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Digital Totem

A digital totem at the American Museum of Natural History. Source: endgadget.

Kris Naudus, A digital ‘totem’ leads the way in one of New York’s oldest museums, endgadget, 31 July 2016

Technology and tradition come together at the American Museum of Natural History to better educate tourists about native cultures.

Museums, for all the wonders they contain, have a reputation for being staid and musty. At their worst they’ve even been described as mausoleums. That’s a problem when it comes to exhibits about an active, living culture like the Haida people of British Columbia. The American Museum of Natural History has taken it upon itself to change that perception of the native groups of the Pacific Northwest, implementing new technologies in its oldest hall to educate millions of visitors about these thousands of people living on the other side of the continent.

It’s easy to think of the cultures portrayed in the AMNH as being firmly in the past. That’s because the museum itself is a relic, with many exhibits having remained unchanged for decades. The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, the oldest extant gallery of the museum, opened in 1900 and showcases a variety of artifacts from tribes such as the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tlingit and the Tsimshian. The scent of old wood is strong in the room, and it’s kept dark in order to protect the items housed inside the antique glass cases. It’s not exactly the friendliest hall, which means it’s not uncommon for visitors to pass through quickly on their way to brighter, more exciting displays.

It became clear that the room was in need of revitalizing when the museum began to receive complaints from First Nation tourists. But the hall’s historic nature and the cost of renovating it made any kind of extensive redesign impossible. The museum opted instead for a lighter, more technological approach — something that could work around and respect the facility’s historic architecture.

The centerpiece of this initiative is the “digital totem,” an interactive monolith that sits in the middle of the hall. It doesn’t resemble a traditional-looking totem pole so much as those giant kiosks that made their debut in New York’s subway system a few years back. And that’s fine: According to curator Peter Whiteley, “totem” is an Ojibwe word that white settlers took from the east and applied to the native sculptures they found in the Pacific Northwest. It doesn’t have strong cultural significance for the cultures portrayed in the gallery.

However, if you’re looking at it as a source of information about a tribe, the digital totem in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians has plenty of stories to tell. Each side of the totem is occupied by a large touchscreen, with the home page displaying a map of the northwest region and a series of icons depicting the various topics the various topics a visitor can explore. They can learn more about particular First Nations individuals the museum interviewed, including artisans, educators and linguists. Or they can play with audio common to the area, mixing and matching sounds like the cry of an eagle with drum beats and rattles to create a unique beat. Most relevant to the hall itself is the ability to zero in on particular artifacts, rotating them and zooming in to examine the fine details that visitors often miss because these objects spend their days behind glass in a dark corner of a case.

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