Duwamish Longhouse: First Visit


duwamish longhouse logo


My main goal for today was to visit the Duwamish Longhouse that opened last year.  I’d planned on going and bringing a camera and stuff to take notes with and all of that, but this morning I suddenly felt like it wouldn’t be appropriate to barge in there with an agenda.  So instead, I went without any ambitions to document my visit and to just try to enjoy the experience.  There was a meeting taking place so I didn’t get to poke around the longhouse like I’d wanted, but I could see inside and the cultural center combined a gallery, museum displays, and gift shop in a way that I found worked really well.  I don’t recall all of the details from my visit (such as the artist who took the really great photographs that were on display in the gallery), but somehow I don’t mind.  I was able to focus on looking at the displays and experiencing how the space felt, and overall I thought it was really positive.  Besides, it was kind of like when I meet someone and I only have one chance to make a first impression, I also feel that I’ll only have one chance to form my own first impression of the Duwamish Longhouse.  I can tell its a place I’ll be at again, so there is no rush to try and understand everything about it all in one visit. 


duwamish longhouse fern design


One of the things that struck me was a caption under a photograph in the gallery (not the “museum” displays) saying that the design on the floor of the longhouse was traditionally for a type of fern that would be used to heal nettle stings, and in the longhouse, the design was used to promote a sense of healing.  I’m really interested in how cultural content is applied to spaces and this seemed like a perfect example.  In fact, I was so struck by this idea that I bought a t-shirt with the design (above) even though they were out of my size.  I also learned from the museum displays that the Duwamish used to live in Renton and Kent, and there was a map showing how the Black River used to run between the Duwamish and Cedar Rivers before the ship canal was dug and Lake Washington was lowered about ten feet.  Since we moved to Renton when I was in the 5th grade, I’d definitely heard of the Black River before, but I hadn’t really known where it had been located.

Another thing that I started thinking about was how these designs, such as the fern design shown above and other such patterns (on baskets, carvings, etc.), could be more closely related to written language than to our contemporary notions of art.  Don’t such complex symbols that contain specific meanings seem more related to Chinese or Japanese calligraphy than to painting or sculpture?  There are precise patterns that may be derived from how a thing looks, but aren’t trying to be representational in the same way that the Western art tradition does. 


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