Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: The Alsdorf Hall of Northwest Coast and Arctic Peoples

Alsdorf Hall 1

I’ve come to think of the Field Museum as the “everything museum” — from evolution to paleoanthropology to conservation to meteors: it’s all here. Granted, some exhibitions are more rewarding than others, but the Museum seems to be committed to rectifying that. One of the more intriguing areas is the Alsdorf Hall of Northwest Coast and Arctic Peoples, which is just what it claims to be.

When entering from the “Ancient Americas” exhibition (which is the best place to start), it looks a little spooky: it’s dark. There’s a reason for that: most of the artifacts on display are made of wood, fiber, animal skins and other materials that are light sensitive: too much light will cause them to degrade, and of course the Museum is interested in keeping them in good condition. As you go through the exhibition, you’ll notice that the lights in the display cases come on and then turn off – again, to limit the exposure of the artifacts to light.

The exhibition is organized in two halves: Arctic Peoples to the right, and Northwest Coast to the left. Thus, as we enter, we are greeted on the right by an inuksuk, a sort of “place marker” used by the Eskimos and Inuit of the far north, created by Inuit artist Peter Irniq. This is balanced on the left by a totem pole created by Tlingit artists Nathan and Stephen Jackson.

The first section is on hunting, gathering, fishing — what I call “subsistence.” The display cases on each side show the tools and equipment involved in these pursuits — snares, spears, bows and arrows, harpoons for whaling, and on the Inuit side, a kayak, a sled, and even a sled dog. The signage on the Northwest Coast side notes the importance of family: hunting and fishing grounds, as well as areas where one could gather fruit and berries, were inherited. (I should point out that each case has descriptive/explanatory signage that provides valuable background information on what you’re seeing.)

The videos for this section (and there are videos for each section) feature seal hunting by the Eskimos, and hunting and whaling by the Northwest Coast tribes. (And note that the films are all vintage: this set was filmed by Edward Curtis in 1914.)

The next section, “Village and Society,” starts off on the Eskimo side with information about trade – and yes, the Eskimos of Alaska did trade (they weren’t so isolated as all that), not only with the Athapaskan tribes of the interior, but with the Chukchi of Siberia. The display cases show examples of clothing and ornaments, toys, household goods, and the like – what the Eskimos used in daily life. The signage also discusses settlement patterns and the differences between, for example, summer and winter settlements between the people of Alaska, North Central Canada, and Greenland. And no, it wasn’t all igloos. In fact, there is a cutaway of an Eskimo dwelling showing the below-ground entrance (to keep the cold out) and the raised sleeping platforms. The Northwest Coast side shows the interior of a Kwakiutl house, with carved houseposts, central fire pit, and separate rooms for different activites; the next bay show the house all dressed up for a ceremonial occasion, with carved and painted panels covering the private rooms, along with the paraphernalia of daily life. The videos portray a Kwakiutl potlatch and the how the life of the Eskimos changes with the seasons.

“The Spiritual World” shows one thing that is shared by both groups: the spiritual world and the natural world don’t have clear boundaries. Animal spirits play an important role for both groups, and the Arctic peoples hold to the belief that everything is inhabited by spirits. The Eskimo side focuses on shamans and their equipment, including a large number of masks, many of which are breathtaking in their degree of abstraction. On the Northwest Coast side, there is a strong focus on rituals and ceremonies, including ritual paraphernalia and, of course, masks. (One case on the Northwest Coast side is covered over; the explanatory sign notes that those objects have been taken off display while the Museum is working with the various groups to determine their proper disposition under The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.) The videos portray, for the Eskimos, a storyteller relating various stories that illustrate the spiritual history of the people. The Northwest Coast video features rituals and dances that were given to an ancestor by a spirit, usually appearing in the form of an animal.

“Art” is just that: examples of the art of the Eskimos and Inuit and the Northwest Coast peoples. For the Eskimos, this involves engraving, which in many cases involves very small images rendered in amazing detail (remember, they were engraving bones and pieces of ivory, which aren’t necessarily very large). There are also example of contemporary printmaking and metalwork, and again, more of those amazing masks. This section is dominated by the art of the Northwest Coast, showing examples of weaving and carving: there are a couple of groups of house posts and totem poles that are simply awe-inspiring. The videos show carving, for the Northwest Coast people, and the making of boxes (the sides made from one piece of wood, and the whole held together by a couple of pegs) – and the boxes had many uses, from storing food to holding the earthly remains of the departed. The Eskimo video focuses on one artist, Kenojuak, a young woman who is a printmaker; this one is, in my humble opinion, the best of the lot.

One exits this exhibition into either the Pawnee Earth Lodge of the American Indian hall, which, happily, is in the process of being reconceived, hopefully more along the lines of the Northwest Coast and Arctic Peoples exhibition: at present, it’s groupings of artifacts by function – tools, weapons, clothing, etc. – with little in the way of a narrative structure to hold it together.

This is one of many areas in the Museum that deserves careful study: there’s a lot of information here, and the artifacts themselves are fascinating.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.