Putting a new spin on a time-worn tale
“Watch out for that polar bear,” she said over her shoulder while I squeezed between the rolling shelving and the edge of a long, wide table. I had followed Monica Garcia-Itchoak into a dark room on the top level of the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature (AMSN).
Patrons know the museum for the array of dinosaur bones, but few know that the building is also home to many more artifacts hidden away in the 6,000 feet of storage above. Inside the dim room, a woman sat at the end of the table, her face illuminated by an inspection lamp. She took off her gloves and came to greet us.
”Welcome to my world,” Sam Winer said. “Excuse the mess, I was just cleaning some mammoth bones.”
Winer is the director of collections for the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, and it was deep into her world that I was venturing, through a set of double doors into a windowless room. As she flicked the switch, the LEDs illuminated their numerous collections. My eye immediately caught the wall of mounted specimens.
The length of the room was covered in taxidermied specimens of lions, antelopes, warthogs and more. Winer wasn’t surprised; it’s what most people see first. While they are beautiful displays, Garcia-Itchoak said many of the animals don’t tell Alaska’s story—a story she hopes to tell in the coming years.
“There’s so much more,” she said. “We have quite a large collection of mounted specimens as well as cultural collections. And nobody knows that we have such an extensive collection.”
That is something Garcia-Itchoak and her staff are trying to change. Much like the Mountain View neighborhood where the museum sits, nestled just one block off the main thoroughfare, AMSN is undergoing a renaissance of its own. For the past three months, Garcia-Itchoak has been at the helm as the museum’s executive director, during which she has hired a new chief learning officer and taken on a fellow as well as student volunteers.
“I feel like there’s been a lot of energy around making Mountain View a destination and I think there’s a misconception that Mountain View isn’t a safe place to come,” she said. “I would say that it’s just a cultural place, it’s just a different kind of a landscape, and people should want to be a part of the most diverse community in the nation.”
Garcia-Itchoak is no stranger to museums. Her career in the field spans nearly three decades and includes notable posts at The Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, before coming to Anchorage in 2010 to work at the Anchorage Museum as the director of education and public programs.
After taking this past summer off, she found the opening at AMSN. Returning to a community, especially one as diverse as Mountain View was a driving force behind her decision. As a former teacher with business and art degrees, she felt it was a perfect fit for her background.
“Coming from large cities and then coming back to Mountain View, there’s such cultural diversity here and community impact, we’re a community led by default,” she said. “I think that’s something that I’ve always been really passionate about. Creating those opportunities for people to be able to come in and be thoughtful about their role in their community.”
Currently, Garcia-Itchoak’s biggest goal is creating partnerships with those who have an interest in the teaching and learning of science in Alaska and to develop programming to incorporate all voices in the dialogue. With a focus on Alaska science and the content behind it, the exhibits will represent the wildlife of Alaska and tell the story of the people who were here before us.
“[We are trying to] flip the museum inside and out and how might we tell a new story. Tell the Alaska story,” she said.
She began by partnering with scientists and professors at UAA and UAF, but partnerships have also happened serendipitously, like when the museum’s first fellow, Kate du Plessis, walked in the door and asked how she could help.
Bringing a wealth of experience about sustainability and biodiversity, du Plessis paired with East High School’s environmental club and a local organization to conduct an energy audit of the former boat warehouse. Garcia-Itchoak said they hope to be a model for the community, now with all new thermostats and 100 percent recycling initiatives.
As another arm of outreach, Garcia-Itchoak hired Lydia Ossorgin as AMSN’s chief learning officer. Ossorgin has a long history of teaching and learning in Alaska, as a co-founder, director and teacher at Atheneum School.
“My typical day is all about teaching and learning, and everything in my day informs that,” Ossorgin said. “I get to observe how students best learn, how they best learn with our amazing content, and what it is to study nature and science.”
In a typical day, Ossorgin can be found leading field trips and discussions, studying upfront current science questions like climate change and sustainability, heading out to schools to do presentations and planning curriculum.
“On occasion, we even get to have lunch,” she laughed, after listing all the things the three-person staff does from day-to-day.
Ossorgin’s objectives are to make sure the museum is accessible, that the content is relevant and that people leave with more questions than answers about the world that surrounds them.
“That’s the neat thing that we’re doing here with the public engagement and the local community, is putting each person in the driver’s seat for their investigation. It begins with their question, their wonder or their observation that maybe nobody else noticed. Whether you’re 80 or you’re five,” she said.
These efforts seem to be working. Most people spend at least an hour in the museum. From Garcia-Itchoak’s experience, the longest most people spend in any exhibition is around 20 minutes.
“I think that has to do with the fact that it’s so hands-on, but I think it’s also that people feel comfortable, because the learning is accessible here,” she said. “It’s very participatory and we want it to be that way. There are very few things you can’t touch.”
Through events like First Friday and programming featuring every Saturday, Garcia-Itchoak is making sure that AMSN is a happening place to be. In the summer of 2016, she hopes to utilize their space even more by co-hosting a farmer’s market in their parking lot with live music and activities on the museum’s patio.
Back in the room upstairs, Winer showed me shelves and drawers full of 20 years worth of collecting, from tiny figurines carved in ivory to elaborate scenes painted on seal hide. She hopes to lead tour groups through these collections that aren’t on display.
“Museums have, unfortunately, an elitist personality,” Winer said. “We’re not elitist, so by showing them the collection, showing them behind the scenes, I hope to say ‘no no, we’re not scary.’ We’re actually really cool and for everybody.”
For more information about the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, check out their website. alaskamuseum.org
Published in the Anchorage Press on November 19, 2015.