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Sven Haakanson and the Alutiiq Museum: “Reversing the Studies”

by on October 17, 2012

2012-09-26 Sven Haakanson 009
Sven Haakanson photographs Alutiiq bag at HMA

A few weeks ago, the HMA hosted a visit from Sven Haakanson, Jr., Executive Director of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska. Haakanson gave the Jane Powell Dwyer Memorial Lecture, a compelling talk titled “Using Collections to Explore Local Heritage: Lessons from the Alutiiq Museum.” He described the work he and museum staff members do to support a living Alutiiq culture through arts, language, and archaeology programs, and he outlined an approach that sees the museum and its work to teach about an Alutiiq way of life as both a tool for promoting local change and a platform for garnering respect from outsiders. Given a long history of Alutiiq dispossession, the museum’s brief is to “reverse the studies” or repatriate knowledge, reclaiming it from contexts where it is of little use to Alutiiq people (who call themselves Sugpiaq and are also known as Pacific Yupik).

Its ways of doing so are inspiring. Among other projects, the Alutiiq Museum sponsors artists’ travel to collections made over the last two centuries and housed in museums in Russia, Scandinavia, and Europe. Participants document the collections, study how objects were made, produce similar objects for the Alutiiq Museum’s collection, and teach community members the techniques they have learned. This work requires a lot of grant writing, as well as a lot of relationship building.

Haakanson also visited the HMA Collections and Research Facility in Bristol to view coastal Alaskan objects from the collection. Below, he photographs one of these objects, a gutskin pouch from the Aleutian Islands (HMA 64-921). While our information about the pouch comes in part from a tag on it that reads “Tobacco pouch made of fish skin. Herschel Island (Alaskan Indians),” Haakanson thought the material was certainly sea lion throat, a thing he could tell, in part, by its width. This is one of many insights that we’ve now added to our records, and we’re glad to have it. Haakanson works with an artist who wants to make just such a bag. He planned to try one out himself on his return to Alaska. We hope to hear how that goes, and will report on it to you when we do.

In the photo above Haakanson photographs this pouch. His hand is in the picture to provide a comparative scale. For the artists who will use the photo, there’s no better way to indicate it. Click on the photos below for a better view of the bag and to see other photos from what was a fun session!

~ Jennifer Stampe, Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology

Learn more about the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository at


From → Collections, Programs

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