A Product of Sharing: Designing a Culturally Adaptive Exhibit

Presented by: Kyra Christiansen, Kathleen Ryan

Principal Topic Historically, North American museums have portrayed Native Americans as dying or extinct cultures with exhibitions that were interpreted by non-indigenous curators and designers (National Museum of the American Indian (U.S.), 2000). This mode of design resulted in cultures bifurcated from their representative artifacts thereby removing their culturally associated meanings. Design of cultural exhibits has traditionally been conducted in a colonial vacuum where artifacts are displayed by the museum rather than shared by their originator. Imbued meaning and socio-cultural considerations of the Native Americans are lost in blanket interpretations via Western, empirical thinking. In doing this, many museums misrepresented indigenous populations and misinformed museum visitors about the relevant developmental history of Native Americans (Phillips, 2000). As a result, a few Native populations have sought to represent themselves by coordinating with architectural exhibit design firms that specialize in culturally adaptive exhibitions to share their story. (Lonetree, 2012). Methods The research and design intent of this project was to collaborate with Nez Perce representatives to create of the Memories of Celilo Falls exhibit in an academic anthropology museum in the Pacific Northwest. The exhibit is based on slides that were discovered in an academic library and tell a visual story of Celilo Falls before the Dalles Dam was built and flooded the area (Ullin, ca. 1940s). The research attends to the design challenge of sharing the 29 glass slides with museum visitors. The slides were labeled with denigrating descriptions of Native Americans with only brief explanations of the activities occurring in each picture. The short descriptions did not give the full story of the events that were to unfold on the Columbia Gorge and how it would change the Native culture in that area forever. Two research methods were employed to discover the content for the exhibit: 1) an in-depth analysis was conducted of the slide images to identify the person(s) and activity to uncover archival sources and 2) interviews of Nez Perce tribal representatives as host tribe to the museum. Results Life size reproductions of the slides were chosen to immerse visitors in the Native experience accompanied by culturally derived graphics to continue the story. Collaboration with Nez Perce representatives and the academic departments in anthropology and design resulted in an exhibit that conveyed the story of Celilo Falls with a living testament by a tribal member who worked the Falls in his youth. Most of the Native Americans pictured on the slides were identified through this work along with their story of day-to-day interactions, familial and cultural structures and finally the struggle to save their way of life which is otherwise submerged and lost under the Dalles Bridge present day. This exhibit is a product of sharing the cultural context, rather than the simple displaying of artifacts related to the antiquated perception of a dying or dead culture.


  • Lonetree, A. (2012). Decolonizing Museums Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • National Museum of the American Indian (U.S.). (2000). The Changing Presentation of the American Indian: Museums and Native Culture. Washington D.C. : Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Phillips, R. B. (2000). APEC at the Museum of Anthropology: The Politics of Site and the Poetics of Sight Bite. Ethnos, 172-194.
  • Ullin, C. (ca. 1940s). Photographs of Celilo Falls. PC 145. Pullman, WA: Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections : Washington State University Libraries.