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Montana Museum of Art and Culture to use native plants to teach Salish culture

The native plants will offer the opportunity for outdoor classrooms and hands-on learning
Posted at 10:54 AM, May 10, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-10 12:54:28-04

MISSOULA — The Montana Museum of Art and Culture (MMAC) was opened last year, and now they’re expanding the art education outside of the building.

The University of Montana is planting a native plant garden surrounding the MMAC. The plants are both native to the area of Missoula, but also significant to indigenous culture.

Landscaper Jenny Meinershagen designed the garden in partnership with Salish linguist Aspen Decker.

The two chose plants that were important to Salish culture, but also plants that were likely to survive in the garden.

Sitting right next to the museum, the Adams Center, and a popular campus parking lot, the garden is likely to attract a lot of foot traffic.

UM Native Garden
The University of Montana is planting a native plant garden that will surround the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.

“What I get most excited for is how eventually the activities of the facility and the campus become integrated with the garden,” Meinershagen says.

Decker got involved with the project while completing her Master's Degree in linguistics at the University of Montana. She worked as the museum’s Native community education coordinator as well.

Now, she co-owns a Salish education non-profit with her husband, called Xʷlxʷilt LLC, and creates her own Indigenous art.

Decker was eager to connect the current landscape at UM to what came before.

“My great auntie and grandma, they were all out here digging the Bitterroot at the fairgrounds and by the airport and like even right where we're at now, is a big harvesting and campsite for our people,” she says.

“Now, there's so much development on a lot of these ancestral harvesting sites," Decker continued. "And so being able to have this garden and a place for us to come is just really great for us.”

The native plant garden will be the third of its kind on the UM campus. There is a similar garden at the Oval and at the Native American Center.

University of Montana Natural Areas Manager Marilyn Marler said she’s happy to see native plants integrated into UM's landscaping.

“This museum is a big deal and people are looking at it, and I think it's an awesome opportunity to show that native plants can be beautiful and high profile and they don't look like a scruffy mess — they're gorgeous, and they can teach us just like the contents of the museum can teach us,” she says.

Aspen Decker is a Salish linguist and artist. She voices the Salish recordings inside the Montana Museum of Art and Culture in Missoula.

The plants will offer the opportunity for outdoor classrooms and hands-on learning.

Decker is working with MMAC director, Rafael Chacon, to establish educational programming around the plants.

“The museum is an educational institution,” Chacon says. “Our message is always to educate people not just about art, but about culture as well. So, the culture of this place, the Indigenous culture, this place really matters to us, and we want to be able to convey that in everything we do.”

The garden will likely take a couple of summers to fully grow into its potential, but much of the initial landscaping is already completed.