“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.



Museums Advocacy Day 2014

Today is the 6th Annual Museums Advocacy Day, sponsored by AAM. Yesterday and today, museum professionals and supporters are gathering together in Washington D.C. to make the case for museums. This is a national effort to share the message that museums are essential (and therefore should be financially supported in ways similar to other “essential services” in our communities). In an attempt to reach our Alaskan legislators, Museums Alaska joined with the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Alaska Historical Society to form CHAMP (Culture, Humanities, Arts, Museum Partners). Over several days, representatives from these organizations met together to learn about advocacy techniques, about each other’s priorities for 2014, and meet with legislators to communicate the essential role of these organizations to the well-being of our state.

Museums Alaska had as our number one priority, to develop new legislation to establish a matching grant program for museum capital projects, similar to the library program. Over these two days, we were able to find our own CHAMP, in Rep. Herron (Bethel). Introduced yesterday, House Bill 333 would establish a museum construction grant program. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but this first step is a major vote of confidence and improvement in the awareness of our legislators of the role museums play in our communities.

Take a minute today to tweet a comment #museumsadvocacy, post a photo on Facebook and use #museumsadvocacy to join in the online community! Museums are Essential!

My #museumselfie in the Denali Legacy exhibition at UAMN.

My #museumselfie in the Denali Legacy exhibition at UAMN.


2011 New Donations, part 3

When you’re working with a local history collection, you never know the kinds of things that will present themselves. One of the most difficult things to know is what will be important for future generations to understand our current time; what should we be keeping in order to most accurately convey our place in the history of Interior Alaska?

Donor: Joshua Reuther

Blue Marlin t-shirt.

As a former UAF student and local musician, Joshua Reuther was quite familiar with The Marlin, a local pub close to campus and known for its “close quarters” and eclectic musical performances. While working many years ago at The Doghouse (now Pad Thai Restaurant) he was given a Blue Marlin t-shirt by the owner Gerry Ostrow. As with most pubs, the Marlin had undergone changes in ownership and with that change, a slight variation to the business name. The Blue Marlin name represents the bar at a time prior to ca. 1996 when it was known for having the “best damn pizza in Alaska,” according to this t-shirt. While it may seem odd to have a t-shirt in a museum collection, we actually have 13 such shirts! We find that t-shirts are a straightforward technique for representing pop culture of a local community, with their period-specific graphics and messages. They are ubiquitous, and therefore, a veritable requirement for a history collection.

Denali cookie handed out to VIPs who attended a big-top tent celebration at Tok, AK, summer 2008.

Vehicle magnet, given to contractors to signal their participation in the project.

Flying disk, used during the summer 2011 at the Meade Site, a UAF archaeological field school sponsored by Denali.

Baseball cap bearing the Denali logo.

Also donated by Reuther, an archaeologist who works for Northern Land Use Research in Fairbanks, are a collection of items used by NLUR while working on surveys for Denali – the Alaska Gas Pipeline project. The company, an LLC of ConocoPhillips and BP,  formerly closed their operations on May 17, 2011 citing “a lack of customer support.” This controversial company was conducting the preliminary surveys to move forward on a route to bring natural gas to the Lower-48, while the state of Alaska was working on a separate route through the AGIAprocess. These four artifacts bear the logo of Denali and were distributed to contractors as part of their advertising campaign and will now help serve as symbols of this story of one of the first “boom and busts” of the gas line process.

Polar bear carving by QAY.

Donor: Grace Berg Schaible

Polar bear mother and cub, carved by QAY.

Grace Schaible has long been a friend to the UA Museum of the North. Grace is known for being Alaska’s first female attorney general (1987-1989) and an avid art collector. A major component of Grace’s collection are representations of polar bears, both in 2D and 3D. In 2011 she donated two very large whale bone carvings of polar bears, carved by Ronald “QAY” Apangalook (Qaygeghutaq) originally of Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. In these two lovely pieces, QAY uses baleen for the eyes and nose and in the single bear, walrus ivory for the bear’s claws. Pieces like this are especially welcome in the Ethnology collection because whale bone is a relatively stable medium that can hold up to more lengthy exhibition periods and slightly more variable environmental conditions (compared to more vulnerable materials like dyed skin or grass or sculptural materials like wood or walrus ivory).

"Porcupine Nest" by Craig E. Dorman, 2010.

Donor: Craig E. Dorman, Ph.D.

One of the last donations of 2011 is an incredible set of seven nesting baskets, made by the donor, Craig E. Dorman. Dr, Dorman is a past director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, retired rear Admiral and program director for anti-submarine warfare in the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. Most recently, Dorman was the Vice President for Research with the University of Alaska.

Dorman produces these baskets, known as Nantucket Lightship Baskets, now that he is retired. He documents them with great detail and the workmanship is outstanding. His innovations include tiny twists in the weavers and staves that are dyed or made from varied materials, as in these baskets. In this set of seven tightly-nested baskets there are a total of 4915 curls! This tiny detail is one of the reasons this group of baskets won the Division 10 Grand Prize at the 2011 Tanana Valley State Fair. We are proud to be the new owners of this treasure.

The inside of the outermost basket, showing the exquisite symmetry and precision of weaving.

Informational document developed by Dorman to accompany his lightship baskets.

A detail of the outermost basket, showing the upward and downward facing twists, in addition to the baleen and cherry staves.

2011 New Donations, part 2

Over 2011, we received a total of only 19 objects. This is in contrast to 2010 when we cataloged a total of 182 objects. Why the sudden drop, you might ask? It’s nearly impossible to know. In 2009 we cataloged 214 objects; the year before it was 137.

I tend to look at years like this as a much-needed respite from the sometimes maniacal frenzy we find ourselves in, trying to keep up with the paperwork, photography, custom-box-making, and the detailed descriptions that accompany every single object that comes through our doors. On average, it takes something like 5 to 6 hours to fully process every single object that we accession into our permanent collection. It can easily be double that if the object requires stabilization or cleaning, or if the custom support is complicated to design and execute. But two of the first things we teach our students who work with our collections is to “take your time,” and “be careful.”

Donor: Jackie Niemi

Jackie Niemi, formerly of Circle, donated this very unique clothing pin that is made from locally-mined gold nuggets and two small cables from the airship Norge. The pin was made by Harry Greep, sometime after 1926 (the year the Norge “landed” outside of Teller, Alaska, following the first officially-documented overflight of the North Pole). Greep was, at the time, the U.S. Road Commissioner, as well as Postmaster at Circle Hot Springs. The pin was originally owned by Niemi’s great-grandparents, Oscar and Eli (Ella) Larsen. It went to her grandmother, Ruth (Larsen) and  her husband, Roy Olson. Jackie inherited it around 30 years ago.

Donor: Alyeska Pipeline Service Company

The delivery of the pig.

S.U.N. Engineering Hybrid-B Super Pig, in operation in the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, from 2007-08 until 2010. This pipeline cleaning device was decommissioned in 2011 when they went to an all-disk pig.  Alyeska offered to replace our aging pig, that was donated to the Museum back in 1984. It has been part of our exterior exhibits since its donation, and the full-sun exposure and placement among spruce and aspen trees has caused major deterioration to its rubber components. It has been deaccessioned from our permanent collection, but will remain part of our comparative collection and housed off-site. Our new Super Pig has been installed in new custom cradles on the northern side of our building, to help protect it from the damaging sun rays, but with excellent visibility for visitors to enjoy. (See the UAMN Facebook page for a great photo album showing the delivery of the pig.)

Donor: John R. Bockstoce

Snowshirt from Red Bay, Labrador.

Snowshirt from Point Hope.

Snowshirt from Point Hope.

Snowshirt from Point Hope.

The well-known and greatly respected northern archaeologist and historian, John R. Bockstoce, in 2011 added four “snowshirts” or parka covers, to our collection. Three of these lovely, but utterly functional, garments were made by Inupiaq skinsewer/seamstress Sarah Nipiq Kingik of Point Hope, around 1974. They were worn by Bockstoce while working on a whale crew in Point Hope. The fourth was purchased at a store in Red Bay, Labrador, ca. 1995. Snowshirts are fabric covers that one wears over a parka when hunting on the sea ice. They are the ultimate in camouflage, blending the hunter into the white expanse of the northern coasts.

Inspiration in the Hawaiian Islands

Attending museum conferences can bring on a range of emotions: anxiety over flying long distances, anticipation of being reunited with friends made through years of attending such meetings, satisfaction over a well-executed collections volunteer event, respect for the ceremony associated with years of tradition, inspiration following days of presentations, networking, and impromptu intense conversations, and finally, the grounding that occurs when you return to your home institution and you try to figure out how to implement these ideas that have now taken root in your mind.

It’s now been over a week since I traveled to Honolulu, Hawai’i for the 2011 Western Museums Association annual conference. This gathering of museum professionals from the Western states was made even richer by the co-organizing of the meetings by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. Our hosts were the Hawai’i Museums Association and the Pacific Islands Museum Association. This diverse assemblage of individuals made for an exciting week, made up of sessions ranging from the practical (planning for collections moves, the joys and necessity of inventories, understanding the role of appraisals, emergency response resources in the West) to the insightful (models for reviewing indigenous collections in museums, board meetings that inspire). A particularly ingenious feature of this year’s meetings was the “Tour & Talk” option of taking three hours out of your conference schedule to go off-site to a museum (in my case, the Mission Houses Museum) to hear a talk and get a behind-the-scenes tour. Our guide spoke of a topic so many museums are (unfortunately) becoming experts at: doing more with less. His many fine examples of ways to use volunteers gave us food for thought, and the tour through the Chamberlain and Frame houses elicited in me, a sense of wonder of the Native people of Hawai’i in the mid-19th century and the changes they faced as, at the same time, Alaska Natives were introduced to Yankee whalers and Russian and British traders.

Without a doubt, however, the most fun and rewarding times were spent in the company of the many registrars and collections managers I’ve gotten to know through my four years of officership in the Registrars Committee-Western Region (RC-WR). We started our time in Honolulu with a CSI:Registrars event (Collection Services Initiative) at Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, operated by an all-volunteer organization, the Daughters of Hawai’i.

Collections Services Initiative volunteers with Daughters of Hawaii Regent Dale Bachman at Queen Emma Summer Palace. Photo courtesy of Malia Van Heukelem.

This beautiful Victorian-era home was the summer retreat of Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha IV. Filled with objects from the late 19th-century, it was a complex combination of items of the Native Hawaiian monarchy and gifts from royalty the world over. RC-WR volunteers worked for a full day to inventory all of the objects in the public spaces, making note of conditions and suggestions for improving the overall care of the collections.

The next day, many of us attended pre-conference workshops; I was lucky enough to be added at the last-minute to the “Surveying and Assessing Collection Needs” seminar held at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts and taught by Janet Ruggles, Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC) Executive Director and Chief Conservator of Paper. I’m still absorbing all that I learned this day and look forward to sharing particular insights with my colleagues at UAMN.

Over the following days, the RC-WR crowd had many occasions to laugh and learn together. Our annual business meeting on Sunday was bittersweet: the end of my term as Vice-Chair, the beginning of a new term for four energetic and intelligent women from Oregon, Alaska, and Washington. The discussion of the future of our national organization, the RC-AAM, as introduced by our Chairperson Darlene Bialowski, and what it might mean for all of us in this large and powerful professional committee, left us pondering how we would each approach these coming changes.

The final day of the conference started with an inspiring keynote address by Ralph Regenvanu, MP, Minister of Justice and Community Services, Vanuatu. His talk, entitled “Getting Cultural Heritage on the National Agenda: A Case Study from Vanuatu” described efforts to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of the indigenous people of Vanuatu, and how they are making progress towards the incorporation of indigenous concepts in the development of national policy.

As I sit in my Fairbanks home, the rumors of a first snowfall drifting thru comments on Facebook, I consider how lucky I am to have a rewarding career in a profession that fosters close relationships with colleagues both near and far. This WMA conference in the island paradise of Honolulu was a success because of all the incredible people who worked tirelessly to assemble a program that could be of use to museum professionals at all levels. I wish to send out a huge Mahalo to all of the people of WMA, ATALM, HMA and PIMA who made this happen. Now, my biggest challenge is trying not to be overly jealous of my Hawai’i friends who get to wake up to those beautiful sunrises and relax under the glorious sunsets every day… rough life you’ve got! 😉

Those Invaluable Students!

During my fifteen years at the UAMN, I’ve been lucky enough to be on both sides of the “student assistant” job title. Starting in 1996 as a fresh MA student at UAF, I managed to get hired for student wages in the Ethnology & History department at UAMN. My curator and MA committee chair, Dr. Molly Lee, saw my enthusiasm and educational background combined with a strong baseline of collections work experience and gave me a chance to contribute to our mission.

Ethnology staff using a new "hands-on" collection piece, 1996. Copyright UAMN.

During the three years of grad school, my responsibilities in the collections lab went from being a “curatorial assistant’s assistant” to being the primary collections representative under our curator. After I graduated, I was lucky enough to get hired on as permanent staff, a position I am lucky enough to still hold today, despite budget cuts and economic downturns.

As a student employee, I had the opportunity to learn from senior staff in MANY different museum departments who were generous enough to act as mentor to me. As those long-term staff retired, I have suddenly found myself in the position of being one of those holding the institutional memory and mentoring all new students who are navigating their way through the uncertain days of their undergraduate and graduate careers.

Micole (Van Walbeek) Ogletree, 2008, installs objects for a special exhibit. Copyright UAMN.

Each school year (depending on the economy), I am able to hire at least one student to work in my lab to undertake basic collections management work. In addition, each summer I take on a student intern for an intense 6-week period of collections management and exhibition development.

John Smelter, 2009, works on preparing objects for his exhibit. Copyright UAMN.

Since Molly retired in 2008, I’ve found that I have less and less time to do the work I truly love, the hands-on lab work, cataloging, making boxes, and fine-tuning of collections organization. More often than not, I have to delegate this good stuff to my students.

Jen Crane and Pascale Jackson, 2004, packing history objects for our move. Copyright UAMN.

It takes time to train new students every year and to continue to provide them with support during the day for answering questions and keeping them moving in the right direction. But what a fulfilling way to add to the academic training of our students! Talk about a win-win scenario! We are achieving our mission of education and preservation all in one activity!

Museums with connections to universities are positioned to provide such a unique on-the-job training opportunity for students, I am thankful every day of my career. Had I not been exposed to this kind of work while studying at the University of Iowa, I never would have known about the options available to me at UAF. Each year I have new personalities to learn about and new generations to “understand.”

Leah Bright, 2011, removes old numbers from new accessions. Copyright UAMN.

These young people help keep me connected to our popular culture when it’s so easy to become disassociated while working in the basement all day… the new music and celebrity icons are just the start!

Pascale Jackson, 2003, packing collections during our museum expansion. Copyright UAMN.

Young people are our new audience for the public side of our museums and it’s critical that we in the collections world stay connected to what is happening out there in our cultures… changes are occurring every day and those changes have a major influence on how our exhibits and public programs are received. I guess this is one of the small ways I have found to stay connected, while getting work done at the same time.

To all of the students who I’ve been so lucky to work with over the past 15 years, I tell you again, thank you for a job well done!

Hiroko Ikuta, 2004, removes a drawer for cleaning. Copyright UAMN.

It’s been a pleasure to laugh and share hot-glue-gun burns with you. Some of you have gone on to work in museums while others have taken a different path. What is really important is the enrichment of one’s academic life that we can help provide, in addition to that paycheck (however meager!).

Briana Brenner, Emily Chagluak and Charles Hilton, summer 2011. Copyright UAMN.

Lyazzat Khamzina and Emily Moore, 2006, examine Tlingit beadwork. Copyright UAMN.

Conservator Monica Shah shows students Pascale Jackson and Candice (Smith) Krupa some basic cleaning techniques, 2005. Copyright UAMN.

Alysa (Klistoff) Loring, 2007, and her exhibit at the UAF Rasmuson library. Copyright UAMN.

Katrin Simon-Sakurai, 2005, works on rehousing bentwood bowls. Copyright UAMN.

Stories to tell…

Wow, so here I go… my first entry in my brand new blog. What do I have that’s worth talking about today? There are 16,000 individual objects in the collection I take care of and every single one of them has a story to tell that’s worth reading about. That’s what I hope to share on this blog.

Through these blog entries I’ll introduce you to the people and places behind these things that I spend countless hours caring for and describing in my database. They might include new acquisitions, through donations by generous members of the public, or pieces that have been in the collection for decades obtained by academics or purchased through funding supplied by the State (back in the 1980s)…

I also hope to share some of my inspirations that come though attending  meetings of museum professionals or academics – sessions that help rejuvenate me… after 15 years at the UA Museum of the North, sometimes one needs a bit of a picker-upper!

So there’s my first post world. Hopefully a few of you will join in to listen to the voices of these objects.