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The Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska

Iñupiat Heritage Center

Location Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska
Completion 2021
Exhibition Casework Zone Display Cases

On the rooftop of North America, the Iñupiat Heritage Center is in the North Slope Borough of Alaska and tells the story of the Iñupiat people. North Slope Borough was created by an election in 1972. At that time, the Borough enjoyed first class status and exercised its powers with planning, zoning, taxation, and schools. It was the first time that Natives Americans took control of their destiny through municipal government. It was and remains one of the boldest moves ever made by indigenous people to regain control of their lives and their destinies. In 2015, the Iñupiat History, Language and Culture Division became its own department of the North Slope Borough. Colleen Akpik-Lemen is now leading the department as the director of the Iñupiat Heritage Center.

Colleen Akpik-Lemen, director of the Iñupiat Heritage Center, waiting for the table top display case to arrive at Barrow airport, Alaska

When the Art of Museum Display Case Design Meets with Climate Change

When Colleen contacted Zone Display Cases about the possibility of acquiring a conservation display case for the center, she certainly didn’t expect to be donated a high-end museum display case worth US$25,000 a few months later. It was the beginning of a genuine business partnership between a company eager to make a difference with an optimal solution and a community in need that is struggling with the radical climate change of recent years.

The Impacts of Climate Change
in the Community

Iñupiat whalers. Photo courtesy: NPS

Colleen was born and raised in the community of Utqiaġvik (Barrow), about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle and the northernmost part of the United States. Throughout her life, she has seen climate change happens before her eyes. For instance, when she was a child, at Halloween, she would go trick-or-treating in her cute little costume, underneath all her warm clothes, because it could be 20 degrees below zero. It was very cold, with big snow drifts, but today, that kind of Halloween and weather don’t exist anymore. Last January, Colleen’s granddaughter would leave her home wearing only a sweater. It should have been thirty degrees below zero, but it was seven degrees outside. At this time of year, sea ice is normally land locked on the beach with 10-feet of ice, yet the ice was only two feet.

Unfortunately, the melting ice is putting the community’s whaling activities at great risk. The cultural and subsistence activities of the Inupiaq Eskimos of Northern Alaska continue to rely heavily on the twice-yearly bowhead whale hunt. As the sea ice is not as thick as it used to be, it becomes dangerous for the whalers to go out, as they must pay attention to the thickness of the ice. If the wind blows east, they have to read the ice well, and make sure that it will not come off the shore so that they will not be blown away.

The city of Utqiagvik (Barrow), Alaska, in winter. Photo courtersy: Chengxin Sha, Arctic Design Group

Nevertheless, the Arctic has always been a very harsh environment. The Iñupiat have lived in one of the harshest climates on earth for thousands of years and have learned to adapt to each seasonal change and climate variations. For example, due to the city's position in the far north, they must adapt to a two-month period of darkness from mid-November to mid-January. Fortunately, they benefit from twilight during the day. When day light begins to return in January, they drive as far as they can to welcome the sun.

Colleen also remembers that the sea ice has been melting since 1994, causing the ocean level to rise. Winters are much milder, and summers are hotter. The Inupiat see the climate crisis every day, they feel it, they live it. In fact, the Barrow community is probably the most affected by global heating in the United States.

This is exactly why Colleen reached out to Zone Display Cases; she needed to make sure that all the artifacts in the Iñupiat Heritage Center would be safe for the long term.

The Donation

The director of the Iñupiat Heritage Center felt even more urgency to ensure the display case she wanted to purchase would provide the best optimal protection for the objects. She was exploring options of high-end, climate-controlled museum display cases to protect the sensitive objects in the upcoming museum’s collection. These custom-designed, high-performance cases are often out of reach for small museums like the Iñupiat Heritage Center, so it was not possible for Colleen to obtain this type of case at the current cost.

During this time, Zone Display Cases was touched by the culture and the community of Barrow and knew that First Nations artifacts were extremely fragile in nature. The Zone team decided to donate a beautiful table top glass display case worth US$25,000 to the Iñupiat Heritage Center.

The Exhibition

As the residents of Barrow are people of whaling, it would naturally make sense that the main theme of the Iñupiat Heritage Center's gallery is "The People of Whaling". In fact, when you enter the museum, it’s impossible not to notice in the main lobby the ‘Qargi’ area. It’s this giant whale, located in the center of the area, that makes this museum so unique.

The Conservation Standards

The first objects that were placed in the display case were from an expedition by Frederick William Beechey. William Beechey’s job was to document and map land masses. He came to the town of Barrow and there is a Beechy Point in the area named after this person who was on these Artic expeditions. The museum has obtained the original watercolor paintings from this expedition, as well as the rare books that documented this journey.

Rare and sensitive books such as these must meet strict conservation standards; they must be kept in an airtight display case made of non-off-gassing archival materials. The Zone table top display case will significantly stabilize the relative humidity with a passive control system (silica gel) and thus provide a sealed art envelope for all the Beechey artifacts.

Colleen and her team with the table display case at Barrow airport, Alaska

An Early Christmas Gift for the Community

The arrival of the display case at the Barrow airport was a very exciting day for Colleen and her team; it felt like Christmas. Since that day, they feel very fortunate to have been given a high-end museum display case, understanding the value of such a product. As of Zone team, they also feel very fortunate to have one of their display cases at the Iñupiat Heritage Center that helps preserve precious and extremely sensitive artifacts from the climate change that is occurring in Barrow.

The Whale Bone Arch, the "Gateway to the Arctic", connects Barrow's indigenous population with the sea and its traditional industry: whaling.

The Future of the Community

Ultimately, if we asked Colleen if she is afraid for her community, her response would be most definitely. Living north of the Arctic Circle means learning fear and its power to motivate in the face of danger. As time goes by, she has doubts about the longevity of the whale hunt. The real problem is that warming of the ocean is causing the whale to move away from the Barrow community. It’s also bringing new species of animals that they don’t normally see. They are seeing more sharks coming ashore, and more orcas coming into the area. This means that the orcas and sharks are killing the whales that they depend on for sustenance and that are part of their diet. For Colleen, seeing these extreme environmental changes makes her afraid for the whole planet.

“The outstanding quality of the display case donated by Zone Display Cases far exceeded our expectations. Furthermore, we are extremely pleased with the final appearance of our new display case, as well as the evident quality of the individual components that make the design of the case innovative and unique.”

Colleen Akpik-Lemen, Director Department of Iñupiat History, Language & Culture on the generous donation made by Zone Display Cases.

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