In a body of work in the 1990s — "Rethinking the Museum and Other Meditations," "A Cabinet of Curiosities, Making Museums Matter" — Stephen F. Weil, a noted art theorist, captured the museum world's attention with the notion that museums, rather than being collections of old stuff, should be centers of entertainment. Their objective should be enlivening the visitor "experience." They shouldn't worry about making their audiences think, but provide them with something to do.
The designers of the newly reconfigured Alaska Gallery in the Anchorage Museum seem to have fully embraced Weil's idea. On the evening before the grand opening last week, director Julie Decker explained the choice of the firm, from Montreal, whose people had no knowledge of Alaska history. That was apparently their principal qualification. "We didn't choose locally," said Decker, "because we knew what we'd get. We wanted something fresh."
Nearly half of the new gallery is devoted to anthropology, with a fair assemblage of predictable if interesting objects, largely a duplication of the superb Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center exhibits.
But in the history portion of the gallery, Decker got her "fresh." There are not very many actual objects there, though some are engaging, an Army Air Service daily ready board – chalk scrawls on a blackboard – recalling the dangers facing pilots during the Aleutian War, and Howard Rock's typewriter, hinting at the conditions under which Alaska Natives pursued land claims in the 1960s.
But many of the history exhibits are text or video. There are lots of self-selecting menu options of various sorts that reward with long biographies. There are several outdated Alaska Review features on various subjects, but without context. And there are lights, a whole wall of suggestive, faux neon on assorted Alaska phenomenon, again without explanation. A small, dark room with a mock campfire seems to simulate Native environments.
A cursory examination of the labeling and text uncovered a growing number of factual errors. Catherine II did not grant a monopoly to the Russian American Co. in 1799; she opposed monopolies, and she'd been dead three years. Alaska's tourist industry did not begin in the early 1900s; it began in 1882 with a Pacific Steamship Co. cruise to Glacier Bay. "Muktuk" Marston did not attend the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1958 since it was held in 1955-56. Willie Hensley has done much public service for Alaska but he was never lieutenant governor. And so on.
More substantially what's missing is the one thing a museum can offer that other venues cannot: identification with an object that immediately takes the imagination to a different time and a different understanding of life's experiences.
That this exhibit was not vetted by someone who knows Alaska history reveals a dismissive attitude toward history and little understanding of the relevance of history to the challenges of the present. The gallery theme purports to be the uniqueness of the North, but in presenting the history of modern development here, there's little to explain what's distinctive and how it conditioned the decisions people made.
It's difficult to know what to do with history in a museum, but whatever is done ought at least to be factually accurate, and should stimulate curiosity about the connections between the past and the viewer. What makes history relevant is an appreciation of how the decisions of the past shaped the challenges of the present. We do not create the world we live in; our forebears did that.
The Alaska Gallery is a simple gloss on history, meant not to be demanding or taxing, unless one wants to read all the text. Perhaps that's appropriate for most visitors, but it represents a degradation of culture, an unfortunate dumbing down.
And something important has been lost. Critics of Weil's notion observe that museums used to be about education, and the object of education is not fun; it's edification and elucidation. That was the pursuit of the founders of this museum, which began as the Cook Inlet Historical Society, an organization invisible and apparently unwanted in today's facility.
With fewer objects to engage the imagination, with the gallery mostly an entertainment venue, people won't be going there for history, and eventually, they may not go at all.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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*Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 1990; 1993; 2002
**The last three were found by Don Mitchell
***James Panero, "The Museum of the Present," New Criterion, December 2016