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Editing labels for new state museum meant finding Alaska's voice

People flood the new Alaska State Library, Archive and Museum as it opened Monday, June 6, 2016. (Charles Wohlforth / Alaska Dispatch News)

JUNEAU — I fell in love with the Alaska State Museum as an 8-year-old in 1971, when my family lived in Juneau. I can still remember my imagination tingling as I walked up the spiral ramp around a life-sized diorama of a bald eagle in a rain forest tree.

So I had to contain my excitement several years ago when asked by the curators of the new State Library, Archive and Museum building — replacing the old museum — if I would be interested in editing the labels for the permanent exhibits.

The new museum opened Monday with speeches by 10 dignitaries, including Gov. Bill Walker, and Tlingit dancing by children from Harborview Elementary School. Then hundreds of people flooded into the grand, airy atrium and the exhibit galleries that have taken years to prepare.

I felt a gulp of nerves as I watched Native elders and a Russian Orthodox bishop examine cases with labels I had written about their cultures. Everyone looks in the museum to see our own part in the shared story of Alaska.

"I cannot describe adequately the feeling one gets going through this building. You feel so much pride to be an Alaskan," Walker told the audience.

From a backstage perspective, I witnessed the staff's painstaking challenge of representing the real Alaska. It's hard, because the real Alaska constantly changes and looks different from each of our perspectives.

With Walker, I'm proud our state created this place to see ourselves and to present our story to visitors.

The institution dates from 1900 — the same exact date, in fact, June 6 — when Congress authorized it for the territorial government. The museum emerged from the territorial governor's closet in 1919. It resided for decades in the Capitol building.

In 1967, the city of Juneau completed a proper museum, with the eagle tree I remember, funded with a local sales tax, to celebrate the centennial of the Alaska purchase. For decades, it was one of the state's most important tourist attractions, just blocks from where the cruise ships dock, known as "the million dollar museum" because of its price, apparently considered extravagant at the time.

Alaska outgrew the building and, with its asbestos insulation, it would have been too expensive to expand. About 15 years ago, the Legislature bought land nearby for a replacement. The voters approved an important chunk of funding in 2010 with a bond issue and in 2014 the Legislature paid the final installment — after the old museum had already been closed and demolished.

Construction of the building cost about $100 million and planning, architecture and its contents another $39 million, said Linda Thibodeau, director of the Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums.

That money arrived before the state's fiscal crisis.

"Timing is everything," Walker said at the ceremony Monday. "It is really good timing on someone's part so we can afford to cut the ribbon."

The state's new budget will cut the division by more the 20 percent. The building was designed to reduce costs by consolidating operations that had been spread out among several buildings, but a cut of this severity means that curators will have to collect tickets, at least for now, said an employee working on the staffing schedule.

First, they're celebrating and catching their breath after three frantic years of building the new museum and creating a huge and comprehensive exhibit on Alaska's anthropology and history. (Of course, I am not disinterested in my review, as part of the team.)

Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson, a 28-year veteran at the museum, began working with Native elders and other focus groups a decade ago. He developed relationshipships with tribes and groups of history enthusiasts to gain their trust and support.

The exhibit takes on squarely the central and most difficult issue of Alaska's history, the theft or conquest — whatever you want to call it — of Alaska Native's lands and cultures by outside colonizers.

It's relatively easy to look back at Russian America and note how fur traders enslaved Native people. It is more uncomfortable to bring up racial issues in the American period, too, looking at the subjugation of Natives by the U.S. military and by protestant missionaries. One label calls it genocide.

I came to the job of editing these words with a great sense of responsibility, but the job proved much harder than I expected. I had to pare down heartfelt and complex expressions to clear, simple words visitors could take in while standing in front of a display case. More profoundly, however, I found that parts of the exhibit were talking to each other with different voices.

Henrikson said he was OK with that. Unlike other museums that treat the precontact period as unconnected from the present, the new exhibit is structured as a transparent whole through which visitors progress in time, mixing history and anthropology. Perspectives change through the eras. As Henrikson put it, you make a turn when you get to the arrival of the Russians.

We had some vigorous disagreements. I tended to push more for the objective, museum perspective. Henrikson, so close to the people the museum represents, wanted their language and beliefs to come through. And in some cases, the people represented by the exhibit disagreed among themselves, and we took that into account, too.

Overall, I was hugely impressed by the professionals I worked with. They poured their hearts into the new museum, a crowning career achievement for many, and one which the speakers on the dais said could last 100 years.

On Monday morning, workers were still hanging pieces and installing labels, some of which had left my laptop less than two weeks earlier. Monday afternoon, people flooded the exhibits. Staff members who had worked so hard were lost in the crowd.

I was happy to see kids gazing at the new eagle tree, towering three stories high in the atrium.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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