The Totem Heritage Center is a must, and so is a visit to at least one of the totem pole parks. But start at the museum so you’ll better understand what you’re seeing once you get to the parks. The exhibits here will give you a good grounding in the basics, like how to distinguish a Tlingit pole from a Haida totems (the Tlingit stack one figure right on top of another, the Haida leave spaces), or how to tell an eagle figure from a bear figure from killer whale figure (you'll just have to see that one). Thirty-three poles carved in the 19th century are dramatically displayed inside the center, making it the largest collection of totem poles in the United States. Traditionally, an important part of a totem pole's lifecycles was rotting and returning to the earth. Prior to Western contact nobody would have thought about trying to preserve an old pole. But by the early 20th century, totem carving was a rapidly dying, and Tlingit elders agreed that it made sense to save these poles so future generations or carvers would have references. And that's how this museum came to be.