With imagiNATIONS, American Indian museum brings indigenous innovations to forefront
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imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York brings indigenous STEM innovations to the forefront. (5th Avenue Digital)
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A portion of a handmade Peruvian grass bridge hangs above the interactive exhibits in imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. (5th Avenue Digital)
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This section of the imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian highlights indigenous innovations in medicine. (5th Avenue Digital)
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Visitors to imagiNATIONS Activity Center can test their balance in a kayak — and learn what all goes into building one in traditional indigenous style. (5th Avenue Digital)
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Gaetana De Gennaro, manager of imagiNATIONS Activity Center, demonstrates how to use an Eskimo yo-yo, something visitors will get to do as well. (Nikki M. Mascali)
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Visitors to imagiNATIONS Activity Center can test their knowledge of indigenous innovations at the Quiz Show kiosk. (5th Avenue Digital)
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imagiNATIONS Activity Center visitors will learn that corn, potatoes, cassava and tomatoes —four of the Top 10 crops that feed the world — originally came from Native American farmers. (5th Avenue Digital)
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In the imagiNATIONS Activity Center at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, drawers are meant to be opened and their contents handled. (5th Avenue Digital)
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Visitors to imagiNATIONS Activity Center can take apart an igloo to learn it is not actually a half circle but a catenary arch. (5th Avenue Digital)
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The 3-D map at the entrance of imagiNATIONS Activity Center shows the locations and diversity of roughly 30 indigenous STEM innovations, as well as their contemporary interpretations. (5th Avenue Digital)
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In the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, everything is interactive — and touchable. Visitors are encouraged to open drawers, smell things, feel them and make music or play. (5th Avenue Digital)
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In this area of the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, visitors can see how indigenous peoples’ architecture reflected their environments and informed construction today. (5th Avenue Digital)
When you look at the Brooklyn Bridge or pick up a lacrosse stick or rubber ball or gobble those countless ears of corn every summer, do you think of the indigenous peoples of the Americas? You should, because without them, those things — and many others — would not exist today.
That narrative is hopefully about to change thanks to the new STEM-focused imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in the Financial District, which opens Thursday.
“We’re showcasing here everyday innovations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Gaetana De Gennaro, manager of imagiNATIONS. “Usually, schools are teaching about Native Americans in social studies and history classes, but we want people to think about these innovations and the knowledge that went into each of them.”
The bilingual interactive exhibit is geared toward grades fourth through twelfth, but kids of all ages (and their parents) will surely enjoy testing their balance in a kayak, learning about everything from tensile strength from a portion of a Peruvian grass bridge and architecture to native foods, medicines and musical instruments, including touchable rattles made from cocoons, turtles and deer hooves — and how those STEM innovations “are not things of the past. They have relevance to contemporary life,” said Project Manager Duane Blue Spruce.
“This space is so different than going through the rest of the museum, where everything is pretty much behind glass,” De Gennaro added. “Kids will have a blast experiencing this. We’re getting them to play and examine what things are made of — smell it, feel it, look at it. Some of these things are still being used in Mexico and South America.”
As visitors wind their way through imagiNATIONS, they’ll also learn how Amazonians invented a chemical process more than 3,500 years ago to make rubber, the likely surprising way an igloo is constructed, try their hand at Maya math problems and even take on weather and pests just like the Haudenosaunee people, who lived in what is now New York, did in a farming simulation.
While imagiNATIONs mixes fun with learning, the main takeaway Blue Spruce hopes for “is to show the sophistications of the thought behind these innovations and that native people were deeply involved in everything from science and engineering going way, way back,” he said. “I don’t think enough attention is given to that kind of critical thinking.”