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Seneca Nation's rich history preserved in new $18M facility

A new $18 million Seneca-Iroquois National Museum will open today with more exhibits in a building that's three times as large as the museum's home for four decades.

The 10,000-square-foot museum is moving into a 33,000-square-foot cultural center with a state-of-the-art climate control system to improve preservation efforts, said Todd Gates, president of the Seneca Nation.

"We have many precious artifacts that could not be displayed or even properly cared for, so the new facility is state-of-the-art and overdue,” he said. 

The museum's new location is 82 W. Hetzel St., Salamanca, less than a mile from its old home for the past 41 years. 

It will be renamed the Deyonohsagwe:de' Cultural Center in honor of the community’s late spiritual leader, said David L. George-Shongo Jr., the museum director.

The opening ceremony, featuring Gates and other Nation leaders, will begin at 11 a.m. at the museum.

The new Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca opened Saturday, Aug. 4. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The $18 million dollar facility will include a dozen new exhibitions, classrooms, 3D printing labs, an amphitheater and a research room for collection and archives.

The first floor of the cultural center will house the museum's exhibits. Visitors will be able to walk a pathway of exhibits to “relive” different time periods of Seneca history.

The pathway will start with the Seneca creation story, which explains how the world began, and end with an exhibit about the future of Seneca Nation, featuring a wall of drawings by the community’s children and their interpretation of the future.

“These exhibitions will work its way into time,” George-Shongo said. “Each exhibition is going into a deeper layer into our culture.”

The flooring of the pathway was uniquely designed to reflect the changing eras and themes of the exhibits so that visitors are fully submerged in the experience.

“For example, the path of the last exhibition about the future of Seneca Nation will be granite. Because it’s the future and there is no pathway to be made,” he said.

George-Shongo said the exhibits also will retell the historical threats made to Seneca sacred lands. For example, there is a display dedicated to highlight the construction of the Kinzua Dam, finished in 1965, which flooded nearly 10,000 acres of Seneca land in New York.

“The Kinzua Dam exhibition will talk about the leadership of the time and how we got through that period,” he said. “It will also pay tribute to the council members who stood for our community when it was threatened.”

Jeremy Jones, a museum staff member for 19 years, said he thinks the Kinzua Dam exhibit will accurately document and bring the Kinzua Dam era to light.

“You aren’t going to find anything about the Kinzua Dam from any history textbooks ... I didn’t know about it until I got older,” he said.

There is also a display on stereotypes, aimed to help break the misconceptions people have about the Seneca Nation, said Albert Pauley, an interpreter and tour guide for the museum.  

“We are an advanced civilization, but the media tends to portray us differently,” said Pauley. “I still have people come to me thinking we don’t know what social media is, and it really shocks me.”

George-Shongo said the structure of the building was designed to serve different functions. For example, the lower floor of the building is custom built to include contamination and restoration rooms and a research room for collection and archives.

"So if an artifact has a mold on it, we now have the contamination room and equipment to deal with it," he said.

The outside of the building houses an amphitheater and a longhouse, which will be used as an educational space.

The amphitheater will seat around 600 people for contemporary plays and native lectures, and the longhouse – huge wooden structures that served as homes and gathering places for centuries – allows visitors to experience the traditional Seneca dwellings.

“The longhouses will also show people that we didn’t live in tepees, we actually lived in longhouses,” George-Shongo said.

The museum staff members said the new museum should attract more visitors because it will be more visible to people driving by and to tourists staying at the Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino across the street.

Jones said he hopes the new center will provide an insightful experience and share more accurate accounts of Seneca culture.

“The museum will include history you are not going to find in textbooks.” he said. “People can come here to hear it from the source.”

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