Engaging. Imaginative. Groundbreaking. These are some of words that come to mind when describing the new imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The center’s opening aligns with the annual Children’s Festival on the weekend of May 19- 20, engaging visitors of all ages with hands-on activities and programs related to the center’s core themes.
Approximately six years in the making, the 2,000-square-foot activity center features sections highlighting the ingenuity of Indigenous peoples of the Americas in agriculture, engineering, medicine, architecture, physics and mathematics. It will not only serve the 40,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 that visit the Museum each year, but is also accessible to the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors.
A Discovery Room offers a variety of handling objects; visitors and students will have the ability to see, touch and understand the skill and intellect used to create these items. Make and Take activities, the successful Storybook Reading program and a rotating calendar of Native presenters and educators will further illustrate the subject matter in the adjoining education workshop. The workshop will also be equipped with technology that will allow webcasting and distance learning. Throughout the center’s development, six Native advisers – scientists, science educators and scholars, engineers and inventors – advised the project team, again demonstrating the influence and continuity, as well as the cultural knowledge and methodical insight of Native peoples through the present day.
What does it take to create a suspension bridge with natural fibers? Hundreds of years ago, the Inka constructed suspension bridges with ropes of grass that had the ability to hold people, armies, animals and heavy loads over extremely deep gorges. Engineers utilize the same core physics principles today when building bridges. Two thousand years ago, the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica was one of only three cultures on earth to invent the concept of zero. These are just some examples of the ideas explored in the imagiNATIONS Activity Center.
Where would we be without potatoes, chili peppers, blueberries, tomatoes and many other staple forms of nutrition? Contrary to popular belief, all of the foods represented in the center were first cultivated and domesticated by Native peoples, who also ascertained their primary uses. Genetic modification was and remains a technology developed by Indigenous societies.
Tomato domestication was a two-step process, beginning in South America and continuing in Mesoamerica. It had attained a fairly advanced stage before traveling to Europe in the 15th century. It continued to be developed there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both the tomato and potato had eventual destinations in European countries. These primary foods have become essential to global sustenance.
Many people may think of Ireland when potatoes come to mind. However, their origin is in South America with about 4,000 distinct varieties – many of which continue to grow in the Andean highlands of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Wild potatoes contain solanine and tomatine, toxic compounds thought to guard the plants against harmful organisms. Animals like the guanaco and vicuna (relatives of the llama) have learned to lick clay before eating deadly plants. Native people of the Andes also learned to submerge wild potatoes in a mixture composed of clay and water. In time, less-toxic potatoes were bred. Since they are preferred for their survival in frigid temperatures, some of the older, lethal forms endure. Clay dust continues to sell in Peruvian and Bolivian markets to complement these particular varieties.
We also owe many everyday medicines and lotions to Indigenous ingenuity. Chili peppers originated in eastern/central Mexico and central Bolivia. A total of five different species derive from the familiar Capsacium genetic line. Linda Perry, an archaeobotanist at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, determined that people in the Americas began cultivating chilies more than 6,000 years ago. Not only were they eaten or integrated with other ingredients, chili peppers contain capsaicin, which is used in pain-relief creams and patches. From Mexico to South America, Native people placed spicy chili peppers into medicines for aches and pains. Simmondsia is a shrub that contains seeds known to produce a very useful oil. In the American Southwest, tribes such as the Tohono O’odham pressed oil from jojoba seeds to treat sores, cuts, bruises and burns. Today, many soaps, shampoos and skin creams include jojoba oil.
Gaetana DeGennaro (Tohono O’odham), a member of the project team responsible for content development and management of the new center, reflected on the center’s mission. “Visitors often come to the Museum and view objects in the galleries solely as aesthetically beautiful works of art, which they are,” she says. “However, they are not always taking into account the makers’ interconnectedness with and his or her understanding and knowledge of the environment. With the opening of the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, I look forward to visitors encountering new perspectives and gaining insight about Native inventions and their impact.”
According to DeGennaro, the activity center will present Native peoples, their resilience, creativity and scientific prowess in a compelling way through handling objects, interactive media stations and hands-on activities. She adds, “Visitors will be encouraged to learn about how many different Native cultures impacted our daily life today – from the ancient Indigenous farmers of Mexico who invented corn through a process called cross-breeding to the remarkable precision used by the Inuit people of the Arctic to engineer the kayak – expertise spanning thousands of years, still very much in use.”