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‘Digital totem pole’ helps teach museum visitors about tribes

Six-year-old Geoffrey Smith from Sydney, Australia, touches the

Six-year-old Geoffrey Smith from Sydney, Australia, touches the screen of the new digital totem in the Hall of Northwest Pacific Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. The digital totem pole will give visitors a fresh new update on the Indian experience in North America with three short films; touch screen portals that bring people, places and sounds of the Pacific Northwest. Credit: Charles Eckert

Digital technology has arrived at the oldest exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, in the majestic Hall of the Northwest Pacific Coast Indians where 16-foot totem poles have impressed generations since 1900.

In the center of the cedar wood hall, among the giant totem poles of eagles and ravens and colorful hand-carved wooden ceremonial masks that represent the culture and spiritual life of the native tribes of the Northwest is the new digital interactive computer screen dubbed “digital totem pole.”

The touch-computer screen gives visitors a portal experience bringing them closer to the lives of today’s Northwest tribes, which extend from Washington state into British Columbia and southern Alaska. Their stories and photos remind visitors that these cultures still thrive and are being preserved.

The new installation “helps people really understand the riches of the culture and heritage,” said Bella Desai, director of the museum’s public programs. A museum survey revealed that hundreds of visitors did not know and did not connect with the exhibit.

“Many guessed that the exhibit was about Africa or New Zealand,” Desai said. “Some even guessed that it was maybe from the time of the dinosaurs. These artifacts have important stories and now we can see them more closely and have a deeper understanding.”

Hear the voices and see the faces of the descendants of 1800s Haida tribal master totem pole carver Charles Edenshaw. His totem pole artwork tells the ancient story of the Haida Nation and is still part of the museum’s collection.

Today, his great-grandchildren, Robert Charles Davidson and Michael Nicoll, continue to preserve their heritage through contemporary artwork. The two artists narrate their own experience.

There also are before-after pictures of the towns and villages where the museum’s collections came from. “Many of them [towns and villages] have disappeared,” said Helene Alonso, director of digital experiences. “It’s sad that they are gone.”

Alonso interviewed 24 people to learn what it means “to be a first nation of people before Western culture arrived,” she said. “Their stories are fantastic. There is pride and a real effort to conserve their culture and past; while at the same time they have a great diversity. They have different professions from a store owner to a famous comic book artist.”

The digital experience also gives visitors a 360-degree, high-definition view of the exhibit’s handcrafted bracelets, clothing, ceremonial rattles and costumes that are still encased in the original wood and glass cabinets.

“This is my favorite. You can rotate the mask around and see what is behind it and see that it is real hair on mask,” Alonso said.

If successful, the museum will expand the digital touch screen experience to other exhibits. In October, the public will be able to interact and speak with museum curators at the Haida Gwaii Museum to get “an authentic perspective on the collection,” Desai said. “We will have a live feed where visitors can speak to museum curators and see the panorama of what the region actually looks like.”


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