the Center it was understood that the history of those totem poles was being lost so the city of Ketchikan came together to create the Totem Heritage Center to preserve those totem poles and assure that their legacy lives on. Through the Center there is the Native Arts Studies program where the traditional arts are passed down. Students participate in learning important cultural skills such as carving, weaving and regalia.
“There have been hundreds of students who’ve participated in the program learning from master artists,” Maxwell said. “And it helps to build that continuum of knowledge.”
In an effort to honor where Ketchikan came from, the Studies program’s impact, as well as honoring the entire Ketchikan community, the museum staff looked at Northwest Coast design to construct the new temporary exhibit. They highlighted how Native art has changed over time based on its traditional roots from 100 years ago to now.
“Really it’s just an outpouring of high quality Northwest art from the artists themselves, supplemented by the artifacts we have at the museum,” Maxwell said.
Many different artists who are originally from Ketchikan or who have, in someway, interacted with the Ketchikan area have come together to help with this exhibit. The main focus is to honor their traditional roots but at the same time put their own spin on it.
“It’s a visually stunning exhibit,” Maxwell said. “To be able to see those 100-year-old pieces next to a contemporary piece has the opportunity to offer a lot.”
Steven Villano fell in love with Ketchikan almost four years ago and decided to drop everything he was doing with museum work in the Lower 48 and move where his heart told him. Just over a year ago he returned to museum work and took on the position of Curator of Exhibitions for both the museums.
Villano was involved with the remodel and the museum’s renovation but Upholding Balance was the first exhibit that he worked on for the Tongass Historical Museum. Upholding Balance has really been about taking a step back and looking at how the world has changed and evolved. That evolution has heavily affected Native artists and their work.
“I can’t speak for the artists themselves. I can’t say what Native art is even,” Villano said. “But for me, what I was realizing all through that time is that you have individual artists, people, exploring their culture by using these forms of art. And what we have now is that artists that are working contemporarily are still exploring what their culture is, what their heritage is.”
What this exhibit comes down to is individuals experiencing and expressing what their relationship is with their culture. The exhibit is not attempting to make a determination about that relationship but simply putting it forward to be taken however the viewer sees fit, Villano said.
There were many in-depth discussions with each of the artists who participated, and it was up to them to decide on what piece of theirs they thought should be exhibited in that specific context. Villano allowed the show to take shape in an organic way, letting the discussions lead them into developing the content and the language for the exhibit.
“Rather than create a standard development … we let the show take on its own life,” Villano said. “And we restructured and adapted to that rather than put structure on these artists and their work they chose to show. In the end, it worked out really well. I couldn’t have asked for more from the artists, their grace, their generosity, and their commitment to giving work and loaning us work.”
In addition to the exhibit there are videos of artists being shown on a running loop. Villano was cautious with how he approached this project as he commented seeing media in the arts “wrongfully and overused” since digital came online back in the 90’s, but he also knows that “if you let it be its own thing” that it can be a powerful tool. Villano has set it up so that there are three video screens that show three different aspects of a certain art form.
One video will show the making of art and, for one example, will take the viewer through the entire process of making a bentwood box. The second screen is about dance. These films go back to the earliest records they have of dance all the way up to YouTube videos of dance performances. The final screen in the room focuses on the artists that are actually using video as an art form. On this screen you’ll be able to see artists such as Haidawood (instead of Hollwood) who are a small group of Native Alaskans who use stop motion ‘Haida Films’ that help to present the language to younger children.
This multimedia project was created in the hopes of getting better understanding of what is actually going on in the world to the community’s attention, and also that seeing these videos will give the viewers the initiative to “go down the online rabbit hole” and explore more videos on their own time.
The permanent exhibit for the Tongass Historical Museum is planned to open on April 29, 2018. Although the space where the permanent exhibit will go is currently empty the minds of those who are behind creating it are anything but. Their ideas for what will make up this exhibit are already taking shape. It will be formatted differently than a typical exhibit. Villano said that they are going to be looking at the Ketchikan community from the inside and finding out what internally makes Ketchikan what it is.
“How did we become who we are?” Villano said. “Not what we are but who we are. Ketchikan is not the history of a town, it’s the history of (a) family.”
The museum staff plans to build the history from that standpoint and is actively flushing out stories and historical information throughout the community to better understand the concept of self in Ketchikan so their permanent exhibit can set the stage for the community as a whole.
“We are open year-round and we are always happy to talk to people,” Maxwell said. “Whether that be a story they have to share or an artist we might be interested in, we’re here.”
The Upholding Balance exhibition will be running through March 2018 and all who care to participate in honoring and celebrating the living tradition of Northwest Coast art are invited.
“I can’t give you a slick pitch as to why you should view it. I’m still exploring it. I get to go in every day and learn new stuff about it,” Villano said. “To have a show that’s been up for a few months and you’re still pulling stuff out of it. … That’s pretty cool.”
• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer for the Capital City Weekly and lives in Juneau.