Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga- A Retrospective

By: Chelsi Slotten with William Fitzhugh

Viking Exhibit041


Ask most people who the first Europeans in North American were and they would probably answer Christopher Columbus. They would also be incorrect. The first Europeans to land in North America were actually a group of Vikings sailing under Leif Eriksson almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Leif’s trip to North American resulted in a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland and contact with the Native American population there. The world became much smaller that day as human interactions circled the globe for the first time in human history. Monumental as this event was, Leif does not deserve all the credit. His eventual landing in Newfoundland was the culmination of 200 years of travel and exploration by his Viking ancestors. Fifteen years ago the Arctic Studies Center curated Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga to trace that journey across the Atlantic Ocean. In journeying across the Atlantic, questions of how we know our past and its relevance today were addressed. As the world continues to shrink as a result of better transportation and the internet it’s useful to reflect on where we came from and to that end I have a couple questions for Dr. Fitzhugh.

Q: What was your favorite part of this exhibit?  10-ship

A: Producing “Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga” was incredibly complicated and expensive. Hillary Clinton kicked off our fund-raising effort. Curators from seven nations participated  and a dozen museums loaned objects. The shop opened at the Smithsonian and then traveled around North America for three years. We published a great book(cover shown to right) and we connected with a huge population of Scandinavian and Nordic people in North America. Fifteen years later I’m still lecturing about Vikings!

The most exciting part of the exhibit was the opening when I met the kings, queens, and presidents of all those countries and had lunch with all of them and the Clintons in the White House. Dessert? Chocolate Viking ships filled with ice cream and fruit!

Q: Have there been any major discoveries in the past 15 years that change or deepen our understanding of Viking travel to North America?

A: Nearly every year archaeologists find new Viking sites and artifacts. Recently a mass grave was excavated in Britain, a Viking ship burial in Scotland; a Norwegian penny dating 1065-85 in an Indian site in Maine; spoils from a wrecked Viking voyage in North Greenland, and studies of Viking burials in Greenland showing—contrary to previous belief that the Norse did not adopt an Inuit economy-- increasing use of marine foods (fish, seals) in their diet during the life of the Greenland Norse colonies.

Q: Why do you think people are still so fascinated with Vikings centuries after their era ended?

A: Vikings are a touch-stone topic! Everyone learns about Vikings in grade school—especially the raiding and pillaging. We are fascinated by these ‘barbarians who turned Christian’, their bravery, their boat-building skills, their sagas and poetry. They sailed across the Atlantic in small boats; they voyaged to Rome and Istanbul. They were also traders and nation-builders. Who wouldn’t be ga-ga for Vikings!!!

Q: What can the Vikings teach us that is relevant today?

A: Vikings were the quintessential explorers – they explored nearly half the globe and were builders of the finest boats of their day. They braved the storms of the North Atlantic and lived at the edge of the known world for nearly 500 years in Greenland. As we reach for the heavens in our space-ships we are following the quest for knowledge and exploration demonstrated by Vikings a millennia ago.  

Q: Is there anything else of particular importance you want people to know?

A: Be a Viking! Explore. Search. Sing. Work hard. And you will change the world just like the Vikings did.

If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating period in history the online exhibit is publicly available here: http://www.mnh.si.edu/vikings/.

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People- A Retrospective


By: Chelsi Slotten with William Fitzhugh


Ainu means “human”- Ainu means “us”. These powerful words are the beginning of a journey to understand the indigenous population of northern Japan-the Ainu. In the exhibit Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, we meet a 10,000-year-old culture. Through select objects and artworks the themes of spirituality, trade, cultural identity, contemporary vitality, and fine art are explored. The effects of environmental, historical, and social forces on this culture are also considered.   Video commentary by curator’s Dr. Chisato Dubreuil and Dr. William Fitzhugh can be found throughout the online exhibit. Fifteen years after the closing of this exhibit I sat down with Dr. Fitzhugh to ask him some questions about his recollection of the exhibit.Ainu168

Q: What was your favorite part of this exhibit?

A: Meeting contemporary Ainu and coming to appreciate their culture, their art, ceremony, and oral history was truly exciting. But my biggest thrill was watching visitors in the exhibit hall—they were blown away by the beauty of Ainu objects and philosophy of life.

Q: Did you learn anything particularly unexpected or interesting while you were preparing this exhibit?

A: I could not avoid “becoming Ainu”! As a curator I immersed myself in the Ainu world, physically and emotionally. Chisato and I spent hours visiting her people and studying the Smithsonian 19th century collection of Ainu photographs and ethnographic objects. I began to see through Ainu eyes!    

Q: Have any major Ainu finds occurred in the last 15 years that help shed new light on historical Ainu culture?

A: After 150 years Ainu and their culture and language are finally being recognized by the Japanese people and government. There will be a national museum of the Ainu and more support for Ainu art and language. But still no land-claims or financial reparations. The Ainu and Japanese still have many issues to resolve.

Q: Is there anything else you particularly want to share about this exhibit?

A: Ainu honored the spirits they believed inhabit all living things and objects--even trees and rocks had souls. Today Ainu continue to honor the spirits of nature and practice rituals and ‘sending ceremonies’ that maintain the balance of nature. We have much to learn from Ainu culture.

For those of you whose curiosity has been peaked (I know mine was!) the interactive online exhibition can be found here http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/ainu/index.html.

Smithsonian Spotlight: Alaska Native Language Recovery

D Roy Mitchell 2009 crop small
Date: Thursday, November 5th at 7pm

Location: Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum

D. Roy Mitchell, research analyst for the Alaska Native Language Preservation & Advisory Council, discusses the causes of language loss including involuntary boarding school programs in the past to ongoing economic and political domination, and the work by Alaska Native communities to revitalize their languages.

This event is sponsored by the Recovering Voices Program, an initiative led by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Tracing Roots: Delores Churchill and the Hat of the Long Ago Person Found


What would you do if you found a woven spruce hat in a retreating glacier?  For master weaver Delores Churchill, it was a chance to connect the past to her present. The National Museum of Natural History will host a screening of “Tracing Roots: Delores Churchill and the Hat of the Long Ago Person Found” on October 28th.   Please join us as we accompany her on a journey into the past to discover the origins of this unique artifact and what it means to the Haida culture. 

Delores Churchill is a Haida elder from Ketchikan, Alaska who has devoted much of her life to mastering the craft of weaving and preserving her cultural heritage.   As a child, she was forced to leave home and attend a residential school.  While there, she was not allowed to speak her native language or adhere to her tribe’s cultural practices.  Despite this, Delores remembered her language and tradition and is a strong proponent of keeping traditional language and culture alive.  She learned to weave from her mother Selina Peratrovich, a respected weaver in her own right, who taught Delores everything she knew.  Haida weaving uses cedar bark and spruce roots to create tightly woven baskets and hats.  The weaving is so tight as to be waterproof.   Traditionally only females were allowed to weave in Haida culture but males are now learning the craft as well.   Delores is certain that passing the knowledge down through classes and traditional channels will help keep the Haida weaving tradition alive and ensure that Native art is viewed as part of the modern world, not just as museum artifacts.

This program on October 28th is free and open to the public. The film screening begins at 6:15 in  Q?rius Theater at the National Museum of Natural History. After the screening, there will be a discussion session with Delores Churchill and producer/director Ellen Frankenstein where we welcome your questions, as well as a weaving demonstration. Earlier in the day, Delores will demonstrate her weaving in NMNH’s Q?rius Education Center.

Please RSVP for this event here

Harvest: Quyurciq and other films

PWilliams by Fabio Domenig CROP


Date: Sunday, October 11th at 2pm

Location: Anchorage Museum auditorium, FREE


Documentary shorts about Alaska Natives, including Harvest: Quyurciq featuring Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams (Yup'ik) of Sitka. Other films are A Way of Making Life Beautiful: Yup'ik Art Between Two Worlds, Trapping at 15 Below, and The Story of NANANordic. A question and answer session with Williams follows the film screenings. Free. Enter through the Seventh Avenue entrance.

Photo by Fabio Domenig

Material Traditions Artists' Residency

Tsimshian whistle 014171_000 smVoices from Cedar: Carved Whistles and Rattles of Southeast Alaska

Whistles, rattles, and clappers summon spirits and echo their voices during the dances and ceremonies of Southeast Alaska. Carved from red or yellow cedar, these traditional instruments blend distinctive musical sounds with complex beauty of form. Master carvers John Hudson (Tsimshian), Norman Jackson (Tlingit), and Donald Varnell (Haida) will demonstrate how they are made and share knowledge of their cultural meanings during the Voices from Cedar artists’ residency October 5th-9th at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, located in the Anchorage Museum. The artists will teach students and museum staff, and compare their own work to historical examples in the Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage exhibition. Museum members and the public are welcome to meet the artists during open house hours on Thursday Oct. 8 and Friday Oct. 9 from 1-3pm.

The program is sponsored by the Surdna Foundation, CIRI Foundation, and Smithsonian Council for Arctic Studies.

Photo: Tsimshian whistle. National Museum of the American Indian collection.

Smithsonian Spotlight: In the Scheme of All Matters Iñupiaq

Edna MacLean EQ smallDate: Thursday, September 3rd at noon 

Location: Arctic Studies Center gallery at the Anchorage Museum

According to Iñupiaq scholar Edna Ahgeak MacLean, Ph.D., "Courses of change to the Iñupiaq people of the North Slope will require strong programs for the retention of our identity as Iñupiat." In this lecture she discusses how her recently published North Slope Iñupiaq dictionary plays a part in this process.

This event is sponsored by the Recovering Voices Program, an initiative led by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Arctic Studies Center & Anchorage Museum Host Skateboarding Events

The URBAN Interventions series of Polar Lab motivates and empowers youth through creative, healthy expression. The first program in this series, Skate Art, brings New York-based skateboarder Jim Murphy to the museum. A member of the Lenni Lenape tribe, Murphy is the co-founder of Wounded Knee Skateboards and the director of the Wounded Knee Four Directions Skateparks program of the Stronghold Society, a non-profit organization working with Native and non-Native youth through skateboarding and the arts. The museum hosts Murphy as he works with local youth to personalize skateboard decks with art inspired by Anchorage Museum and Smithsonian collections.

Additional free public events are: 

Public Lecture and Film Screening
7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14 

Skate Jam
3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16
Spenard Recreation Center at the Anchorage Museum
Music, prizes, demos
Boarders and spectators welcome

Smithsonian Spotlight: Traditional Healing for the 21st Century

Meda DeWitt-Schleifman
Date: Thursday, August 6th at noon

Location: Arctic Studies Center gallery at the Anchorage Museum

Tlingit Traditional Healer Meda DeWitt-Schleifman discusses how Alaska Native traditional health practices are relevant and accessible, and how they can provide the basis for living well today.

This event is sponsored by the Recovering Voices Program, an initiative led by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Arctic Spring Festival Success!

By: Bill Fitzhugh. Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No 22. 62-63.

Official poster for the Arctic Spring Festival.

More than 50,000 people were in the museum during the Arctic Spring Festival and over 5,000 people interacted directly with experts at stations in the Sant Ocean Hall and the Evans Gallery, while an additional 1,900 visited the Q?rius Education Center to play games, learn crafts, explore objects, jam on video games, and watch films related to Arctic science and culture. Just as one example, Martin Nweeia’s narwhal station in the Sant Ocean Hall logged 1,262 visitors in four hours!

Martin Nweeia attracts a crowd with his replica narwhal tusk! Photo: James DiLoreto, Smithsonian Institution.

The festival also featured performances in the Rotunda and Q?rius Loft by a youth group from the Uummannaq Children's Home in Uummannaq, Greenland, and a contemporary music and dance performance by Jody Sperling’s NYC-based dance team on the theme of melting Arctic ice.

Jody Sperling's group performs Ice Cycle.
Choreographer Jody Sperling, her company Time Lapse Dance, and composer Matthew Burtner present Ice Cycle for the evening dance performance on Saturday, May 9. Photo: Trish Mace.

Visitors and experts, young and old, local DC residents, and travelers from afar all had great conversations with Arctic experts and unique educational experiences throughout the Museum.

Igah Hainnu instructs Noor Johnson on traditional caribou carving. Ms. Hainnu is an artist from Clyde River, Canada, who was sponsored by the Embassy of Canada to come down for the Festival and share her knowledge and art with our visitors. Photo: James Di Loreto, Smithsonian Institution.


Bill Fitzhugh, Director of the Arctic Studies Center, addresses a question at the panel. Left to right: Mead Treadwell, Craig Fleener, Stephanie Pfirman, Bill Fitzhugh. Photo: Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian Institution.

The program began with a Friday afternoon panel discussion with eight Arctic experts from the Smithsonian (Krupnik and Fitzhugh), Arctic Research Commission (John Farrell), DOS (Nikoosh Carlo), Canadian Museum of Nature (Margaret Beckel), Stephanie Pfirman (Barnard college), Craig Fleener (Alaska Governor’s office), and Mead Treadwell (former ARC chief and Lt. Gov. of Alaska). The panel was opened with Sounds of the Arctic by Charles Morrow and CAFF award winning photos and other Arctic photos from government agencies, set to sound by Meghan Mulkerin. Arctic films were shown on Friday at the panel and all day on Sunday, by the Greenland Eyes International Film Festival. In addition, the Uummannaq Greenland Youth Ensemble delighted the audience with a short performance at the panel. A reception was hosted Friday night by the Danish/ Greenland Embassy. Friday afternoon and Saturday were devoted to the public education events noted above, presented by NMNH, NOAA, NPS, DOS, DOI, USFWS, BLM, CAFF, BOEM, NSSI, NAS, NSF, NASA, ONR, National Ice Center, Tromso Museum, the Arctic Council, the Canadian Embassy, the Royal Norwegian Embassy, and the Danish Embassy with Visit Greenland.

Pablo Clemente-Colón, Chief Scientist from the U.S. National Ice Center interacts with a visitor in the Sant Ocean Hall.

More than 150 people from over 20 partner organizations and agencies participated and provided materials and specimens, literature, website programs, Arctic ice maps, temperature curves, and nature photography for the festival – among the more unique items were a musk ox (with head) and polar bear pelts; a demonstration on how to make boots from king salmon skins; a narwhal tusk; Greenland ethnographic objects; and an ingenious melting ‘glacier goo’ game led by the PoLAR Partnership. The Uummannaq Greenland Youth Ensemble performed numerous times in different places of the Natural History Museum.

The Uummannaq Children's Home Youth Ensemble performs in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History during the Arctic Spring Festival, May 9, 2015. Photo: James Di Loreto.

The festival made a major contribution to public understanding of the Arctic and was a fitting way to introduce the new US Arctic Council Chairmanship period and its theme of public outreach and education. The Arctic Spring Festival would not have been possible without the generous sponsorship our our donors and the herculean contributions of Meghan Mulkerin, our new Program Coordinator in the Arctic Studies Center, and our colleagues in the Office of Education and Outreach, Barbara Stauffer, Margery Gordon, Jen Collins, Trish Mace, Colleen Popson, Naimah Muhammad, Courtney Gerstenmaier and Megan Chen. Igor Krupnik, Stephen Loring, and Bill Fitzhugh were also instrumental to the process of gathering partners and entertainers together for this wonderful program.

Joel Issak, Meghan Mulkerin, Rebecca Clemens, and Barbara Stauffer at the fish skin sewing activity.
Joel Issak shows Meghan Mulkerin, Rebecca Clemens, and Barbara Stauffer the finer points of fish skin sewing. Photo: Robert Radu.

The Arctic Spring Festival was generously funded by: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Arctic Studies Center, Living in the Anthropocene Initiative, and Recovering Voices, with additional support from The U.S. Arctic Research Commission, The PoLAR Partnership (supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation: DUE–1239783), Oak Foundation, The Ed Nef Foundation, Embassy of Canada, Royal Norwegian Embassy, and Embassy of Denmark.