Kodiak History Museum opens its first exhibition curated through a public call for proposals

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“Fissions of Native Identity” is the newest exhibit at the Kodiak History Museum – and the first to be chosen based on ideas from the public. The exhibition doesn’t take up a big space at the museum, but it asks two big questions: who is Native and who decides?

A new exhibition at the Kodiak History Museum explores Native identity and was chosen through a public proposal process (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

“The museum is making a decisive shift to identify the issues that are important to the community, rather than the things that we see as museum professionals that are historically significant,” said Sarah Harrington, the museum’s executive director. 

It’s the latest shift the museum has undergone over the last few years aimed at inclusivity; it also changed its name from the Baranov Museum, which is rooted in Russia’s colonization of Alaska, to the Kodiak History Museum in 2019.

Kodiak residents also helped develop the new exhibit; colorful panels guide visitors through the cultural, legal and historical definitions that have defined what it means to be Native over the years. That includes addressing discriminatory laws aimed at Alaska Native people that have also affected identity, and criteria like blood quantum, which defines Native status by fractions of ancestry; some tribes have voted to get rid of blood quantum requirements, including Sealaska Corporation shareholders this year

The exhibit also includes photos submitted by members of the community that celebrate family traditions and how Native culture has shaped Kodiak.

A cup of markers sits next to a paper easel at the back of the room, with a question scrawled across the top asking visitors, “What does being Native mean to you?” 

Kodiak History Museum Curator Lynn Walker said gathering public feedback is just as important as the display itself – and the museum staff hope it will spark more conversations.

“And so over time, this will fill up with people’s responses so we can really engage our community and this kind of discussion,” said Walker. 

Harrington said including the public is part of a nationwide trend, as more museums reevaluate how they preserve and present history to their audiences. 

“We’re starting to have brave, honest conversations about what role does the museum play in facilitating conversations for every part of the community no matter how they see it or how they identify, and we will make space for it,” said Harrington.

“Fissions of Native Identity” is on display at the Kodiak History Museum until May.

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