Moundville Museum reopens after $5 million update

By Ashley Boyd
Moundville, Alabama (AP) April 2010

The “Big Apple of the 14th century” is back in action with the imminent reopening of the Jones Archaeological Museum at Moundville Archaeological Park.

Visitors will see the results of the 10-year, $5 million renovation at the museum’s official opening on May 15. The newly renovated museum tells the story of one of the most significant Native American archaeological sites in the U.S. through modern technology and celebrated artifacts.

‘When we started planning, we had two goals for the museum. First, we wanted to bring the Moundville culture to life through immersive experience,’ said Bill Bomar, director of the Moundville Archaeological Park. ‘And we wanted to present artifacts in a way that shows their significance.’

The museum’s setup is the culmination of two years of collaboration between archaeologists, artists and Native American scholars. Exhibit designers Taft Design and Associates, made up of husband and wife team Geoffrey and Doris Woodward, were involved in the planning process from day one. The ultimate goal, Bomar said, was to provide a more up-to-date and in-depth interpretation of the Moundville culture.

‘A key to interpreting the Moundville site is the Jones Archaeological Museum,’ Bomar said. ‘Yet because of the out-of -date condition of prior exhibits, the visiting public often left the site without developing a true understanding of the greatness of the Moundville culture.’

The renovated museum has been divided into three separate exhibit areas.

The front entrance, which is guarded by symbols of Native American culture, including the ivory billed woodpecker and the red-tailed hawk atop large wooden poles, introduces visitors to the museum. The museum’s first exhibit, ‘Realm of the Sacred Rulers,’ opens the museum’s Moundville storyline. The exhibit presents a group of Native Americans arriving in Moundville bringing the daughter of their tribe to marry the Moundville chief’s son. Each figure in the exhibit is modeled after Native Americans and adorned with regalia based on actual Native American artifacts. Surrounding the figures are replicas of and some actual Moundville artifacts that include pottery, baskets, shells, beads and tools.

The second exhibit, ‘Joining of Worlds,’ continues the story with the chief of Moundville and his wife, pictured with their son and the Moundville maker of medicine, awaiting the incoming tribe. In addition to representative figures, the second exhibit houses several Moundville artifacts that have been housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian for more than a century.

The Moundville duck bowl, what Bomar said is ‘arguably the most important prehistoric artifact in the U.S.,’ is included in the Smithsonian collection.

The 35 items on loan from the Smithsonian are significant, since they were first discovered in Moundville a century ago by Clarence Bloomfield Moore, credited as the first archaeologist to ever dig at Moundville. Moore, who traveled via steamboat from Philadelphia to Moundville, took up archaeology as a hobby and found ‘the best of the best’ Native American artifacts. After taking the artifacts back with him to Philadelphia, they traveled from museum to museum and eventually made their way to the Smithsonian.

‘When (the duck bowl) was found in 1905, it created a national stir,’ Bomar said. ‘Harper’s Magazine, then the most popular magazine, did a major feature on Moundville.’

The third exhibit, ‘Portal to the Starry Sky,’ features a Native American medicine man, who is played by a Native American actor, in a three-dimensional presentation through a film process called Pepper Ghost. Throughout the film, the model performs ‘magic’ and talks about Moundville Native Americans’ beliefs in the afterlife. The key inspiration for this exhibit and traced in the other two exhibits, Bomar said, is linked to Moundville’s most important symbol, the hand and eye. This symbol, he adds, is interpreted to be a portal to the ‘path of souls.’

John Blitz, an associate professor of anthropology at UA, is confident the museum will generate greater interest in Moundville.

‘It will bring Moundville into the 21st century,’ he said. ‘People with different interest levels will be able to enjoy the museum. It will make a connection to Native Americans who are still with us today.’

The renovated museum now features an expanded gift shop and cafe that overlooks the entire 320-acre park. The museum’s placement at the far end of the park, Bomar said, offers further explanation of the site.

‘Our museum was built at the far end of the site but in the end it creates a unique visitors’ experience,’ Bomar said. ‘Where else can you go and have a Native American flutist play while looking out at the Native American mounds?’ Copyright | 2010 – All rights reserved. Restricted use only.