Construction-related activities will resume Oct. 1 at the American Indian Cultural Center & Museum near downtown Oklahoma City, with the intent of opening to the public in April 2021, the board of the Native American Cultural & Educational Authority learned Thursday. “We’re moving forward and it’s not going to be too long before you’ll see activity up here at the site,” said James Pepper Henry, the center’s director and chief executive officer of its foundation.
The first earth will be turned in the Hall of the Peoples, the space to be enclosed by glass installed in the white arch that, from a distance, is the center’s most iconic feature. Work finishing other parts of the complex will begin in earnest as financing details are wrapped up.
Work can begin soon on the Hall of the Peoples and by beginning there “we can show everybody the project is underway not only on paper but on-site,” said Tom Wilson, president and principal of ADG, the construction management consulting firm. Pepper Henry, of the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma, began his tenure at the center June 19, arriving from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, where he was executive director.
Pepper Henry said he had begun reviewing plans for the center and exhibits, reconnecting with architecture and exhibit planning firms that worked on the center more than a decade ago.
Originally a state project, construction of the center began in 2006. Work was suspended in 2012 when funding was reduced to a maintenance level for the state authority building it.
The Oklahoma Legislature agreed on a plan in 2015 to revive and open the center, combining state funds, private and tribal pledges, and $9 million promised by the Oklahoma City Council.
Pepper Henry said the building designs are being updated to incorporate technology that has evolved since the center’s conception.
Exhibit plans are being re-examined and interior designs revisited with the intent of producing a “very Oklahoma-centric aesthetic inside of the facility.”
Pepper Henry said the original exhibit plans emphasized the common circumstances of tribes’ experience in coming to Oklahoma and their arrival in Indian Territory.
The tribes share common experiences of being uprooted from ancestral lands and relocated to Oklahoma — but each of the 39 has a story all its own, Pepper Henry said.
“There’s so many stories to be told,” he said.
Technology unavailable a decade ago could close the gap.
Tech could allow visitors to choose a tribe of particular interest and, while getting a general overview, receive focused information on that tribe.
Pepper Henry compared the concept to the visitor experience at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, where he said visitors choose a favorite team and receive a smart card that activates displays on their team as they move through the galleries.
Completing construction of the partially finished Cultural Center & Museum is expected to take 24 months, with another 12 months to get exhibits and galleries in shape.
Planning a spring opening addresses practical and cultural considerations, Pepper Henry said.
“By opening in the spring,” he said, we catch the end of the school year and it will give us a boost into the summer tourism season.
“From a cultural perspective, many of our tribes see the springtime, April in particular, as first thunder — that’s when the rains return to Oklahoma, everything is refreshed.”
The renewal metaphor would be appropriate for the center as it prepares to welcome visitors, after the decades of fits and starts endured on its way to completion, he said.