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April 18, 2011

House of Snow

Building an igloo. Alaska, ca. 1924. Photo by Frank E. Kleinschmidt. Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-135985

Over Valentine’s weekend, during our Power of Chocolate Festival, museum staff tested the first prototype for one of the housing structures for the new activity center opening this fall. Even though the testing was nearly two months ago, I have vivid memories of an amazing day.

Building the igloo 1 I remember dozens of young children running at me excitedly shouting “IGLOO!!!!!!” I found this so interesting—that they know what a snowhouse is and what it’s called. Many school-age kids I see at the museum don’t have a lot of familiarity with traditional Native American culture or vocabulary, especially with cultures so far from Washington, D.C.

I thought it was remarkable that families immediately started working together in informal teams, with the young/small children on the inside finding the blocks, and the parents/older kids on the outside helping them stack them up in order as well as find some of the scattered blocks.

I overhead parents explaining how the igloo is able to stay up without anything between the blocks because of the strength of the arch, and how neat it is that the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere Arctic figured that out. A few times, though, I did have to explain that it is critical that the igloo be built in a spiral. Many visitors were fascinated to find that it isn’t possible to build an igloo without following the spiral pattern. They hadn’t realized how integral that is to the design.

Building the igloo 2 Visitors were so engaged with this activity that they had many questions, which was terrific! Lots of older kids and parents asked questions about how climate change was affecting life in the Arctic. They also had many other excellent questions like:

  • How cold does it have to be to build an igloo? Is global warming making a difference?
  • What do people use to cut the compacted snow? How heavy is are the snow blocks?
  • Are there different types of igloos? For different purposes or made by different peoples?
  • It’s neat that there’s a hole in the top for ventilation, but why don’t the fires melt the igloo?
  • Do people still build igloos? When did they start and stop?
  • What did they live in during the summertime?

(Interested in knowing the answers or posing your own questions? Visit the family activity center when it opens this fall.)

Building the igloo 3 Another aspect of the testing that amazed me is that language and culture weren’t problems—visitors from different places speaking different languages were able to work together building the igloo just fine. The blocks are numbered, and many of the children knew the numbers in both English and Spanish better than their parents did.

I did have to explain to visitors that one of the main ideas we are working to get across is that, historically, Native peoples built their homes with materials that were available to them and well-adapted to their environment. Adults and kids seemed to appreciate having this stated, but they responded that mostly they were impressed at how quick it was to build an igloo, and how clever the Arctic peoples must have been to figure it out.

We had no signage or video on this day. We will have more ways to share cultural information with the finished activity in the new space, and that will help answer some of the questions that people had. Despite this, it was exciting to have a prototype work so well on the first try. No instructions were needed—almost everyone was able to complete the activity on their own—and people obviously enjoyed it very much (both children and adults). We have since figured out a coating for the foam blocks so we don’t end up with crumbling foam everywhere, but also most visitors found it fun to be covered in “snow.” They were more concerned that they didn’t break our new toy.

Finishing the igloo

Children built the igloo over and over again (although it wasn’t clear which was more fun—building or “exploding” the igloo) until their parents dragged them away. Many, many parents and kids waited patiently to take turns taking pictures, with the kids either peeking out of the igloo entrance or from a hole (missing block) in the igloo wall. It was obvious that this activity will be a great photo-op for visiting families, as well as a very fun way to experience part of Arctic culture.

—Laura Krafsur (Tlingit/Haida), NMAI development officer

Color images: Visitors building the igloo prototype at the museum, February 13, 2011. Photos by Katherine Fogden (Mohawk), NMAI


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We're taking our grand kids over the Thanksgiving holiday. I'm very excited about it. I showed 2 of them the igloo. Now they are pumped too.

I once built an igloo in the mountains when it had heavily snowed, it was great ! Took us hours to built but the end result was fantastic, was big enough for 3 grown adults to fit inside. I think it is great activity to do with children, they simply love it! However I am still impressed that some people actually spent days living in them. It is quite amazing.

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