The Importance of a Word

This month I wrote a post for Arctos describing a change the Arctos Working Group recently implemented in our collection management system. I’ve re-posted the essay here, to emphasize the importance a single word can have when you’re working with diverse groups.

From “Specimens” to “Catalog Records”: An Exercise in Inclusive CMS Modification

In October of 2019, the Arctos Working Group (AWG) took a small but important step forward to more accurately represent the diverse holdings documented in our collaborative collection management system (CMS). A 2015 Github issue with the deceptively simple title “Specimen” created by Dusty McDonald after a discussion with UAM Entomology Curator Derek Sikes recommended changing out the term “specimen” with the term “record”. Sikes felt our use of specimen was confusing because of the various kinds of things that get cataloged and sought clarification with his suggested terminology shift. Like some issues, there were no comments and little to no action on the issue for four years. On October 3 Dusty closed the issue after tagging it “Abandoned.”

Sikes responded to that abandonment, expressing his sadness and his problem with the term “specimen” – the inherently inaccurate tallies of collection items resulting when one cites the number of records in Arctos as somehow being equivalent to the number of specimens in the collection. Although there is a tradition in entomology of using the term ‘specimen’ as equivalent to specimen or ‘lot’ (eg a vial full of many specimens), it is clear that confusion can easily arise if the term ‘specimen’ means more than one thing (Sikes 2015).

The discussion provided me with the opening I’d been looking for since 2014 when the cultural collections moved into Arctos. A number of my colleagues and I, who work in archaeology, ethnology & history, and fine arts collections, had long felt embarrassed and a bit ashamed by the fact that our individual objects were labeled by the term “specimen” when those items might at best, be considered by the source communities as living beings, or at worst, might be the physical human remains of Indigenous ancestors held in the collections, many times awaiting repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This issue prompted me to finally step up and address this elephant in the room that pervades all of Arctos and its associated documentation.

As I described in my Github comment, the term “specimen” is fraught with a history of trauma through institutional racism, insensitive, and often unethical, treatment of Indigenous peoples by museums and scientific collections the world over. It is a key part of the history of museums and our former ways of exerting dominance and control over subjugated people in colonial settings. Representatives of museums and colonial governments regularly stole or unethically “traded” for the material culture and sacred objects of people, removing them from their cultural settings where the objects play an important role in the expression of identity, of family relationships, of hierarchy and territoriality, as well as sometimes being the way one communicates with the spirit world and keeps a balance between the various parts of life. The term “specimen” reduces an object down to its basest level of being just a thing on a shelf that one looks at (from the Latin specere, “to look”). Specimens were things held, examined, and displayed in natural history museums. When Indigenous peoples and their material culture were included in museum collections, they too were lumped in with the animals, plants, and creatures of the “natural” world. This was in contrast to the dominant cultures, whose objects were seen in museums of history and art.

During the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, members of discriminated groups joined together to express their outrage at the lack of respect granted in mainstream culture, and museum policies and procedures mirrored these societal changes. Activists initiated a continuum of change that we acknowledge today through the discontinuation of disrespectful practices, like the exhibition of human remains in galleries, and instead undertake meaningful consultation with source communities to improve policies and procedures.

The change in the use of the term “specimen” in Arctos to the more neutral (and technically accurate) “catalog record” signals a culture shift and a willingness to continue to move forward in this continuum of change. Arctos as a CMS is growing, from a system formerly used to keep track of biological individuals and their related data, to one that is capable of so much more. Whether it’s the enrichment of the agent table to better document the biographical information associated with artists, to the increased use of media and relationships to show objects within their original cultural context, our diverse users and collections are expanding what Arctos is capable of and how it can be used to answer increasingly complicated and multi-disciplinary questions.

At the time of this post, we’ve only begun the process of removing all references to “specimens” in Arctos. The AWG has prioritized the pages most often used by members of the public: search, search results, and the object detail page. From here we will work our way into the transactions and the deeper elements of the code tables and associated documentation. It’s a work in progress, afterall!

——-

Sikes, D.S. 2015. What is a specimen? What should we count and report when managing an entomology collection? Newsletter of the Alaska Entomological Society 8(1):3-8. http://www.akentsoc.org/doc/AKES_newsletter_2015_I.pdf

Dissertation Work: Step 1 – General Survey

Those of you who know me know I’ve been enrolled in UAF’s Interdisciplinary (INDS) Ph.D. program since 2014. Working towards a Ph.D. while working full-time and being a mom and wife is no easy task, which is why it’s taken me five years to complete my courses, three field papers (comps), and advance to candidacy (May 2019). My project is centered on the past, present, and future of Alaska’s museums and I’m framing that project within these research questions:

  1. How has the historical context from which Alaska’s three large museums grown ( Alaska State Museums, UA Museum of the North, and Anchorage Museum) impacted their mission, vision, and values?
  2. How are museums in Alaska responding the the needs of modern Alaskans?
  3. How have the laws and ethics that govern American and Alaskan museums changed over the past 100 years and how have those changes impacted what we collect and the stories we tell in our galleries?
  4. What is the future direction of the Nation’s (and the world’s) museums and how will Alaska measure up and respond to these changes?
  5. How do the different approaches of sharing and preserving cultural heritage manifest themselves in traditional museums and Indigenous cultural centers, and how can each type of institution learn from the other to provide the best service to our varied constituents?

The first phase of my research involves getting a sense of what Alaskans think about our museums and how they feel while they’re in them. Are we creating spaces where people feel welcome? Do our community members feel compelled to participate in what we do? Are we achieving the most basic elements of our missions? Do our communities even think museums are relevant in the 21st century?

If you’re interested in helping me start this first step, please complete this very short survey and tell me, anonymously if you want, how you feel about Alaska’s museums and the work we’re doing. Lay it all out there and be totally honest – that’s the point! And feel free to share with your community members, especially if you’re from outside our urban centers. While my research is centered on the three major urban museums, they exist within the context of the dozens of community museums statewide. Part of my goal is also to show how much the bigger museums can learn from our smaller, community-based museums, in being a good neighbor and providing a safe gathering space for events and activities of all kinds.

Please share your ideas with me! I look forward to reading them and sharing more of my research progress on the pages of this blog. Thank you in advance for being part of this work.

Direct link to survey: https://forms.gle/8TJWe4aLPhkRcsQt6

#SaveOurMuseum – an Update

Happy August to everyone. I wanted to give a quick update about the goings-on relating to my post. First off, THANK YOU to everyone who provided responses here or sent messages of support for the UA Museum of the North. It has been so heartwarming to hear from our colleagues all over the world telling our Regents and Legislators how much our museum, and museums like us, matter to society. On Monday, the UA Board of Regents met for six hours to discuss how to move forward with the $135 million cut to our state appropriation and to directly address the Office of Management and Budget’s proposal to zero out all state funding for research at UAF and the museum. Two separate regents on three different occasions spoke with passion about the value of the museum and our collections, for preserving our cultural heritage and for holding a long record of the natural and cultural history of Alaska. No other single university unit received such a positive and strong presence at the meeting. This is certainly in part due to the advocacy efforts of our colleagues. Thank you for your efforts.

Moving forward, we believe the immediate threat to the Museum is over for the moment, but sadly not completely eliminated. As our director has stated to staff, cuts are inevitable and how much of a burden our museum will carry as part of the reduced funding to the entire University is not clear yet. Much of it depends on how our governor proceeds with the appropriation bill sitting on his desk. If anyone is still interesting in writing letters of support for the UAMN, we are encouraging them to be directed to our Board of Regents and the University President, Jim Johnsen. As the University looks toward consolidation across our massive system, letters that speak to the value of the museum and our collections can only help us retain a spot of prominence and value in the new organization.

Thank you again for the show of support on such short notice. And because I take care of the History collections at UAMN, I am of course keeping copies of these letters to document this particular chapter in the history of the museum and the university.

With deepest gratitude and humility, we turn the page for our next phase of work.

#SaveOurMuseum

By now, many people in Alaska have chosen a “side” regarding the line-item vetoes enacted by Governor Dunleavy. The most devastating to the Alaska I know and love is the $136 million line for cuts to the University of Alaska.

I have been a part of the University of Alaska, and more specifically, the University of Alaska Museum of the North, since August of 1996 when I started working on my MA in Anthropology at UAF. I worked as a student at the museum, in many departments, while working on that degree. When I graduated in 1999 I was offered a job to stay on as the collections manager of the Ethnology & History collection instead of going to New York City for an internship at the American Museum of Natural History. Oh what a different life I would have had if I made that other choice.

I have been so happy in my career at UAMN. I received mentorship from people who spent years dedicated to the preservation of collections, to research, to educating the public about these irreplaceable treasures we hold in trust for the public benefit. I have been privileged to share moments with members of Alaska Native communities that have changed the way I see the world, the way I communicate about these collections. I want others to learn to take care of their cultural heritage – to find some balance to the spiritual needs of the objects and the museum goals of physical preservation in perpetuity, for present and future generations. I have returned to school to earn a Ph.D. so I can work even harder to make our museums better and more responsive to the myriad needs of our stakeholders.

So my heart breaks when I see our communities torn apart by the threats to our educational systems, and specifically when our Governor proposes to eliminate ALL STATE FUNDING to the University of Alaska Museum, for which the state has a fiduciary duty of care to safeguard those collections. My fingers are sore from writing letters to our legislators. My head is sore from banging it against a wall as I see the messages not getting across. My heart is sore when I think of the potential losses to our communities. My soul is sore for the damage that will be inflicted on these precious collections if we can not care for them as they deserve.

And yet, we must continue to write and to share the reasons why we matter. If this funding is lost, each year thousands of students will lose access to primary resources to feed their questions (in FY18 UAMN collections hosted 1150 MA or MS students in our collections). Another 2,539 individual questions will go unanswered from the public who reach out to experts to help identify bones they found in their yards, old baskets they inherited from their families, insects they discovered in their gardens, and paintings they uncovered in their attics. Annually, over 250 research colleagues from around the world will be unable to pursue their own programs of research in UAMN collections, supplemented by the expertise of our staff and faculty who live and breathe their areas of study. The 100,000+ NEW objects and specimens added to our collections each year will just sit in boxes, or never find their way to the museum at all. And most dramatic of all, the 1,406,806,896 museum records downloaded each year from our online collection management system Arctos, will have no one to review and keep current, the information contained in the fields.

If you have been affected by what we do at the Museum, if you love and care about the future of our institution, PLEASE write to our Alaska Legislators as well as the UA Board of Regents (use the email ua-bor@alaska.edu to get a message to all regents) and tell them why the UA Museum and our collections should not be a pawn in this political game being played. The safety of our natural and cultural heritage is not a negotiating point. Our legal and ethical obligations to the Indigenous peoples of Alaska are not to be put at risk. Please write and tell these decision-makers why museums matter.

Thank you.

Guest Blog: Social Media and the Museum Worker

(This most recent guest post is from my senior undergraduate student curatorial assistant and Museum Research Apprenticeship Program student, Kate Tallman. Kate compiled this information for a poster, which she recently presented at the 2018 Western Museums Association (WMA) annual meeting in Tacoma, Washington. Social media, like this blog, is quickly becoming one of the most important ways that museum professionals relate to museum lovers around the world. Her research shows how essential it is for us to personally share what we do, how we do it, and why we love it, in order to enhance our connections with that community of followers. Enjoy this post and provide your feedback about ways you’ve connected with museum people across the globe! –AJL)

Social media is founded on the principles of community, dialog, and maintaining connections. In the past decade, organizations have made great strides in manipulating this platform to their advantage. In this day and age, it would be shocking and ill-advised for a cultural landmark, tourist attraction, or business to be without a social media presence across multiple platforms. While organizational accounts serve a purpose and can provide important information and offer insights into the brand, or the team behind the brand, they often come across as one-dimensional and sterile. There are limitations as to what an organizational account can achieve. Depending on the museum and its mission, an organizational account posting niche content, humorous dialog, and memes can come across as inappropriate, insensitive, or alienating. Few museums have harnessed social media in such a way so as to increase approachability while staying true to their mission. Perhaps most successful was the 2017 “twitter war” between London’s Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, two of the UK’s most venerated institutions.

Current social and political climates worldwide have forced conversations about institutional history, colonization, representation, and the validity of the status quo. Moving forward, how do institutions foster a sense of inclusivity with groups who may not traditionally feel they are a part of the target audience? How do you continue to democratize the museum field without sacrificing academic purpose or reverence for the artifacts for which you are charged with caring? The answer may lie in the hands of the museum worker as an individual.

While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has met its detractors, it seems that social media communication tends to prove its merit.  Unlike online workplace communication which is primarily driven by task completion, interpersonal communication is driven by participants’ desires and social psychological needs. The development of the internet has drastically changed the way people interact and communicate socially. Online communities have become one of the most important parts of people’s everyday lives.

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 1.56.31 PM

 

Kate Tallman, Belonging: Social Media, Psychology, and the Power of the Museum Worker, 2018

 

Bonding through online interaction has rules. Most importantly, the perceptions one has of online counterparts are determined by certain factors. Impressions are often based on screen name, perceived tone, and characteristics we associate with similar people in real life. This is crucial. If my associations with black women, or gay men, or Indigenous peoples are overall positive, and they are likely to be if I am a part of that demographic myself, then I will inherently form a positive perception of strangers who fit that demographic. Online trust can be developed purely through interface cues. Effusive positivity, shared interests, good punctuation, timeliness of replies, and an active presence all contribute to a more positive and familiar feeling.

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Kate Tallman, Belonging: Social Media, Psychology, and the Power of the Museum Worker, 2018

 

Viewing content and interacting with those we consider friends online increases social capital, whereas other interactions, specific to Facebook, do not. For instance, say I see two posts relating to the same exhibit in a museum. The first is posted by a friend posting about their work on the exhibit. They are excited and passionate, and they may even share behind-the-scenes information. Their post will inherently be more engaging. The second post is made by the organizational account of the Museum. They will share the historical, cultural, or scientific information regarding the exhibit. There will be information about the duration and hours you can see the artifacts featured. Depending on the content of the exhibit, they may be able to make a joke, or use a light hearted tone. In terms of social capital, the post from a friend will feel more fulfilling to read and engage with. Therefore, we are more likely to do so. Reading, scrolling, and “liking” organizational posts does not fulfill our need for engagement and belonging. This illustrates how the individual museum worker is most suited to affect change regarding a sense of inclusivity. An active social media presence, which highlights associations with historically underserved communities, and also frequently mentions their workplace in a positive light can both engender a sense of trust in the institution and foster a feeling of belonging to that institution.

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Kate Tallman, Belonging: Social Media, Psychology, and the Power of the Museum Worker, Western Museums Association, 2018, Seattle, WA.

 

How can we turn this information into a benefit to the community and the museum? Unfortunately, this is not a single action mechanism of change. More so, we must acknowledge the role that social media plays in our psychological fulfillment. Noting this, and the increasing roles online platforms play in society, the museum field must move toward more fully incorporating this information into our interactions and role in the community.

The overwhelming majority of people surveyed stated the reason they post things is to convey who they are and what they care about. The majority of social media usage is rooted in sense of self, and this is why personalized endorsements from individuals mean more to others than an endorsement from an organization. By celebrating the diversity among museum staff, and encouraging an active presence online, the organization can become an arbiter of communal change through the individual employee.

 

RESOURCES:

Cole, Jeffrey, Michael Suman, Phoebe Schramm, and Liuning Zhou. Surveying the Digital Future.Report no. 15. Center for the Digital Future, University of Souther California. http://www.digitalcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/2017-Digital-Future-Report.pdf.

Guan, Zhiwei. “The Effect of Need to Belong on Online Social Behaviors and Cognitive Interactions.” PhD diss., University of Washington, 2016. Abstract. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/38038.

Smith, Sandra Susan. “Race and Trust.” Annual Review of Sociology, April 20, 2010, 1-26. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102526.

Tallman, Kate. Belonging: Psychology, Social Media, and the Modern Museum Survey. August 18, 2018. Raw data. https://goo.gl/forms/k70QDmsUussmdDuw1.

 

 

 

Guest Blog: Indigenous Commerce Networks

(Once again I’m lucky to have a smart and creative Ph.D. student working in the lab as an Intern this summer, Ms. Yoko Kugo. Thanks to the National Park Service for partial support of her internship. Her final project was an exhibit that illustrates the diverse trade networks used by Alaska’s Indigenous peoples in earlier times. Visit the 4th floor of the UAF Elmer E. Rasmuson Library to see the exhibit in person. Contact me if you want more information!)

Indigenous Commerce Network across Bering Strait and Alaska

Indigenous peoples of Alaska traded goods with other regional groups beyond their territories and across the ocean since time immemorial. Besides some regions having hostile relationships with their neighbors, many people cooperated to establish peaceful trading partnerships. In the Bering Strait, traders waved strangers empty hands or showed them furs and other trade items. They often brought women in the visiting party. In the interior to southeast Alaska, Athabascan women married Tlingit men and helped their husbands to estimate and judge the price of trading items. This illustrates that women played an important role for each society to maintain resources and wealth in peace.

Burch 1988 235 Chukchi trade

“Tuski and Mahlemuts Trading for Oil” by Henry W. Elliot, from Dall’s Alaska and Its Resources (1870)

This drawing shows Tuski (Chukchi) brought a woman and child to maintain peace when trading goods with Iñupiat. Notice the seal skin filled with seal oil. (Burch 1988, 235)

Language is an important tool for communicating with other cultural groups and maintaining local peace and exchange. Not surprisingly, Indigenous “businessmen” were fluent in multiple languages. The Bering Strait Iñupiat were familiar with the Chukchi language, while the Tlingit people in southeast Alaska communicated with other tribes along the Pacific Northwest Coast using the Chinook Jargon.

As seen on the map of Indigenous Commerce Network (Burch 1988, 236-237), Indigenous people traded with their neighboring groups for land mammal pelts, maritime products (seal oil, skins, ivory, shells), copper, jade, and wood. Some of these same materials are still valuable for Indigenous cultures to make handcrafts and regalia today.

Burch 1988 236-237-cropped JPEG

A Map of Indigenous Commerce Network (Burch 1988, 236-237)

Some raw materials used in the trading system are …

Dentalia 

In the Indigenous commerce systems, Tlingit people obtained dentalia from the west coast of Vancouver Island. Since the interior Athabascan people valued dentalia used for personal ornament more than the coastal people, the dentalia became valuable for the Tlingit. The Tlingit people often called dentalia “the shell money.” The dentalium chief’s neccklaces were important status in the Athabascan culture.

 

0737_0001

Ch’etth’ena’ Necklace
Dentalium Necklace
Denalium shells, glass beads, moosehide, buttons, waxed thread
Unknown maker
(Tanana Athabascan) Minto  
Guilbert Thompson Collection
0737-0001 (UAMN)

 

UA99_006_0005A

Dentalia
Mr. Newton Collection
UA99-006-0005AB (UAMN)

Animal Furs and Skins

In the upriver region, the Yupiit traded goods with neighbor groups of Athabascans, obtaining birch bark to make canoes and baskets. Athabascans traded wooden utensils and land mammal furs (beaver, otter, marten, wolf, wolverine, fox, etc.) with coastal Yupiit to obtain sea mammal fats, skin boats (both umiaks and kayaks), dressed sea mammal skins, Siberian reindeer hide thongs and sinew, tobacco, and European copper and iron products.

UA70_053_0137AB_1

Piluguut (Boots)
Bearded seal, wolverine and otter fur beaver fur calf skin, red cotton and yarn, dental floss
Unknown maker
Central Yup’ik (Nunapitchuk)
Wendell Oswalt Collection
UA70-053-0137AB (UAMN)

Russian-American Influence

In 1741, after Vitus Bering’s arrival in Alaska, the Russian government claimed the territory for themselves. The Russians’ first permanent trading station was built at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island in 1784 and it established the monopoly of the Russian-American Company in 1799. Russian Orthodox missionaries traveled along with fur traders and introduced Alaska Natives to Christianity. After several epidemics decimated Alaska Native populations in the mid-19th century and Russian men intermarried with Native women, many Alaska Natives accepted Christianity.

Commonly known as “Russian” trade beads. Beads were widely and used among the Alaska Native peoples.

“Beads were valued at so much according to color: Yellow 30 cents; Red 40 cents; Blue 50 cents. Chilkat.”

(Emmons 1991,56)

UA75_062_0002

Trade Beads
Glass
Mrs. Bateman Collection
UA75-062-0002 (UAMN)

Alaska Natives’ traditional trading systems shifted from items-for-items to items-for-cash after the arrival of American whalers in the Bering Strait in the 1850s and the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. In order to obtain cash, many men and women used new items, such as commercial dye, cotton, and modern metals, applying their traditional skills to make objects for sale. Their traditional home-made tools were replaced by silverware, coffee cans, firearms, and other items. Those new handmade objects became authentic “Native Art.” Nevertheless, still today, many Alaska Natives recognize their traditional designs in their regions and perceive specific objects as a symbol of wealth. Their tool-making techniques, objects, and regalia show their identities, “who they are.”

0236_3993AB

Xaat Kákw
Spruce Root Basket, Cup and Saucer
Spruce root, maidenhair fern
Unknown maker
Tlingit
Henry Wolking Collection
0236-3993AB (UAMN)

UA74_067_0005_1

Tamlada-x̂
Tobacco Pouch
Seal gut, cotton cloth, thread
Unknown maker
Unangax (Belkofski)
Dr. Harold McCracken Collection
UA74-067-0005 (UAMN)

aIMG_8903

Exhibit at the UAF Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, 4th floor

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Yoko Kugo (L) and Angela Linn installing objects for the exhibition at the Rasmuson Library.

Selected Bibliography:

Black, Lydia T.

2004  Russians in Alaska 1732-1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Burch, Ernest S. Jr.

1988  War and Trade. In Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska. W. Fitzhugh and A.Crowell, eds. Pp. 227-240. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Duncan, Kate C.

1989  Northern Athapaskan Art: A Beadwork Tradition. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Emmons, George Thornton

1991  The Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann

2007  Yuungnaqpiallerput: The Way We Genuinely Live. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Gibbs, George

1970  Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or Trade Language of Oregon. New York: AMS Press.

Laughlin, William S.

1980  Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Oswalt, Wendell H.

1990  Bashful No Longer: An Alaskan Eskimo Ethnohistory, 1778-1988. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Zagoskin, Lavrentiy A.

1967  Lieutenant Zagoskin’s Travels in Russian America, 1842-1844: The First Ethnographic and Geographic Investigation in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Valleys of Alaska. Henry N. Michael, ed. Penelope Rainey, transl. Arctic Institute of North America, Anthropology of the North: Translations from Russian Sources, 7. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

 

The Taft Tusk and its Crazy History

The Seattle Sunday Times, Oct. 16, 1910

“FAIRBANKS MEN SEND TAFT MASTODON TUSK — A section of mastodon tusk twenty-five inches long, crusted with bas-reliefs wrought in unalloyed Alaska gold that form an epitome of gold mining in the Interior North, is an heroically proportioned desk ornament citizens of the Tanana Valley are sending to President W.H. Taft. This presentation is intended to mark the recent visit to Fairbanks of Secretary of Commerce and Labor Charles Nagel and Attorney-General George Wickersham, personally representing the chief executive. While the cabinet officials were at Fairbanks they were lavishly entertained, and became popular. At a big reception one evening, the suggestion was made by a wealthy mine owner that a symbolical souvenir be sent to President Taft as a token of appreciation.”

So begins the Seattle Times article about what would come to be known as “The Taft Tusk.” According to the article, J.L. Sale, a jeweler called “the Tiffany of the North” was to produce “the most elaborate memento ever sent out of Alaska.” When the Times interviewed Sales about the tusk, he said “It is simply a great piece of mastodon ivory, mounted with gold. The ivory was dug from a mine, where the tusk had lain for hundreds of years. It is a beautiful piece. It’s striking characteristics of color being brought out effectively by polishing.” Presumably President Taft received the tusk and the people of Fairbanks were satisfied that they had represented our community and our economy.

LOC_tusk02021v

Ivory tusk of a walrus which was carved by an Eskimo and presented to President Taft. Alaska United States, ca. 1900. [Between and Ca. 1930] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/99614746/. (Accessed July 28, 2017.)

Fast-forward to 1943, when the President of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce received a letter from Murray Galleries in Washington D.C., offering to sell a recently acquired desk set from the estate of the late Ex-President William H. Taft. “We are of the opinion that it would be of historic interest to the city of Fairbanks, and for that reason we are offering it to you prior to placing it in our general stock.” The asking price was $1000 plus 10% Federal excise tax. Several weeks later, the Chamber of Commerce wrote to the son of President Taft, Senator Robert A. Taft. “We did this out of respect for your father and the high office to which he had been elected, believing that he would get some pleasure from the souvenir and that his heirs would treasure such a gift and keep it as a family possession as long as the Taft family existed. We are disappointed to learn that this gift of the people of Fairbanks, Alaska has been sold to the Murray Galleries in Washington and that it is now being by them for sale on a strictly commercial basis.”

Through a cordial series of communications, the Taft children purchased the desk set back from the gallery and donated it to the University Museum in Fairbanks, in order to be exhibited with a short history of the presentation by the people of Fairbanks to President Taft. The desk set arrived in Fairbanks and promptly went on exhibit in a glass case, where it was “quite the center of attraction. Our mining men are greatly interested in this work of art,” according to President Charles Bunnell, who received the gift. A story appeared in the August 1, 1944 copy of the Farthest-North Collegian (p. 6). It’s here where the first inconsistency appears.

1944_FNC-photo

The Farthest-North Collegian,  August 1, 1944, page 6.

The caption and headline of the article describes the tusk as being made from a “walrus tusk” while the original 1910 article from the Seattle Times clearly identifies the tusk as mastodon. This early photograph shows the details on the piece. One particular image does made it appear to be walrus ivory, though it is often impossible to tell the difference without close examination.

0267_AccessionDocuments 28-crop

Detail of tusk (catalog number 0267-4176) and gold overlay. Notice the mottled appearance of the ivory to the left of the mountain. This may confirm the tusk as being made from walrus, not mastodon, ivory. UAMN Photo.

The tusk remained in its place of honor in the museum for many years, appreciated by visitors and student alike. The beginning of another controversy began to bubble to the surface sometime in the 1960s. In a 1968 article of Jessen’s Daily (Wednesday, Mar. 27, 1968, p. 9) Harry Avakoff describes his career as a jeweler in Fairbanks, counting as one of his major accomplishments as being “commissioned by Tanana Valley citizens to make a gold inkwell for President Taft.”

Then, on the morning of April 8, 1969, University of Alaska Museum Director Lu Rowinski opened the museum at 8:00 am and discovered the tusk had been stolen. A $100 reward was offered for information leading to the return of the tusk, “no questions asked,” according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article. People at the time were concerned that the thief would melt down the gold in order to sell it more quickly.

A search of online newspaper articles reveals that only months later, Andrew Hehlin was arrested after the Alaska State Troopers recovered five car loads of stolen property, which included the gold figurines from the desk set, but not the ivory tusk. According to Glen Simpson, who was then a faculty member in the UAF art department and commissioned to repair the desk set in 1973, the museum had acquired a large number of walrus tusks from Barrow, thinking one might have the right contours to match the gold overlay. However, no tusk could be found and so instead, Simpson carved a replacement tusk of walnut. The desk set was returned to the museum and was included in the July 27, 1973 opening of the C.J. Berry Gold Room.

One might think this was the end of the story. The tusk was back on exhibit for the public to enjoy. However, there remained, even until 1999, some disagreements regarding the true artist responsible for the design and fabrication of the tusk: J.L. Sale or Harry Avakoff. Avakoff was quoted in a number of newspaper articles on file at the museum, that one of his life’s greatest accomplishments was being commissioned to make the tusk. In 1983, Emily Avakoff, Harry’s widow, visited the director of the museum and expressed her concern that the tusk label did not credit her late husband as the artist. A number of letters and supporting documentation was exchanged, and a pair of hand-written notes with no dates indicate that “Jack Sale” made the tusk, owned the Fairbanks jewelry store where Avakoff, as well as Vic Brown, were employed. “He did some work on the tusk,” says one note, indicating that both men were associated with the fabrication of the work of art.

In the end, the museum records cite both men as the creators of the desk set, as well as Glen Simpson. The piece has been on continuous exhibit, with the exception of the brief hiatus between 1969-1973, since its 1944 donation and forms the centerpiece of our gold case in the Gallery of Alaska. You can see the catalog record and some of those records in our museum database here.

TP-16-4793-021 (WIN-4LAU14JTPGB's conflicted copy 2016-03-17)

As part of our Gallery of Alaska renovation project, the gold case was opened for photography and cleaning. Here I am removing the Taft Tusk from its mount. UAF Photo by Todd Paris.