A museum in Haines was closed this week after a staff member discovered what was found to be an active artillery round in the collections vault.
Helen Alten, director of the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, said a staff member found the World War II-era Japanese mortar round while he was going through the vault looking for artifacts to purge that were no longer relevant to the museum.
The museum considered using the mortar round in an upcoming exhibit featuring World War II battle art, but the device’s donation paperwork raised what Alten called a “red flag” — its didn’t indicate whetherthe round was inert.
Explosives specialists from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage determined that it wasn’t. X-rays revealed that at some point, someone had tried to empty the device of its gunpowder, but there was still some left inside.
The amount of gunpowder wasn’t great enough to make the round immediately dangerous to handle, which Alten said she had expected. The device didn’t have a detonator on top of it, and staff has been comfortable handling it and passing around after it was discovered, she said. Still, it wasn’t safe enough to leave in the museum.
“If we had had a fire, it would have endangered somebody,” she said.
The explosive specialists destroyed the mortar round Thursday by detonating it at what Capt. Brandon Browning of the 716th Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit called a “safe place" in Haines.
The round completely disintegrated when it exploded, which Alten said was unfortunate because the museum had asked for the fragments to be returned to the collection. Since there are none left, they’ve instead requested the photos and X-rays that were taken of the device. Those might still be included in the upcoming World War II exhibit, she said.
The 80mm round had been in the museum’s possession for more than 20 years, Alten said. It was donated by longtime Haines resident Norman L. Smith, a paratrooper who fought in the European Theater during World War II. Smith, who died in 2012, received the round from his uncle, who had served in the Pacific Theater, she said.
Smith’s son told Alten "he remembers this being in his house for 40 years ‘knocking around,’” she said.
Smith donated a number of other items as well, including a hand grenade that museum staff have confirmed is inert.
Alten said museums deal with dangerous artifacts on a regular basis. The Sheldon Museum, for instance, has darts from Papua New Guinea that still contain poison, she said.
The museum reopened on Fridat. The exhibit the round was supposed to be included in has been rescheduled to open Saturday.