“Why do you have that?”

Sometimes the “value” of museum objects and specimens are not totally clear to everyone within a multi-disciplinary museum like the UA Museum of the North. Even other professionals who have similar academic backgrounds might be confounded when walking into the Ethnology & History lab to examine new acquisitions being processed by myself or our department staff.

Today’s query came from our Curator of Archaeology, who also happens to be my husband. “Why do you have that?” he asked as he entered the lab, motioning to a large object I had just finished cataloging and photographing. I turned to see what he was referring to, ready to provide the historical context of items ranging from a gold mining tool chest, a Yukon match tin, Alaska Native baskets, polar bear sculptures, and the item in question, a sample of the exterior wall construction of the renovated museum building from ca. 2005 (UA2015-007-0003).


Museum wall section demonstrating the construction of the exterior walls. UA2015-007-0003. UAMN Photo.


This model was used by the Museum’s Alaska architects of record, GDM, Inc. for public events to demonstrate the incredible lengths the engineers went to in order to build a stable and tight building envelope to house our irreplaceable collections. Last year the museum’s acquisitions committee approved the transfer from the Exhibition & Design department, where the wall section had been stored for the past ten years, into the History collection for long-term curation. This process transforms the wall section from an “object” to an “artifact.” Once this transition occurs, this item joins a growing collection that helps to document the 90-year history of the University of Alaska Museum.

Items in the history collection that document the museum’s changes over time include t-shirts, employee name badges, brochures, magnets, and blankets. These items show the museum logo and the way the museum represented itself to the public through souvenirs sold in our store. We also have items that relate to the building itself. Documenting the 2006 renovation, we have items like the wall sample, but we also have symbolic artifacts like one of the golden spades used during the 2002 groundbreaking ceremony by Museum Director Aldona Jonaitis (UA2002-017-0001); the first piece of the museum building that was knocked off for the renovation process (UA2006-002-0007); and two impressive architectural models of the building that represent two very different visions of the expanded and renovated museum (UA2015-007-0001 and UA2015-007-0002AD).


A ca. 1994 architectural model of a proposed expansion design of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Made by Bezek-Durst-Seiser Architecture and Planning, Anchorage. UA2015-007-0001. UAMN Photo.


Architectural model of the actual design for the UA Museum of the North, designed by HGA Architects and Engineers and constructed by Feyereisen Studios, both of Minneapolis, MN. UA2015-007-0002AD. UAMN Photo.

Some of these items, on their own, might warrant a question from a curious passer-by, about the “museum quality” nature of the collections. Do paper shipping labels, shopping bags, and post cards tell us anything about the nature of the museum, about the institutional values, or the role of the institution in the community? Some more than others, but as the collection grows and is supplemented by historical photographs, museum-produced videos, and oral histories, these ephemeral items that were designed to be part of the every day operation and business of the museum, will help illustrate the our growth into a world-class research museum of natural, cultural, and art history focused on the circumpolar north.


University of Alaska Museum, ca. 1951. Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, UAF; John Sigler Photograph Collection. UAF-2004-111-1140.


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