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Testing Innovation at the Alutiiq Museum

Presented by Marnie Leist, Director of Operations
Article by Steven Villano

At the fall Museums Alaska conference, Marnie Leist, Director of Operations at the Alutiiq museum in Kodiak, presented the session “Testing Innovation.”  The Director had to step forward on very short notice and give a presentation that had been prepared by another staff member, so kudos to her for performing that role for us.

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Interestingly, this change, rather than detract, actually benefited the session overall.  Marnie Leist, as the Director, was able too set forth a very frank, candid and refreshing glimpse into the trials and tribulations of moving forward an initiative in the museum world. Too often we look to showcase and put forward the best and most reasonable outcomes of those ventures that we attempt. More helpful, though, are the realities and the hard lessons… even if we are not sure what we could have done differently.

Often we find ourselves in a situation where the institutions we are part of would desire greatly the funding to undertake innovative and inclusive programs. It would seem that only money separates us from breaking that new ground. In the case of the Alutiiq Museum they were awarded a grant from EMCarts New Pathways Project and Rasmussen Foundation which would fund one year of innovation. The first step was to put together a retreat session with an even split of board members and community individuals. Discussion could take place to identify challenges and possible actions. The group consisted of artists, Coast Guard Administration (which makes up 50% of the population), Library and Board representatives. The sessions were successful.

The complex challenge of how to broaden audience – outside of just the regulars – in order to increase sustainability was identified. Staff left the sessions with a few solid goals and the initial concepts for a few special events to plan for the upcoming year. These events were intended to bring the whole community in as co-collaborators in a few different ways. Unfortunately the workload for this fell heavy on a staff which was already overtaxed. Most of the work fell to single individuals who were committed to the outcomes, instead of being distributed amongst the whole of the staff and including the whole team.

Another major problem was that limitations on how the money could be  spent forced staff to spend budget on things that were not seen as most necessary for success of the project. Resources such as staff time could not be allocated as they needed. This is all too common, sadly,  and can be very disheartening to a museum staff already trying to push the boundaries. For initiatives to be indeed successful they require time to plan and develop along with some expanded budget that increases possibilities. The museum admits that neither resource (staff development time and/or available money) was available for most of their projects.  In this case it seems that the Alutiiq Museum would have benefited from a slightly different financial structure which would give them the ability to invest time and money more freely, and where they felt it appropriate. Even though the staff had to contend with these real world challenges they did find a few telling and profound benefits.

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The most profound realization – and maybe one that will provide the most positive innovation in the future, was the finding that the native population of the area didn’t see the museum as something “for them.”  This is powerful for any of
us who are involved with cultural museums in the midst of an active culture that has suffered from prejudice and separation. When the museum staff organized events outside the museum they saw a dramatic increase in the number of native people that participated. The hesitation, it seems, is simply coming into the museum building itself because of residual effects of discrimination. Having identified this the Museum can work diligently to continue the effort to bring the native population in and increase involvement.

Events such as date nights and dinners were hosted. These proved to be fun but not financially successful because of the costs associated, such as serving ware and catering. These events did, though, generate some interest from the community. What seemed more promising was the success of teaching events where skills and craftwork were taught.

A “Stories in Art” project was a great success and tied in beautifully to the oral tradition of the Alutiiq people, allowing for greater understanding of what an oral tradition means to the people who share it. It also allows another avenue for interaction between the young and community elders.

The museum also supported a workshop in which a traditional parka was created.  As the beginning of a much larger cultural education project, local artists were provided access to Alutiiq objects that are in the collections of far away museums. The chance to travel and study at these museums and then bring that knowledge back to teach throughout the whole of the community was something that the individual artists would not have had the resources to do on their own. To speak in detail of all the benefits would take an even longer posting, but the project increased the quality and number of classes being taught at the Museum, which made the Alutiq Museum a center for artistic knowledge and sharing. (http://vimeo.com/114603220)

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Sharing is culturally significant, and a larger but tighter-knit community of artists grew.  This also increased the number of artworks available for the people of the area, the Alutiiq’s collection and even the gift shop at the museum where high quality work is available. Along with overcoming the inability to use puffin beaks by utilizing the high school shop class (which worked out incredibly well for everyone), the museum increased community involvement through the sewing group while intensely supporting their role as a center of cultural heritage.

All in all, what was discovered by the innovation program is that it takes far more than just the financial support in order to fully implement and test innovation. Staff buy in is of absolute priority because they have to make it go.  In addition, the institution has to buy in by offering staff designated time to develop not only the event, but ways to observe and test community involvement during and after the function. This is not so easy with a feeling that one must gather info without making the visitors uncomfortable or distracted with questions. Innovation is more than a golden word in the museum world it seems… it is a responsibility.

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