The Alutiiq Museum: Becoming a Center for Living Culture

Introduction Process Impact


About the Alutiiq Museum

Located on Kodiak Island, on the south coast of Alaska, the Alutiiq Museum aims to preserve and share the heritage and culture of the Alutiiq people. Both a museum and an archaeological repository, the Alutiiq Museum cares for more than 250,000 artifacts, photographs, recordings, and documents from the Alutiiq world. Originally begun in 1987 by the Kodiak Area Native Association (KANA) as a series of cultural programs focusing on Alutiiq arts, language, and history, the Museum was built with a grant of $1.5 million from a fund established after the 1989 EXXON-Valdez Oil Spill. It opened its doors in 1995, with a board of directors representing eight Alutiiq organizations. The Museum now serves the Alaska Native Alutiiq community of Kodiak Island, as well as the wider Alutiiq diaspora, the Kodiak public, and visitors to the island, engaging them in original research (archaeological studies, language documentation, and collections investigations) as well as educational programming.

About the project

The Alutiiq Museum tested three approaches to reach a new audience that they believed was curious about Alutiiq culture, but not currently visiting the Museum. Hosting events in community spaces like the Kodiak Public Library, and activating Museum spaces through hands-on cultural activities (like salve-making and slate-grinding), Alutiiq Museum staff ultimately engaged 200 new audience members through three experimental programs: Date Night with Disaster, Community History Co-Creation, and Maritime Story Share.

Starting conditions

During its first 20 years of existence, the Alutiiq Museum focused on developing professional standards for all of its programming. It was accredited in 2011, becoming just the second Native American-run museum in the country to achieve that standard. Chief Curator, Amy Steffian notes, “it was really important to show people in the Kodiak community, as well as around the state and the country, that a native-run museum, a native-governed museum could reach the highest levels of professionalism.”

Alutiiq Museum’s Executive Director April Laktonen Councellor leading a tour at the museum

Over those 20 years, the Museum helped foster a cultural renaissance within the Alutiiq community. “When I was growing up here on Kodiak Island, in one of the villages, we had little to no understanding of our native heritage,” explains Executive Director, April Laktonen Counceller. “It wasn’t in the schools. It wasn’t in the community. The language wasn’t being spoken. The arts were dying out…. Now, 20 years after the Museum opened.… we have people doing arts that never were exposed to arts in the past. We have professional artists. We have artists that are in the National Museum of the American Indian … [and] in international collections. We have people becoming fluent in our language again.”

Realizing that they had achieved their original goals, the Alutiiq Museum leaders began wondering about the future, questioning how to remain relevant in both the museum field and in their community. “We had proven both to the community here and to the broader professional community that we could operate as a wonderful museum and a heritage center,” says Steffian. “But as we looked forward, we realized that we were stale. There was a core group of about 300 folks that were members, that came faithfully to our events, but there was this larger group, a second circle of people in the community who had an interest in Alutiiq culture, who were curious, but who had not yet engaged with us in a meaningful way.”

What would it take to reach that “second circle,” the museum’s team wondered? “We needed to envision a new future for the Museum. We had been through our infancy and teen years, and now as we became young adults, what was it that was going to help drive the Museum forward?”

For Counceller, there was real urgency to this question. “If we start to fail in our relevance then we will start to fail financially as well,” she points out.  “We need to do this in order to survive. It’s not just a matter of being creative and enjoying our work as museum professionals but also our very survival is at stake.”

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About Incubating Innovation

Incubating Innovation is a year-long program of New Pathways | Alaska, an initiative supported by Rasmuson Foundation and delivered in partnership with the Foraker Group. In Incubating Innovation, an EmcArts or Foraker Group facilitator works with a carefully selected innovation team comprised of key staff, artists, board leaders, and community members to incubate and test innovative approaches that address complex challenges in their organizations. The program includes group facilitation, a five-day Intensive Retreat, a $20,000 grant to support prototyping efforts, and a variety of extended support systems specifically tailored to the organization’s needs.


The Alutiiq Museum designed three prototypes aimed at listening to and engaging its “second circle” of curious community members. They wanted to understand more about the barriers holding them back from participating and also see if they could build new connections through personal relationships and interactive programming.

1. Date Night with Disaster
Struggling with how to reach beyond their largely female audience, the Alutiiq Museum first experimented with a Date Night format in hopes that women might bring their partners to a social event at the Museum. Building off of past successes with weaponry-themed events, Date Night with Disaster allowed participants to learn medicinal salve-making from an Alutiiq culture bearer (turning local plants into “nature’s Neosporin”) and how to make a traditionally-styled slate knife. Dinner was included in the $30 (per couple) ticket price.

Twenty-five couples attended, and half of those were new to the Museum. Evaluating feedback, the Museum learned that its price point was right, that the survival training was a hit, and that couples were interested in other date night activities like a dance night or Alutiiq cooking lessons. The event showed them that creative activities were not just for kids; adult learning was a promising avenue worth exploring.

2. Community History Co-Creation
The Alutiiq Museum designed five events that allowed them to ask their community directly which topics in Alutiiq history they wanted to know more about, and how the Museum could best share that knowledge with them. Each event was designed with a particular segment of their community in mind: the Kodiak Alutiiq community, U.S. Coast Guard families (particularly those new to the Kodiak Coast Guard base), the tourism industry, and Island families who had yet to visit the museum. Each segment represented part of the “curious” second-circle audience the Museum had identified.

The events—Alutiiq History Luncheon, Tourism Reception, Free Fry Bread Friday, Coast Guard Welcome Aboard Fair, and Coast Guard Appreciation Day—all centered around the sharing of food, hospitality, hands-on activities, and facilitated conversation about topics in Alutiiq history.

Free Frybread Friday in July 2016
Young ones coming through on Free Frybread Friday in July 2016

The series started with a luncheon for the Kodiak Alutiiq community so that Museum staff could “set a foundation for understanding how [to] approach difficult history.” Specifically, staff members wanted to know: are there topics in Alutiiq history that are too sensitive to share? And, who are the storytellers? They were surprised to find out that not only did community members wish to share their history, but many wanted to learn more about the painful parts of their history and expressed shame in not knowing more.

Other events revealed very different interests. Tourists needed to start with basic information: who are the Alutiiq people? Where do they live? Newly arrived Coast Guard families were looking for activities for children, particularly safe, indoor ones, as many of them were not yet accustomed to Kodiak weather and wildlife.

3. Maritime Story Share
While preparing the exhibition of a rare, complete, 19th century Alutiiq qayaq (loaned to the Museum by Harvard University), Alutiiq Museum staff realized that they could capitalize on the boat’s connection to Kodiak’s maritime heritage and to the broadly shared community experience of living by the ocean. Staff members guessed that a maritime-themed event, hosted at a well-known community event space—the Kodiak Public Library—might entice Island residents who were not currently visiting the Museum. The Maritime Story Share was held on a Friday evening, was free to attend, and featured four community members sharing personal stories about their connections to the ocean. A local maritime historian and fisherman spoke about commercial fishing in Dutch Harbor; an Alutiiq Elder told of a boating accident in stormy waters; an outdoorsman shared a personal video of kayaking from Kodiak to Homer; and a local resident talked about catching a record-breaking 76,000 pounds of salmon on her family’s seiner.

Maritime Story Share gathering in October 2016

The event was well-attended (with more men than usual) and a post-event survey revealed strongly positive response. Staff members also noticed, however, that even with the incentive of a prize, very few attendees chose to visit the Museum in the weeks following the event. The Museum had connected deeply with a new audience, but this did not necessarily translate into increased visitation.

Shifts in Assumptions

The initial shift in assumptions that allowed the Alutiiq Museum to begin experimenting and learning, was their acknowledgement that they did not actually know why more people weren’t visiting the Museum. Rather than continuing to chalk up lower-than-desired attendance numbers to external causes (weather or a conflicting community event), they decided that they needed to go out and put the question to their community directly.

To do this research, staff members created a mobile museum booth that they set up at community events like the popular Kodiak Crab Festival. The mobile museum allowed staff to engage local residents with cultural artifacts and also ask them about their interests. What they learned surprised them, and drove the ensuing design of their three prototypes.

“There were a number of people who [were] scared to come here….” Steffian relates. “They worried that they would feel shame over the historical mistreatment of Native people. Horrible things happened in Kodiak and that legacy made some people very uneasy about setting foot in this organization. We had had hints of that before, but it had never bubbled up to the surface the way it did.”

Uncovering that there was, in fact, a “second circle” of potential stakeholders who were curious about the Museum was a revelation. “We assumed that all of the people that were interested, we’d already reached,” says Counceller. Instead, they found that this “second circle” included both Native and non-native people and organizations. They found anxiety among Alutiiq people about not knowing enough about their heritage, and fear among members of other cultures about approaching an organization that interprets a difficult history of oppression

The Museum had believed itself to be a welcoming place. Recognizing that some people weren’t coming due to fear caused a fundamental shift in how the Alutiiq museum understood itself. The Museum’s response was to try to get closer with its community, to deliberately explore the possibilities of co-creating events and sharing stories. This exploration provoked still further experiments and adaptations.

The Museum had always assumed that its programs should take place in its own building. It discovered that holding events offsite could really generate new audiences. “The library is a community space that is well known,” says Steffian. “Everybody knows what to do in a library. Museums are not quite as well known. So, by moving a museum event into the library, we met with a new audience and began to demystify what we do.”

Ready to welcome visitors

Another key shift for the Alutiiq Museum was becoming alert to the importance of personal relationships. Before examining the cultural artifacts arrayed at the mobile museum, people really wanted to talk to the staff members. “That told us that building relationships was a great way to reach across boundaries,” says Steffian. The Museum deliberately built on this insight—and learned more about it—through their prototype events.

Personal outreach from Museum staff (by phone and email) proved to be more effective at getting people to events than direct mail advertising. The Museum also found social media and the local newspaper to be more effective than they had imagined at generating a crowd. The sharing of food between people also proved to be both a powerful draw and connector. “Sharing food is a deeply held Alutiiq tradition,” Steffian notes, “and it points to a way the museum can connect with people in a fun, positive, and culturally relevant way.”

Obstacles and Enablers

The level of engagement and cooperation of the Museum’s partners greatly determined the success of each event. Much of the Museum’s goal in developing the prototypes was to build strong community partnerships. “We had some [partnerships], like the library, that were really successful,” says Dana Haynes, Alutiiq Museum’s Gallery Manager. “There’s fertile ground there. There are ways for us to interact with them and for them to have us participate in their programs as well.” On the other hand, trying to coordinate with the Kodiak Coast Guard proved time-consuming and sometimes frustrating for staff. “The culture of this military organization is less flexible than we anticipated,” says Steffian. “Trying to force the partnership was not fruitful.”

Staff members began using the term “prosperous partnership” to identify partnerships that were easy to manage and promising, and to delineate them from those that offered less reward. For a small, lean organization like the Alutiiq Museum, it was important to foster “prosperous partnerships,” and to recognize when a relationship was not hitting that bar — and let it go. “It’s really looking for those collaborations that are going to be the most fruitful,” says Steffian.

Partnering with local food vendors drew a great response

The Alutiiq Museum also focused intently on evaluation. They sought out new and novel ways to understand how successful their events were. They used staff observations, individual and group conversations, on-the-spot polls, inviting commentary on large sheets of paper tacked to walls, raffles and prize giveaways, and surveys. These methods allowed them to find out which aspects of their programming were resonating with their audience, and which were missing the mark.

“I think one of the biggest takeaways for me out of this whole project was that failure is possible and it’s okay,” says Counceller. “Because many of us are perfectionists, we feel like everything needs to be perfectly formed before we put it out there in front of the public. But everything didn’t go exactly smoothly. In those small failures, we learned just as much as from some of the big successes that we had at the same time.” Understanding their failures helped them to learn and try new things; events didn’t need to be perfect to be meaningful.

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By the numbers

Over the course of six months, the Alutiiq Museum tested and evaluated seven separate events which drew a combined total of 384 participants. The largest single event was Free Frybread Friday which attracted a crowd of 200. Overall, they welcomed 200 new audience members who had never before visited the Museum or participated in one of their programs. Through the prototypes aimed at newly arrived U.S. Coast Guard families, the Museum connected with 92 people from the base.

For a museum with a core group of 300 supporters, these numbers represent a huge success. “We nearly doubled the people that we’re engaging with in a meaningful way,” says Steffian. “And because [Kodiak] is a small, isolated community, when you make friends with one person, you make friends with other people. That’s 200 people with family and friends in Kodiak who’ve had a positive engagement experience with the Museum.”

The Museum also saw promising shifts in the make-up of its audience. At two events, attendance by men surged from traditionally minimal numbers to 40% or more.

New Pathways to Mission

The Alutiiq Museum relied on relationship-building and careful listening as key tools to learn how to share Alutiiq history and how to engage more people in the process. These practices proved transformative, and continue to guide their evolution as an organization.

Steffian describes this evolution as “moving from an organization that presents information to the public, to one that invites the public in to participate and to create.” She notes that their next exhibition will invite visitors to make art in the Museum gallery and then post to social media or add their creations to the exhibition. “It’s called pililuki, which means, ‘make them’ in Alutiiq,” she says. “Our vision is to create a place where people sit and stay. They don’t come in, walk around the gallery, and then head out the door; they feel like they can sit, absorb, investigate, create, and express.”

Visitors enjoying the Alutiiq History Luncheon

This shift is about much more than increasing audience numbers. It’s about the Museum adapting, as an institution, along with the community it’s serving. It’s about developing the ability to share and interpret not just past culture and historical narratives, but living culture and today’s stories. The only way to do this, the Alutiiq Museum discovered, is in close partnership with its community.

April Laktonen Counceller has a big dream for the Museum: She wants to see it fully realize its emerging identity as a culture center. “We will always be a museum and an archeological repository at our very core,” she says, “but we’ve wanted to expand into cultural programming in the community. We want to do programming that is beyond what an average museum does and that is part of the living culture. For us, connecting with the culture as it’s actually being lived now is a really important part of our work. I want to see that grow.”

All photos courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum.

Written by Louise Brooks. Louise manages the New Pathways program and other community initiatives at EmcArts.

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