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Morris Thompson center looking to locals to help tell the story of life in the Interior

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Posted: Sunday, November 1, 2009 1:56 am | Updated: 12:52 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

It’s taken a community to build the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center, but it’s not done yet. Local residents are being asked to provide their expertise on living in Interior Alaska for one of the center’s critical exhibits.

“We want scientists to comment on the plants, birds and wildlife, and we want historians, anthropologists and Native elders to comment on the cultural displays,” said Cindy Shumaker, the center’s executive director. “If the exhibits aren’t right by the locals, then they’re not right for anyone.”

Shumaker and her team have been carefully planning and constructing the exhibit for the last 10 years to help frame an accurate depiction of life in Alaska.

The new exhibit is housed behind the big, curious gray curved wall outside the building. “There’s actually a method to that curved wall. It houses our beautiful diorama that represents each of the seasons in Fairbanks,” Shumaker said.

The exhibit takes an unconventional and surprising approach to life in the Interior, telling the local story by way of the four seasons, as known by residents: summer, fall, winter and breakup. Along the exhibit are sample text panels and photos with information about life in Alaska, all of which is up for interpretation, according to Shumaker.

“Our goal is to finish the panels by March of 2010, but we need the locals to be the judge. Let us know if we got the story right,” Shumaker said.

An intricately detailed diorama ties the exhibit together and puts viewers immediately on the rolling hills surrounding Fairbanks, embraced by fireweed in summer and the soft, untouched peaks of snow in winter.

From moose hunting camps to the curious items often found in arctic entryways, to the sometimes stifling feel of cabin fever, to the excited howling and yelps of sled dogs, to planting vegetable garden starts indoors and buying tickets for the Nenana Ice Classic — the exhibit has captured everything that fuels the Interior dwellers all year long.

“They really did a good job at capturing the details of our lives,” Helen Rene said. She was visiting Wednesday afternoon for the first time and said being surrounded by her own local culture made her realize just how interesting life really is up here.

“I think we forget what interesting lives we live up here,” Rene said. Her favorite part of the exhibit was sitting inside the winter cabin with an old transistor radio on in the background. Outside the window of the cabin is a vast moonlit snowy field and a dog mushing display that is serenaded by an aurora borealis show every few minutes.

“There’s just something really peaceful about winter here in Alaska,” Rene said. “After the manic rush of summer, everything quiets down and settles in for the long haul. When you’re here in the cabin, it makes it seem not so bad.”

Rene’s comments and the comments left behind in books scattered through the exhibit seem to represent an overall approval of the authenticity of the display.

“If the comments are representative of the community, then so far we’ve been pretty wildly successful,” Shumaker said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised, but even that’s an understatement.”

The exhibit didn’t open until the end of the visitor season, something Shumaker was pleased about.

“Now, we have six months to get the story right and six months to accurately celebrate these exhibits with our own local community,” she said. “It’s important people feel an ownership to this building.” Shumaker said she wants the community to know that the Morris Thompson Center is not just for tourists.

The center has also provided a small study nook with computer access to local interviews from the University of Alaska Project Jukebox oral history program. Many local senior citizens have participated in the project and were equally thrilled with the new exhibit, largely because of its true-to-form display of the Interior.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Senior Program brought along local patrons who had lived the Interior life for more than 50 years.

“They all felt warm and fuzzy because these displays took them back to their earlier lives here in Alaska,” said Tiffany Corrigan, an activities coordinator for local seniors. Corrigan praised the exhibit’s authenticity. “It’s truly the way they lived in early Alaska.”

The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is free to the public and open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day through winter.

Contact features writer Rebecca George at 459-7504.

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