Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Five Questions with Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository

Kodiak, Alaska

The Alutiiq Museum at 215 Mission Road in Kodiak, Alaska. Photo courtesy Alutiiq Museum.

Located in downtown Kodiak, Alaska, the Alutiiq Museum preserves and celebrates the culture of the Alutiiq people, who, according to some reports, have inhabited Kodiak Island for more than 7,000 years. We spoke with Alutiiq Museum Executive Director (and 2007 MacArthur Foundation Fellow) Dr. Sven Haakanson, Jr.  about what makes the museum unique.

NEA: Please tell us a little bit about the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository.

DR. SVEN HAAKANSON: The Alutiiq Museum is a tribal cultural center. We preserve and share the cultural traditions of Kodiak’s Native people---the Alutiiq people. Our organization is just 15 years old, but it was formed to house huge collections of archaeological materials excavated from our island over the past 50 years. The museum has worked to bring these objects home, to care for them, and to bring them to life in our community through exhibits and programs. We are known for our programs. We involve people of all heritages in Alutiiq arts, local archaeology, language studies, and cultural events.

NEA: What’s your favorite object in the collection and why?

HAAKANSON: There is an Alutiiq legend that says the stars are men with one giant eye in the middle of their forehead, and that they peer down to earth through the night sky. A few years ago, volunteers with one of our archaeology programs found a star man mask eroding from a site they were monitoring. It’s a carved piece of whalebone with a mouth and a single eye. I love the connection between the prehistoric artifact and the legend---how the two support each other. This piece is now on loan to us from the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

NEA: What’s on exhibit now at the museum?

HAAKANSON: This summer we are showing Inland Journeys. It’s an exhibit that explores how Alutiiqs use Kodiak’s meadows and mountains. Our people are best known for making their living from the sea, but they also harvested many resources from the land.  This exhibit shows how we hunt and trap, collect plants, harvest birds, and fish in local streams. It’s a colorful show with lots of photographs, animal mounts, hunting and fishing gear, and even archaeological finds that connect current Alutiiq subsistence practices to the past.

NEA: What do you hope visitors to the Alutiiq Museum take away from the experience?

HAAKANSON: I want people to leave understanding the Alutiiq people a little better. Our culture isn’t well known. The museum tries to share traditional Alutiiq practices and connect those to our people today. I want our visitors to know that the Alutiiq people still have a unique and vibrant culture, and to leave the Alutiiq Museum knowing something about that culture.

NEA: Aside from the Alutiiq Museum what’s your own favorite museum to visit and why?

HAAKANSON: I’ve been fortunate to travel to museums all over the world. One that I’ve returned to many times is the Kunstkamera---the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia. Every time I visit the Kunstkamera, I feel like I’m meeting old friends as the museum holds hundreds of Alutiiq objects. Russian traders collected tools, clothing, household items, boats, and even ceremonial gear from Alutiiq people, and many of these items are displayed in the Kunstkamera’s North American gallery. I can spend hours looking at the displays, and I’ve even had the amazing opportunity to study the collections.  Every time I go I see something new, learn something more.

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