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Archaeologists alarmed at Aleutian museum's closure

  • Author: Jim Paulin
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 27, 2015

In a ripple effect of the Russian Bible controversy, an Aleutian archeologist is worried about the future of the Museum of the Aleutians, although a museum official expects to see it reopened next month.

Archeologist Dixie West of Kansas University's Biodiversity Institute, who spoke at the museum on her team's expedition to the Islands of Four Mountains the past two summers, said the closure could impede future research. "I have colleagues who would like to study artifacts curated at the museum this summer, but they can't very well do that unless the museum is open and artifacts are accessible," said West.

"The museum's closure is a loss to all of us who study the Aleutian Islands," West wrote in a December email to the Dutch Harbor Fisherman, inquiring about the institution's future.

MOTA board member Suzi Golodoff said Monday the museum will reopen in January after the winter holidays.

Zoya Johnson resigned in November as executive director due to a controversy involving some of the museum's rare religious books, including the Russian Bible, found in her home.

At the fourth meeting within two months where the controversy dominated the agenda, Johnson received a written reprimand for an "unacceptable" violation of museum ethics, agreed to write an apology to the community, and signed her resignation. A final step was to agree to a financial settlement between the museum and Johnson. Her severance was 120 days of pay, according to Golodoff.

At an annual salary of $91,346, Johnson received a settlement of about $30,000.

In her public apology, Johnson wrote: "This situation has caused concern not only among members of the museum, but in the general community of Unalaska. I am sincerely sorry for this disruption to the community and the impact on the community."

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

The museum's annual fundraiser auction was canceled, and the museum remained closed pending the hiring of new staff.

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 to 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.

Tutiakoff said he was satisfied that she resigned, and it was time to move on, so the public could once again 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.

The controversy started when a museum employee, Ingrid Martis, found three rare religious books from the museum, while she was house-sitting at Johnson's home. Martis said she found three 19th century religious books in Johnson's home she first noticed missing when she worked for the museum as the collections manager in 2010.

Martis resigned soon after the discovery, as did another full-time employee.

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 on the Russian explorer Ivan Krusenstern's expedition while sailing around the world in 1804, according to documentation provided by the Orthodox museum.

"Those books disappeared from the museum with no paper trail," said Martis. She said that removing them violated "basic museum ethics."

But Scott and other board members said it was simply an innocent oversight, without criminal intent.

Johnson is also an Unalaska City Council member, and the city provides major funding to the museum. Johnson's 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.

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

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