Developing a “Need to Know” around Native Cultural Treasures

In my last post, I introduced a bit of the early feel of our Augmented Activity Guide program. (I know… terrible name. We had a good one for a time, but when the program outgrew it we never found a new shell…) Mostly I wanted to show how much fun the teens were having while learning. This post I’d like to share a little more about their growing relationship with the content.

Trying out button blankets in the Museum’s Discovery Room.

Yesterday was day 4 (of 10) within the program. On day 2 they came to the Museum as a group for the first time (and, for many of them, for the first time in their lives). They learned about the Hall of NW Coast Indians, in 45 minutes – a quick visit, to be sure. Then the next day they spent more time with the Museum’s Anthropology Collection Database – a remarkable collection of over a quarter million digitized records of cultural items. (Go check it out!) The Global Kids Leaders were tasked with picking cultural treasures from the Haida Nation that might appear in our activity guide prototype. And on Day 4, after having picked items that caught their fancy, they returned to the Museum and got to look at them in person, with their own eyes, within the Hall.

That experience is mostly what I’d like to share below.

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 10.16.45 PMTake for example the item listed as “Catalog No: 16 / 8443Field No: 3,” which you can see here, collected by AMNH’s John Swanton, under the direction of Franz Boas, in 1901, or otherwise simply knows as “spoon.” A search in the database on “spoon,” along with “on View in AMNH Halls” and Cultures set to “Haida,” returns over 30 cultural treasures. But for some reason it was THIS spoon that caught the eyes of the team who selected it. And on Day 4, they were going to find it.

First they had to use the black and white print-out from the web site (image on right) to locate it within the case. Now, frankly, I wasn’t sure it was even in the case. Less than half of our Haida spoons are on display in the Hall – the rest are in storage. But they kept looking. Even with the low light, using their cellphone to explore each spoon, they tried to match the crests found in the printed image with the crests seen behind the glass.

To identify the crests they used Swanton’s 1905 report (which we had printed out and ready for them) from his time amongst the Haida (Contribution to the Ethnology of the Haida). They found the pages of spoons, and, using their print out, went through a similar process of identifying which of Swanton’s images matched the one from the database. Once identified, they searched the text (if memory serves) for the description of Plate xiv, Fig. 4. The description reads:

The popular story about the man who married a grisly bear is illustrated by one spoon in my collection. The large design below presents the female grisly bear in the act of tearing her husband into pieces, from jealousy. Above is the thunder-bird with a man mounted upon its back. Thunder-birds are said to have carried men away sometimes, and perhaps that is supposed to be the case in the present instance. The two parts of the design have nothing to do with each other, unless there be some analogical connection.

Now, the activity guide is being designed for children, not teenagers who get a thrill from the grisly tale (pun intended) recounted above. So we talked about it, and decided a Thunderbird carrying a man seemed like a fine story to focus on – the husband being torn apart… that we could avoid for now. But they still had to find it in the Hall. If not, all this research would be for naught.

To be frank, as they used their iPhone camera as a flashlight, exploring each spoon for signs of a grisly bear, or a Thunderbird, I gave up. I’m not sure if I thought it wasn’t there or if the low light made it too challenging to find. And then, all at once, they found it. They pulled out a sheet to record it – they wrote down the number in the database, the page number in Swanton with the description, and their own code for visually locating and identifying their selected spoon from amongst the dozens of spoons within the case (it felt like they needed to make a treasure map). Keep in mind, at any point during this search, they could have easily selected any other spoon they saw and settled it at that. But no – they had picked a spoon and there were going to find it.

And just four days earlier, if I had told them I’d watch them spend the better part of a half hour searching out one particular spoon, that a century-old wooden spoon would mean anything to them, they would have laughed.

So yes, the program seems to be working, developing object-based engagements and a need-to-know amongst urban youth who previously felt alien to these Halls. But I don’t fool myself. That is probably the easy part (as hard as it was for us developing and implementing the curriculum as it is for the youth); what comes next is the real challenge – supporting children to develop a similar passion for the objects, but without us being there in person to do so. The activity guide has to transfer all of our excitement, and fascinating content, and participatory engagement, and sense of awe and wonder, that has brought the GK Leaders to this place. And the great part is we get to do it together.

We ended today’s program, the teens all pooped out flopped all over the floor of the Haida alcove, asking them what it was like after having finally gotten to see the items that had just caught their eye online the day earlier. What were they FEELING? What was it like to see them in person?

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 10.43.44 PMOne student spoke for the group, Milton, and he closed out the day. He and his partner had discovered a hat the day before and fallen in love with it. More specifically, “Basketry Hat,” worn for berry picking, Catalog No: 16/ 692. They want it. Really bad. On a t-shirt, or something. They have gotten hooked on formline, and this is just to interesting too stop talking about. When they found it behind glass, tucked into its little corner, I asked them what it was like to finally see it. “Better than expected,” was the response. And then they talked more about having it on a t-shirt.

So at the end of the day, before the whole group, I was curious to hear what they wanted to share about their experience. Before I would’ve just walked right through this hall,” Milton said. “Now I want to stop and look at things. If I had a friend with me I’d wanted tell him about all the things I now know.”

And that, of course, is what they get now to do through developing the Augmented Activity Guide.



About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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2 Responses to Developing a “Need to Know” around Native Cultural Treasures

  1. Barry, what an excellent post. Thanks so much for sharing the experience. Best post I’ve read anywhere in quite a while.

  2. Hi Barry, That’s a great outcome! I am looking forward to hearing how those dedicating observing sessions can work through the augmented reality for folks who are users and not just creators.

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