Learning Context at the Alaska State Museum

my favorite mannequin
from "Rainforest Warriors"
Four of the other MAT students and I took Capital Transit to downtown Juneau yesterday, and the highlight of our visit was the Alaska State Museum. I particularly loved the "Rainforest Warriors" exhibit of Tlingit armor and weapons created by Naal Xák'w (Tommy Joseph), as well as the significant collection of 19th century artifacts from Alaska's diverse indigenous peoples.

Of course, the state museum would be an awesome place for school field trips, but I think my visit also reminded me of the importance of contextualizing objects—not just looking at them. While the museum did supply a good amount of interpretive information in each of their displays, an educator should press their students to think critically about the context in which any given object was found historically.

a lovely old rifle and case
Just to use one example, I liked seeing an old rifle in the exhibit for artifacts from Dene (Athabaskan) peoples. The interpretive display had the following information: "Trade gun: A popular trade item brought to Alaska by the Hudson's Bay Company and other traders." While it's important to know that firearms were trade items, and that the HBC was a major source of them in the interior of northwest North America, seeing this object and that small amount of information doesn't provide complete historical insight.

If I had students examine this rifle, I would make sure to help them understand that a person would have to have serious bargaining power or valuable resources in order to acquire a top-of-the-line weapon from foreigners. In this case, probably, the bargaining power the Dene had was in harvesting furs—the lifeblood of the Hudson's Bay Company. Only in seeking that valuable resource would the HBC give out volatile items like guns, and the two parties likely understood that more guns would enable the Dene to gather more furs.

beautiful Tlingit ravenstail
regalia by Kay Field Parker
In other cases, Europeans strived in vain to prevent indigenous peoples from arming themselves: In Lingít Aaní, the Russians forbade Euroamerican trading ships from selling firearms in their claimed territory, but British and American sea captains did so anyway, because Tlingit demand was so high and the furs the Tlingit had so valuable.

Please note that this is not a critique of the State Museum at all: They likely provide tour guides to wintertime student groups anyway, which is perfect. I only mean to emphasize the importance of contextualization to historical artifacts and history education in general. Individual moments, people, or phenomena of the past cannot be understood without knowing the particular conditions and circumstances that surrounded them. History is all about context, really, as history is the context for our lives. The State Museum is a wonderful place to bring that context to life.