Alaska News

Museum of the Aleutians director resigns after rare-books controversy

UNALASKA -- Zoya Johnson resigned last week as executive director of the Museum of the Aleutians, at the fourth meeting within one month at which a controversy dominated the agenda: rare books from the museum found in her home.

Last Friday, Johnson received a written reprimand for an "unacceptable" violation of museum ethics, promised to write an apology to the community and email it to the board later in the day, and signed her resignation. Board member David Martinson said the next step is to agree to a financial settlement between the museum and Johnson.

Johnson resigned following a closed-door executive session, which she did not attend, but waited in the community center lobby. Following the meeting, board member Suzi Golodoff said she wanted the locks changed at the museum.

Johnson's last day on the job was Monday. Martinson asked Johnson if she might contact donors to the museum's canceled fundraising auction, saying they could have their donations returned, or wait until the auction is eventually held.

On Oct. 12, the museum directors placed Johnson on administrative leave with pay, saying she did nothing wrong but was just forgetful. On Oct. 28, the board voted 5-2 to reinstate Johnson and reopen the museum, despite the opposition of Golodoff, the Ounalashka Corp.'s board representative, and the corporation's chairman, Vincent Tutiakoff.

On Tuesday, Tutiakoff said he was satisfied that she'd resigned and said it time to move on so the public could enjoy the museum.

"Let's move on now. She's resigned; they accepted it. Hopefully the board can get a new museum director," Tutiakoff said.

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The controversy started when a museum employee, Ingrid Martis, found three rare books from museum while she was house-sitting at Johnson's home.

Martis said she found the 19th-century religious books in Johnson's home. She had first noticed missing when she started working for the museum as the collections manager in 2010.

Martis said the books were loaned by an Anchorage religious museum that itself went out of business, leaving the Museum of the Aleutians with nowhere to return them. She said she attempted to contact Russian Orthodox officials but received no reply to her letters to church headquarters in San Francisco.

The 19th-century books came from the former Russian Orthodox Museum in Anchorage, for an exhibit entitled "Holy Ascension Cathedral Parish, the first 200 years," according to Martis. One book was brought to Kodiak by the Russian explorer Adam Johann von Krusenstern while sailing around the world in 1804, according to documentation provided the Orthodox museum, which Martis photographed with her cellphone camera.

Scott dismissed any financial motivation by Johnson, saying the books weren't worth a lot of money. But Martis estimated that a collector might pay between $10,000 and $30,000. The Orthodox museum valued the Bible at $1,000.

"Those books disappeared from the museum with no paper trail," said Martis. She said that removing them violated "basic museum ethics." The museum's locked collection area is specially equipped with temperature controls to keep the historic items well-preserved, she said.

But Scott said it was simply an oversight, "out of sight, out of mind," she said.

Johnson is also an Unalaska City Council member, and the city provides major funding to the museum. Johnson's $91,346 salary includes $56,000 from the city, according to the museum's request for a $294,196 grant from the city for the current fiscal year. The museum's total annual budget is $676, 215.

Said former museum director Rick Knecht via email, "The climate controlled, secure and professionally monitored environment is what the museum provides so that our collective heritage can be preserved for the public good. There are multiple procedural, ethical and legal safeguards built into museum practice to keep this kind of thing from happening and enforcement of these is a primary duty of the museum staff and board. I can find no conceivable excuse for Zoya's actions here."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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