The Alaska Gallery at the Anchorage Museum showed all the signs of a work in progress on Wednesday. Empty cases, partially disassembled displays, power cords on the ground and a forklift parked to one side filled the area.
"Be careful," warned Director of Collections Monica Shah. "This is a construction zone."
Actually, it's a deconstruction zone. The gallery, devoted to items from Alaska's distant and recent past, is in the process of being emptied this month, the first step in a yearlong process that should wrap up with the unveiling of a completely refurbished and "re-envisioned" display.
The gallery is scheduled to reopen on Sept. 15, 2017, in conjunction with the completion of a new addition, now under construction, where art from the museum's permanent collection will be displayed.
The Alaska Gallery contains much of the material that contributed to the museum's inception in the 1960s: Archeological relics, handcrafted Alaska Native tools and clothing, antiques brought to the region during the Russian gold rush eras and the humble yet practical items used by settlers in the 20th century.
Installed as part of a museum expansion project in 1985, it proved to be one of the main attractions for both tourists and school groups. The pieces were laid out in a fairly chronological order, starting with prehistory and concluding with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
On Wednesday, the section of pipeline on display had been stripped of its insulation, which sat to one side in two pieces before being moved. About half of the collection was still in position. The smaller items had gone out first, such as the ivory carvings, Gold Rush memorabilia, the meticulous model of warplanes in the Aleutians during World War II.
Bigger things, like the pipeline section, part of a Russian blockhouse and a Bristol Bay double-ended boat will be around longer, but not much longer. Shah's mission is to have the 15,000-square-foot space cleared by Sept. 2.
The last items to go will be the life-size mannequins in the dioramas. Dismantling them has been tricky, since old clothing — especially skins — can become extremely brittle. The bodies are mainly wire frames. But many of the faces are life-masks from real people, including the late elder Mable Pike and esteemed totem sculptor Nathan Jackson. What will happen to those faces has yet to be determined.
Changing technology and taste
Several things are driving the reworking of the gallery, but the primary mover is the march of time. Technology for preserving old items has changed.
"All of these display cases have doors behind them and we have things hanging on the doors," Shah said. "At the time that was not unusual, but no one would do that today," in part because of the risk posed by an accident when the door swings open with a fragile item attached to it.
Display design, air quality, climate control and lighting will all be updated in the new gallery, said Aaron Leggett, who will be the curator of the gallery when it reopens.
Even behind glass, things get dirty and distorted. "Clothing takes on the shape of whatever it's resting on," Shah said. A Chilkat robe or headpiece set on a mannequin will subtly slump and stretch.
Leggett pointed to the leather jacket of a bomber pilot from World War II folded on a cot in a diorama showing military life in the war. Over the course of 30 years it has flattened and darkened. "You can't easily tell what it is," he said. "When it comes back, we'll have it positioned so that people can really see it."
The theme of the gallery will also be repositioned, so to speak. The strict chronological approach found in older museums — the "cabinet of curiosities" approach — is now considered dull and old-fashioned, in some cases culturally insensitive or even factually misleading.
For example, a 2013 article in Indian Country Today titled "Why Native American art doesn't belong in the American Museum of Natural History" took issue with how the New York institution rolled Indian items into exhibits dedicated to wildlife. Author Katherin Abu Adal was particularly disturbed by the use of dioramas with life-size models of Native Americans, calling them "simply tacky."
"We're building the new gallery from the ground up," Leggett said. "The new space is all about how the landscape impacts people and how people impact the landscape, how they are shaped by it."
The museum hopes the redesigned exhibit will present history not as something static, but as part of a process that includes the present day. To that end, a part of the space will be used for temporary exhibits that can address things of particular interest to the public at different times.
"It will mostly be about people," said Shah, like artists, celebrities and personalities in the news. "Or it could be about science and things where science intersects with art. We haven't set a schedule yet."
Watching the workers
The treasures of the museum's second floor will be out of the gallery, but they won't be invisible, at least not all of them. Curators are taking advantage of the construction period to examine every item in the collection, piece by piece. "We're going to treat them, clean them, compare them," said Shaw.
Some items will be sent out to experts for much-needed care. But many, probably most, will remain on site. The space previously dedicated to Alaska paintings has been transformed into the "Conservation Lab." The hardwood floor is covered. Pallets hold shelves and lockers. No one enters without stepping on a sticky mat to remove dirt and dust from their shoes. No one touches anything without putting on gloves.
Here one sees the familiar items from the old gallery in unfamiliar surroundings. Kayak frames, sleds and wooden school desks rest atop shelves and cases. Bentwood boxes are neatly stacked next to one another as if in a grocery store display. Old typewriters and telephones sit next to boat models, a scythe from the Palmer Colony or a potlatch hat.
Shah compared the task of finding a place for everything to the game "Tetris," in which the player strives to stack colored tiles in an efficient manner; it was a craze at about the same time the old gallery opened.
Careful stacking is essential because conservators will need to get to each item sometime in the next 12 months. As they handle, clean and repair the pieces, the public will be able to watch. Large glass walls let people view the storage area and, when the glass is slid open, to speak with the workers. The places where people aren't allowed to go, the photography and conservation areas, will be hooked to a closed-circuit television. Workers will be on site from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday (the museum opens at 9 a.m. in the summer).
Although the collection is already available online, "the photos are not so great," Shah said. New pictures will be taken during the coming year. And artists will be invited in to examine pieces up close. With traditional skills like mask-making and embroidery, it's important to see the back of an object as well as the side that is ordinarily positioned toward public view.
Some pieces are actually easier to see now than when they were in the old cases. I was struck by a fantastic carved walrus tusk with multiple animal and human forms on it; I must have looked at it 100 times on visits to the old gallery, but could not remember having seen it before.
Leggett understood. "There's so much stuff here," he said. "I was born and raised here. I've been walking through the gallery since I was a kid, right after it opened. And I still see things for the first time."
Along the wall of the viewing area were tools of the conservator's trade, like brushes, calipers and picks. The tusk shared the shelf behind the glass with other ivory art, a veteran chainsaw and a Royal manual typewriter. In coming weeks they'll be removed and other items put in their place.
"It will always be changing," said Shah. "We'll select things as we move along."