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.


2011 New Donations

Every year, generous individuals donate important and beautiful objects to the Ethnology & History collection at UAMN. They do this for a variety of reasons: to contribute to the rich resources of the Museum; to give back to the people of Alaska; to enhance the educational opportunities of students and researchers; to fulfill a wish of a family member; and even to get a good tax deduction. Whatever their reason, 99-percent of our collections come to us as donations and we are ever so thankful for the generosity of those individuals.

Because we can only exhibit a small portion of our collections each year, we typically put out the new acquisitions at our Open House, which used to take place in December. Open House now occurs in the spring, several months into the new year and the immediacy of the exhibition of the materials from the previous year is somehow lessened. As a way of reaching another audience, I will present the donations of 2011 over the next few days.

Donor: Candy Waugaman

Doll paddling sealskin kayak.

This doll is made from sealskin, is wearing a gut parka, and is paddling a Bering Sea style kayak, also made from seal skin. It was purchased in Arizona in 2011, was probably made in the Chevak region, and was made sometime in the last twenty years. It measures 25 x 65 x 18 cm.

Chair used by President Harding.

This small wooden chair was purported to be used by President Warren G. Harding on July 15, 1923. This was, of course, the day Harding drove the golden spike in Nenana, signifying the completion of the Alaska Railroad. Where this chair was sat upon, is the mystery… possible locations might include the rail car that transported him and his entourage to Nenana; the Nordale Hotel, which is where the party stayed in Fairbanks; or perhaps some restaurant where they ate somewhere in between? I’d love to hear from anyone up on Harding history.

Candy also donated a lovely Aleut wall pocket sewn from sea mammal intestine, and these ivory carvings, which include a walrus tusk reputedly created by Happy Jack, a group of chess pieces, and a set of igloo salt and pepper shakers.

Wall pocket made from sea mammal gut.

"Happy Jack" tusk.

Igloo salt and pepper shakers.

Ivory chess pieces.

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! 😉

The Passing of a True Friend

Museums acquire collections in many different ways. Our database lists the following modes of acquisition: Bequest; Collecting Expedition; Donation; Exchange; Fieldwork; Grant; Loan; Purchase; Transfer; and the ever-present “Undetermined” and “Various”. When the “Donation” line is selected, it often belies the true nature of the relationships that may have been established over years of communications and interactions. Just such a relationship has sadly come to an end with the passing of our dear friend Dr. Robert Lathrop, DDS. Bob was a dentist who worked in northern Alaska, starting in the 1950s, and made such a strong connection with the people in those Inupiaq communities, that he lived off the land with them, sharing their values and activities. He and his wife Petey learned the ways of the people who they served, and as such, were accepted into the communities rather than being considered just visitors.

Bob Lathrop with team leader Fluffsie, on the Kukpuk River, Alaska, March 1951.

I first interacted with Bob in 1997 while I was a graduate student working in the lab. He and his wife Petey had just made a MAJOR donation of 109 objects to the Ethnology & History department. Bob was also in the process of cleaning out a property he owned in Kotzebue, so my co-worker in the lab, Christopher Hrycko, had the extreme luck of traveling to Kotzebue to help Bob pack up some of his gear. My role was to help process that collection when it came to the museum, cataloging and organizing the objects and information.

The first thing that struck me was Bob’s attention to detail and his meticulous hand-written notes. Doctors are renowned for their horrible handwriting… apparently this does not hold true for some dentists! Bob’s writing was amazing – written with ruler-straight lines and margins, a slight angle, and a unique combination of upper and lower-case letters – full of details and heart-warming commentary. I LOVE reading Bob’s letters, lists, greeting cards, captions… anything.

An example of one of Bob's inventory lists.

In 1998 I was fortunate enough to visit Bob and Petey in their home in Anchorage, along with my then graduate advisor, Molly Lee. There we shared a cup of coffee and lots of stories, and began a friendship that continued for over a decade. In 2000, Bob and Petey donated three items – a lynx parka was added to our permanent collection and a pair of boots and a sealskin bag were handed over to the education department for their hands-on collection. They were delighted that these items would be shared directly with area school children through our educational programs.

In 2001, my curator, Molly Lee, and I had the EXTREME pleasure of finding out that Bob and Petey were interested in donating the bulk of the ethnological items that they had collected during their life in “Arctic Alaska.” This turned into a 2 day road-trip to Anchorage in the Museum truck where we worked with Bob and Petey as well as a local appraiser, Joe Crusey, to evaluate, get the stories of, and pack what ended up being 333 objects. These pieces ranged from dozens of small ivory carvings (around 87 of them in fact!) and walrus tusk cribbage boards, to beautiful and functional tools of daily life. Over the next few years, Bob made several donations, totaling another 52 items.

Bob and Petey in their Anchorage home, December 1998. Photo by Molly Lee. Copyright UAMN.

Petey passed away January 26, 2003 in Anchorage. Molly and I continued to correspond with Bob, visiting him whenever we traveled to Anchorage. In 2004, Bob made the most generous and amazing gift so far – he established a University endowment to support the Ethnology & History department, with priorities of paying student salary, of purchasing Inupiaq artifacts, of conserving collections, and for any further general support of the department.

The more time I spend working with the Lathrop collection, the more I value people like Bob and Petey Lathrop and realize how very lucky our department is to have made a connection with them. Molly Lee established that true friendship with Bob and Petey and helped me to continue the process as well. I learned from her that it’s not just about getting the “stuff” and the “money” but it’s about the relationship-building that happens and how we are changed through those relationships. By learning about the people and the lives they lived while making and wearing and using these incredible artifacts, we are better able to preserve and interpret them for present and future generations. Generations who might never see work like this anywhere else.

Some of the hand-made Inupiaq artifacts from the Lathrop collection. Photo by Barry J. McWayne. Copyright UAMN.

When we received the news of Bob’s passing from Bob’s long-time-friend Harry Harvey, it was truly a sad day. The only positive being that now Bob could re-join the love of his life, Petey. When I attended the memorial service with my colleague and former head of Development at UAMN, Emily Drygas, I was surprised to feel the bubbling up of such strong emotions that I could barely tell my story of knowing Bob and Petey.

So many students have been supported through these generous friends. Countless visitors have been enlightened about the creativity and ingenuity of the Inupiaq people because of the hundreds of objects they donated. And we will continue to tell the story of the Lathrops, because it is our job (and pleasure!) to preserve these objects and their stories in perpetuity.

Petey Lathrop steering their St. Lawrence Island umiak in front of Cape Dyer, Alaska, August 1951.

Kolmakovsky Returns

Kolmakovsky Blockhouse

The Blockhouse as it stands on its new foundation. Photo by Angela Linn. Copyright: UAMN.

It is official… the Kolmakovsky Blockhouse has returned to the UAMN. With little fanfare and only about 5 hours in labor, the little octagonal log structure that stood along the banks of the middle Kuskokwim River for 87 years is once again reassembled and structurally sound.

For now, the building sits “topless” as our log preservation specialist, Sandy Jamieson (also known for his witty artwork) designs a weatherproofing membrane and creates a substrate for our newly installed tundra moss “sod” covering. In the next few weeks the work on the roof should continue and we’ll get the whole thing placed back on top of the building.

This two-year rehabilitation and conservation project is funded through a Save America’s Treasures grant managed by the Institute of Museum and Library Services . It includes funding to preserve the Kolmakovsky Redoubt collection at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. This involves the rehabilitation work on the 170-year-old blockhouse constructed by representatives of the Russian-American Company on the south bank of the Kuskokwim in 1841, as well as rehousing and photographing the 5,000-object archaeological collection excavated by Wendell Oswalt in the late 1960s.

Archaeological items after rehousing

Artifacts from Kolmakovsky Redoubt following rehousing. Photo by Fawn Carter. Copyright: UAMN.

The full project description and lots of photos are posted at my Museum departmental project page, so if you’re interested, take a look at what we’ve accomplished so far. More photos of the archaeological collections are forthcoming, and of course, a final paper documenting the entire project will be in the works, hopefully to be published by an Alaskan anthropology or museum journal.

Too much of a good thing?

I’ve decided that one of the problems with being an “object-person” and having a blog where I share my thoughts about some of my favorite pieces in our Museum collection is that it’s hard to know where to start! Sixteen-thousand objects is sort of a daunting number when you’re creating your first post… start with my favorite piece? Start with the newest piece? Start with the oldest piece? Hmmmm. All good options… or maybe something we know all about? Or perhaps something we know nothing about… there are certainly plenty of both in the ethnology & history collection at UAMN.

I guess I’ll go with a piece I first saw in the collection around 1997, while I was working on my M.A. in Cultural Anthropology at UAF, which resulted in the exhibit and publication,  Not Just a Pretty Face: Dolls and Human Figurines in Alaska Native Cultures.

Athabascan Doll, UAMN

The mysterious Athabascan doll. Photo by Barry McWayne. Copyright UAMN.

This doll and the associated pieces (catalog number UA78-15-1AF) came into the museum collection in 1978, purchased from a man in Delta Junction, Alaska, who found it in an old trunk that he had purchased in a warehouse sale. It is Athabascan in origin, probably made in the early 20th century. It is so intriguing, for a number of reasons. My predecessor, Ms. Dinah Larsen, who ran the Ethnology department for over 30 years, made some initial contacts to help her decode the assorted pieces and parts of this doll.

First, Dinah wrote to the Numismatic Division at the Public Archives of Canada, to see what they could tell her about the coin that was found tucked into the black silk ribbon that is wrapped around the doll’s body. The response came from the National Currency Collection of the Bank of Canada – the coin is a Canadian 25-cent piece struck during the reign of Queen Victoria, produced by Heaton Mint, Birmingham, England, some time between 1871 and 1890.

The next person Dinah contacted was Dr. Robert A. McKennan, a well-known anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in Interior Alaska and wrote a number of monographs on the Athabascan people of Alaska. Dinah included a photo of the doll, mentioning her thoughts regarding the original purpose of the doll, which was not as a child’s plaything but rather something more in the ceremonial realm. Dr. McKennan agreed. “I agree with you that it must have been more than an ordinary doll, and as you know, when faced with an insoluble question like this, anthropologists generally take refuge in the catch-all phrase of ‘ceremonial object.’ Certainly the care with which it was made, plus the profusion of ornaments, suggests such a use as a possibility, and to carry such a thought further, such a ceremonial use could have been continued over a period of time from the early contact era to the modern, which in turn might account for the increasing modernity of the decorative objects. However, I know of no such use of ceremonial dolls.”

This kind of dead-end happens frequently when you conduct research on museum objects that have no documentation when they’re acquired. However, to solve the mysteries, we have to go on and use our intuition and break apart the components of the objects, to see what we can decipher in bits.

Again, from McKennan’s letter of 1979:

The hair: Human hair, done in a style that appears Tanana, Gwich’in or Upper Yukon Athabascan. Also “suggests a male, but this is counterbalanced by the straight rather than pointed hemline on the coat. The nose ornament of course could fit either sex.”

The moccasins/boots: Similar groups.

The brass clock-parts: Often used in the early days for personal ornamentation.

Gloves: Mittens were, of course, the original form of hand-wear and gloves only came in after white contact. The dangling bits on the ends of the gloves’ fingers point to a ceremonial rather than functional use.


During my coursework for my MA, I showed this doll to a number of Athabascan elders, all of whom seemed a bit uncomfortable in its presence. Little was said of it… which could either indicate that they didn’t know anything and were unwilling to conjecture, or that they did not want to talk about it.

I continue to be intrigued by this small, complicated little object. It lives in a cabinet in our doll collection, with other Athabascan figures made for sale or use. I will keep asking questions about it, and maybe one day we’ll learn its true origins. Or maybe not… and that’s okay because it’s the discussions and the ongoing use of the piece that will keep it alive.

These mysteries that present themselves to me nearly every day that I work with this collection is one of the reasons why I am so in love with being a Museum Collections Professional.

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.