JUNEAU - This summer, the Alaska State Museum is host to two special exhibitions featuring both traditional and non-traditional facets of those cultures.
"Yuungnaqpiallerput (The Way We Genuinely Live): Masterworks of Yup'ik Science and Survival" explores the ways traditional Eskimo culture developed tools and technology for living in the harsh sub-arctic environment of western Alaska. The second exhibit, "Weapons of Mass Defense," presents recent contemporary artworks by Da-ka-xeen Mehner, a young artist with Southeast Alaskan Tlingit ancestry.
In "The Way We Genuinely Live," 19th and early 20th century tools, containers, weapons, watercraft and clothing represent the scientific principles and processes - snowshoes and dome-style houses being but two examples - that have allowed the Yup'ik people to adapt to living in the sub-arctic tundra of the Bering Sea coast. Featuring masterworks ranging from a needle made from a crane wing bone to elegant bentwood hunting hats, the exhibition is a tribute to the ingenuity of this ancient culture and illustrates the intimate relationship between humans and their environment.
The exhibition is based on knowledge shared by Yup'ik elders and takes visitors through the seasonal cycle of traditional activities. At interactive science stations, visitors can engage in hands-on activities that show how and why things work. Video and audio programs document traditional activities as well as the construction of traditional Yup'ik tools. At the exhibition's core is the recognition that the Yup'ik way of life - both past and present - is grounded in deep spiritual values and scientific principles.
The more than 200 exhibition objects come from the collections of 13 museums in the United States and Germany. "The Way We Genuinely Live" is curated by cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, and is a joint project of the Anchorage Museum and the Calista Elders Council, a leading Native cultural organization in southwest Alaska. It was developed with the guidance of Yup'ik elders, scientists, and educators and with major support from the National Science Foundation. An extensive catalog for the exhibit has been published by the University of Washington Press. For more information, go to the exhibit website at: http://yupikscience.org/
"Weapons of Mass Defense"
Artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner represents a new generation of Alaska Native artists who see themselves as both representatives of their traditional cultures and as members of the global art community. Often they may push the boundaries of traditional forms or utilize non-traditional technologies such as photography or video. Sometimes controversial, their work may challenge conventional expectations, but the art is often based in a strong sense of respect for its origins.
Mehner is part Alaska Native (Tlingit-Nishga) and part Caucasian (German-Irish). He pronounces his name, DAH-ka-kheen Mayner (the "x" sounds like a guttural "h"). He has followed an interest in art most of his life and in the early 1990s studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, a familiar venue for many young Native Alaskans interested in art.
Writing about his work for his exhibit "Weapons of Mass Defense," Mehner said, "I draw inspiration from the material culture of my Tlingit ancestors. The knife form comes from the fighting knives the Tlingit used to use. I see the knife as a symbol of my struggles. At times my personal battles become so great my only defense is to make a bigger weapon. Some of the knife forms are eight feet tall. This personal escalation forces me to be a better person, to rise up and face the challenges, and defend that which is most important to me."
According to Mehner, the exhibit will "give the viewer space to define the battle for themselves. What is it that we fight for or against? What struggles do we confront? How many problems do we overcome in a day? A life? A history of a people?"
In addition to these temporary exhibitions, the Alaska State Museum offers a range of permanent displays highlighting Alaska's history, indigenous cultures and natural history. These exhibits take up more than half of the museum's exhibition space and range from a life-sized eagle nesting tree to a scaled-down version of the stern of Capt. George Vancouver's ship Discovery, dry-docked in the museum's children's room.
Docents offer tours of the museum during the summer and by special arrangement during the rest of the year. The museum's store, operated by The Friends of the Alaska State Museum, features baskets, jewelry and carvings made by Alaskans, as well as books and note cards. Summer hours at the Alaska State Museum are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. General admission is $5 during the summer season, with annual passes that allow unlimited visits available for $15.
For more information about either museum, contact Bruce Kato, Alaska State Museum, 395 Whittier St., Juneau, AK 99801-1718, 465-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit www.museums.state.ak.us for more information.