Anthropology Professor Amy Margaris and Student Curators Launch Digital Exhibition on Alaska Native Collection

August 10, 2021

Amanda Nagy

Students sit around a desk with computers and a large map.
Student researchers lay the groundwork for an exhibition during the 2020 Winter Term project "Practicum in Exhibit Design."
Photo credit: Yvonne Gay

What happens when an Alaska Native community leader and activist travels to a small Ohio college from the Arctic to receive an honorary degree? A special collaboration is born—and an unforeseen opportunity to breathe new life into a nearly forgotten collection of cultural items that have been housed at Oberlin College for more than 130 years.

The digital exhibition "Growing Goodness": An Iñupiaq Perspective on Oberlin’s Alaska Native Collection is the latest step in a years-long journey to meaningfully reconnect ancestral cultural heritage items stewarded by Oberlin College to their Indigenous source communities in the Alaskan Arctic and Subarctic. 

Curated by Associate Professor of Anthropology Amy Margaris ’96 and a dedicated group of anthropology students, the exhibition draws on recorded interview material with Iñupiaq activist and Elder Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and other rich digital content to give cultural context to items—from a fish skin bag to a spiritually powerful doll—and showcase the sophisticated ecological knowledge behind each one's creation and use. 

Amy Margaris shows a fish skin bag.
Margaris shows a fish skin bag, part of Oberlin's Alaska Native Collection. Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

The project was born in the 2019 StudiOC course Learning with Indigenous Material Culture, in which Ahtuangaruak served as consultant in residence, continued as a group Winter Term project, and followed as a spring semester private reading with the intent of installing a major physical exhibition in Mary Church Terrell Main Library. Students researched and wrote labels, and learned from library staff about copyright and inclusive design. 

When COVID-19 intervened, Margaris and her students simply continued the collaboration, meeting on Zoom every Friday throughout the summer just as they had been in the previous months. Visual Resources Curator Heath Patten guided the group through a pivot to the online exhibit platform ArtSteps where, as a digital resource, Growing Goodness is now widely accessible and has been adopted as a cultural knowledge teaching resource in Ahtuangaruak’s home village of Nuiqsut, Alaska.

A number of staff members and former and current students contributed to the project. Student curators of the digital exhibition include Iris Bennett ’21, Emily Bermudez ’21, Madeleine Feola ’22, Eleanor Haskin ’20, Alaina Helm ’21, Eric Hughett ’21, Mallika Pandey ’21, and Ellen Zimmerman ’23. Megan Mitchell, academic engagement and digital initiatives coordinator for the Terell Main Library, provided curatorial leadership along with Heath Patten. 

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