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Lending the Past: Sharing “Hands-On” Collections in Alaska

Alaska is fortunate to have two institutions in its state museum system—the Alaska State Museum in Juneau and the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Both facilities collect, preserve, and exhibit the material culture and natural history of Alaska. The Alaska State Museum exhibits all aspects of the state’s cultural and natural history, while the Sheldon Jackson Museum focuses on Alaska’s native cultures.

In order for all people of this physically huge state to enjoy and learn from the collections, the two museums have numerous outreach programs. Two of the most popular are the “Learning Kits” and the “Hands-on Loan Program.” Both of these outreach programs are used by teachers, librarians, docents, interpreters, program coordinators, and individuals, many of whom are located in remote villages and communities far from either institution.

The inclusion of actual objects, illustrations, and graphics in our outreach kits and programs places the essence of learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking where it belongs: literally, in the hands of the learner. At the Alaska State Museum, interpreters and docents armed with objects from our hands-on collections not only grab the attention of their audience, but help dispel some of the “mystery” of the artifacts exhibited. For instance, visitors have many questions about the atlatls, or throwing boards, on exhibit. They accept that an atlatl increases the force and velocity of a dart, but have trouble visualizing how a hunter held the atlatl and delivered the dart. By placing a reproduction in the learners’ hands and having them go through the motions of using it (without the dart in place), we help answer the question — “How do you hold it?”

Raw materials such as spruce roots, beach grasses, sea mammal intestines, and baleen help the docents interpret artifacts on exhibit in the museum. To most visitors these exotic materials seem unlikely for the production of goods, but with the opportunity to handle them, they learn first hand of their important contributions to the material culture of Alaska Natives.

Both museums make use of their hands-on collections while hosting school groups. Hands-on objects allow students to see, feel, and touch things the same as, or similar to, those they will see on exhibit — an important step in the development of learning skills. Objects are also integrated into museum activities, passed around, tried on, or left on a table for students to look at while working on an activity.

Traveling learning kits reach those who can not come to the museum or those who may visit following their use of the kits. These kits arrive equipped with objects, lesson plans, and reference materials. Teachers or librarians check out the kits for a specified amount of time, using the kits in whatever way best accommodates their needs.

A related program of “lending the past” began developing nearly ten years ago at the Sheldon Jackson Museum. After I completed an off-site visit to a child-care center, the teacher hesitantly inquired about the possibility of borrowing the objects. She explained that it would be helpful if the children could spend more time with these unfamiliar objects. Upon returning to the museum, I posed this question to our director. Fortunately, our farsighted and flexible director recognized the importance of allowing students longer exposure and interaction with the objects. She suggested some sort of loan agreement and tracking system be developed and that the program be initiated.

A couple of dozen objects comprised the collection when we made that first loan. Today, our Hands-on Loan collection includes nearly 500 objects of reproduction artifacts, video and audio tapes, books, posters, photographs, and 3,000 slides. All but a few of these objects can be checked out by teachers, librarians, or anyone using them for educational purposes. (Some items are just too large or fragile to be shipped or handled and are used on-site only.)

Teachers integrate the objects into their regular curriculum in a variety of ways. Some use the objects in classroom exhibits, others encourage role playing or use the pieces as models so students can create their own reproductions. Other teachers have students use the objects as primary research material for oral and written reports or inspiration for creative writing or drawing projects.

One program involves fourth graders studying trade patterns between the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and the Athabaskans of interior Alaska. The introduction of hands-on objects begins during the students’ visit to the museum. The fourth graders handle objects similar to those exhibited in the museum and then take the hands-on objects back to their classroom for more in-depth study.

Once in class, the students expand on what they learned at the museum by continuing a trading game using animal hides, an abalone shell, a knife, a spruce root basket, and other items traded between the two cultures. Later, they used the hands-on objects for inspiration in writing a story about what they might have done, seen, and felt if they had been part of a trading party 1 50 years ago. By using hands-on objects, the students took charge of how and what they were learning.

Another classroom activity developed by teachers borrowing the hands-on objects involves clusters of 3 or 4 students working cooperatively in groups to analyze the material culture of Alaska Natives. Each group is given a “Learning through Anthropology” work sheet. By inspecting the hands-on objects, referring to their museum notes, and making hypotheses, students fill in the work sheets with the name of the object, its cultural origin, its specific location (noted on the classroom map), the materials the object is made from, and its possible uses. In addition, students draw a picture of the object.

Another popular program for fourth graders begins similarly — with a museum visit and discussion of the various types of collections our museums house. The class is then divided into four “archeology” research groups. The groups go to their assigned “archeological site” within the Museum. At their site, students find a bag of artifacts—hands-on objects. Students work secretly to develop a list of clues for each of the objects in their bag. Upon returning to the classroom, each group takes turns presenting their clues to the others. In turn, the audience can ask questions of the presenters, such as: “Is the artifact plant, animal, or mineral?” or “Would it have been used by a man, woman, or child?”

The Alaska State Museums have found that hands-on collections help direct individuals toward self-guided learning, and can extend the museum resources beyond its walls. The use of hands-on objects encourages essential skills in research, problem-solving, critical, and abstract thinking. We believe that lending the past is a cogent and successful means of preparing learners for a future where the ability to learn is fundamental.

Rosemary Carlton is curator of education for the Alaska State Museums.

Carlton, Rosemary. “Lending the Past: Sharing ‘Hands-On’ Collections in Alaska,” The Docent Educator 6.1 (Autumn 1996): 6-7.


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