Ralph Appelbaum Associates Designs Groundbreaking Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage, Alaska, with the Smithsonian Institution

Six Hundred Never-Before-Seen Treasures of Alaska's Native Peoples Return to their Place of Origin — Anchorage, Alaska — from the Smithsonian Institution's Research Facilities in Washington, D.C.

Created in Consultation with Alaska Native Communities, the Arctic Studies Center Serves as a Hub of Scientific and Cultural Research

Jun 29, 2010, 16:23 ET from Ralph Appelbaum Associates

NEW YORK, June 29 /PRNewswire/ -- The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, at the Anchorage Museum, relocates the Institution's Alaska Native collections from Washington, D.C., to their place of origin and houses them in a new state-of-the-art research and display facility. Part of an Institution-wide effort, the Arctic Studies Center is the fulfillment of a long-held goal of Congress and the Smithsonian to distribute its indigenous artifacts to centers of learning near the communities where they were made.

The exhibition celebrates the diversity and artistic heritage of Alaska's Native cultures and consists of some 600 treasured objects from the Smithsonian's collections, including kayaks, clothing, articles of daily life, and ceremonial artifacts. The innovative use of digital technology and media gives visitors unparalleled access to the objects and their underlying stories, and serves as a platform for the essential research activities conducted at the Center.

Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) served as exhibition planners and designers of the Center, which opened to the public in May 2010. RAA is internationally recognized for creating many of the world's most iconic and popular museum experiences of the last two decades.  The firm is best known for its permanent museum projects, visitor centers, and other public facilities that require a marriage of complex educational content with physical environments that are at once compelling and smoothly operational.

The firm worked closely with a team of architects and specialists, including the world-renowned David Chipperfield Architects, of London; the Anchorage-based firm and architect of record, Kumin Associates; experts from the Smithsonian; and local Native community members. The new Arctic Studies Center received an enthusiastic welcome from the 12 cultural groups living in Alaska who are represented in the exhibition and participated in the museum's planning and development. Members of these groups formed an advisory panel and enhanced the design process by providing insight into the objects and Native life, setting a new standard in community engagement, museum presentation, and collaborative interpretation.

Rather than pursue a traditionally static interpretive experience, the museum team sought to create a Center that would facilitate ongoing interpretation and intellectual inquiry. Interactive, updatable digital stations afford each object multiple layers of information that can grow and change over time, including oral histories, historic photographs, artistic depictions, and a growing body of Native and scholarly commentary.

Native elders, artists, and scholars are granted unprecedented access to the collections and have a standing invitation to come to the museum and discuss individual objects' stories and significance. These consultative contributions are captured in audio- and video-recorded sessions that take place in English, Alaska Native languages, and in some cases Russian, and are then translated and incorporated into the exhibitions.

Tim Ventimiglia, the RAA associate in charge, said, "The most dramatic way to bring these extraordinary artifacts back to life is through the eyes and minds of the Alaska Natives themselves. Each object becomes a portal to a deeper understanding of the vibrant cultural lives of these communities."

A synchronized, multi-screen, digital media installation about contemporary Alaska Native life and an environmental audio installation further immerse visitors in Arctic storytelling.

The objects on display are periodically removed from the cases by staff and taken to consultation rooms for study. This capability required the design of high-end, engineered glass showcases with motorized doors and an easily accessible system for installing and de-installing objects. RAA worked with Smithsonian conservators to develop a mount system that is braced for seismic events and moves, independently of the building's structure, on pre-tensioned suspended steel rods. This unprecedented approach allows total operational flexibility. The objects appear to float in the case and can be seen from all sides.  

Unlike any other venue of its kind, the Arctic Studies Center makes arrival at new knowledge apparent to the visitor in its everyday operations. Offices, study areas, and labs that are normally hidden behind opaque walls are revealed through glass. They are celebrated as an integral part of the visitor experience, which is enhanced by both literal and symbolic transparency.

The design process began in January 2004 and was completed in May 2010. The Center, housed in the 2009 expansion of the Anchorage Museum, represents a major addition to Alaska's cultural offerings and is a must-see attraction for residents and tourists alike.

Ralph Appelbaum said, "It is thrilling to see the emotional reaction of Alaskan Native visitors who enter the gallery and immediately recognize that they are attending a family reunion."

About Ralph Appelbaum Associates:

Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), founded in 1978, is the largest interpretive-museum design firm in the world. It has 32 years of experience in realizing commissions from museums, philanthropies, foundations, and national and state governments across the United States and in 23 foreign countries. Its portfolio includes 250 permanent and temporary exhibitions that attract 35 million visitors a year. The practice has also completed 130 commissions in interpretive and institutional planning, consultation, branding, and Web-site design, and has 50 international projects in development.

RAA takes an interdisciplinary approach to each project, calling on a staff of 145 designers, technology and media specialists, architects, writers, editors, and management personnel operating from studios in New York, London, and Beijing.

The firm has won virtually every major design award, including the United States Presidential Award for Design Excellence, the Federal Design Achievement Award, Design of the Decade from the Industrial Designers Society of America, and 140 other awards from organizations around the world.

For more information, please visit http://www.raany.com.

SOURCE Ralph Appelbaum Associates