Author Archive

What’s cooler than being cool?

July 30, 2009

ICE COLD!

So this past week I got to experience one of the joys of collections management: mold. Yes, as it turns out our entire basket collection has at some point in the past 30 years been exposed to that festering nemesis of the collections manager. Complicating things further was the fact that as a small museum, we were ill equipped to deal with such developments. I knew that the best way to deal with the problem was to freeze the baskets. This would hopefully kill any active spores on the baskets. But where oh where to find a freezer that could accommodate this?

old baskets display(Holy baskets, batman!)

Also, while that’s most of them, there were more than what’s shown here. Well, our first thought was the school. They have a gigantic walk-in freezer, but weren’t comfortable with us putting moldy baskets in it, even if they were wrapped up and the whole point was that the cold would kill the mold. Honestly, I can’t really blame them, it’s kind of a gross proposal. After the school I thought maybe the Fish and Game office could help us out. Alas, they do not have a freezer. Then I thought well maybe Fish and Wildlife does. Yes, they have one, but it’s broken. No dice. However, the guy at Fish and Wildlife suggested we try the hospital or the cannery. The hospital was going to have the same issue with us that the school did, so we went straight to the cannery. Because, duh, of course they have huge freezers. I was apprehensive, though, and concerned they too would take issue with putting moldy baskets in where food is usually kept. But no! Success! Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc. saved the day, allowing us to store our baskets in their deep freeze for 24 hours. So last week the kids helped me wrap each basket in either a taped up garbage bag or ziploc and get them into the office. And then over the weekend Deb and I transported the packaged baskets to the cannery freezer, where they spent Sunday night at -40 degrees (brrrrr). Monday afternoon Deb and I went to retrieve them and brought them back to the museum where they thawed out for the next 24 hours. And Tuesday, Brittany and I set to work unwrapping each basket and placing it back in its case.

I have to admit, I was really nervous about the whole thing. Seeing as I’d never undertaken that kind of conservation on my own before, I was terrified I’d do it wrong and cause even more damage to the objects. But again, no! Everything turned out marvelously. The baskets weren’t exposed to any moisture, there doesn’t appear to be any new mold deveoping (of course only time will tell with that), and their new arrangement in the case is pretty snazzy if I do say so myself.

new baskets display(You probably can’t tell the difference, from photos alone, but trust me, it’s waaaaaay different in person.)

So despite all of the false starts and failed leads, I was really impressed with how willing everyone was to help. I think it’s really cool how people in Dillingham really seem to get behind the museum. Even if they don’t necessarily visit it all that often, they’re pretty much all willing to help out in some small way, if they can. Which is nice. It really is a community center.

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Dance Party!

July 17, 2009

Your long overdue obecjt of the week (past several weeks).

Dancing is a major part of traditional Yup’ik culture. Every major celebration/festival/gathering includes elaborate dances accompanied by drumming.

Yup'ik Dancing

(Camai Dance in Bethel, AK)

Part of the dance regalia for men and women alike are dance fans (the Fenimore Art Museum has at least one pair). They are worn on the hands almost like brass knuckles, the fingers fitting into 1-3 holes on the base. Then there’s a circular part that sticks up off the hand and is usually decorated with feathers or fur.

Dance Fans

(A pair of dance fans in the collection at the Sam Fox Museum.)

Dance Fans

(Another pair of dance fans from the collection of the Sam Fox Museum.)

So now for the interesting part. The first pair of fans are a woman’s, the second pair are a man’s. How can I tell? Women’s fans are traditionally made of grass, and in the same style as woven grass baskets,¬†a traditional female art. Men’s fans are carved out of bone or ivory, a traditionally male past time.

The first pair are from Nome, AK and their maker is unknown. The second pair were made right here in Dillingham by Sam Fox himself.

Anyway, I hope to see some Yup’ik dancing in about a week. I’ll be sure to post pictures of fans such as these in action.

Mukluks, and Parkas, and Dolls, Oh My!

July 9, 2009

Well, folks, things have been kind of nutty out here on the edge of everything. But nutty in a good way.

Brittany and I have been working feverishly to get through our inventory of the collection. For those of you who have never done an inventory here’s how it works.

  1. Take an object out of it’s case.
  2. Identify it by it’s object id (if it even has one).
  3. Find any previously existing records of the object.
  4. Describe the object.
  5. Do a condition report for the object.
  6. Photograph the object.
  7. Put it back where it came from.

Pretty simple stuff, right? Well, yeah, it is. But it has to be done. So far we’ve worked our way through a case full of dolls by local native artists, a case of mukluks (go ahead, click the link, you know you want to, trust me, you’ll be sorry you didn’t), a case of parkas, a case of ivory, and we’re currently working on a case of baskets.

Brittany in the doll case(Brittany had to climb into the case to get some of the dolls out. She’s a trooper.)

Attack of the Parkas(Me looking creepy in a case full of parkas. The face mask was supposed to keep me from having an asthma attack what with all the dust and whatnot in that case. While I didn’t have a full out attack, breathing was difficult for a few days.)

I think everyone reading this knows that I have no intention of becoming a collections manager when I leave CGP. I am much more interested in how people can connect with collections and learn from them than in how they should be preserved. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad someone’s thinking about preservation, I just don’t want that person to be me.)

So how am I staying sane out here in Alaska getting experience in a job I’m not that interested in pursuing post-graduate school? Brittany. That’s how. And her friends. This may seem corny, but these kids are one of the best things about this job, and this place. As you might imagine, there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for young people around Dillingham. Most kids get a summer job or two, but it’s a small town, very much like Cooperstown, in fact. So the fact that this pack of teens is hanging out in the museum during their summer vacation blows my mind. And makes me soooooo happy. I mean, they could just be hanging around, sitting on a curb. They could be getting into all kinds of trouble. But instead they sit around with a bunch of old stuff all day, sometimes just watching Brittany and me work, sometimes offering to help themselves.

I think the best way to describe this is through a couple of anecdotes.

First, a couple of weeks ago, Brittany’s friends Jesse and Ben were hanging around. Brittany and I were getting ready to inventory a case of ivory and soapstone carvings and I asked the guys if they wanted to help. They said sure, and so we established a sort of assembly line if you will. Brittany handled objects, getting them from the case to the table where I was photographing them; I evaluated and photographed each object; Ben looked up each object by its ID in the old card catalog; and Jesse recorded all of the updated information on our new condition report forms. The whole process went off without a hitch. And in record time. We tore through 20-30 objects in about an hour and a half. But the greatest part came about half way through. There I was, examining an ivory carving, wearing my little white cotton gloves, telling Jesse about cracks in the ivory, when I hear him mutter, “I wish I had a pair of white gloves so that I could handle an artifact.” So I said, “Sure!” When we were all done with the inventory, I gave him my gloves and let him pick one object to hold himself. He settled on a soapstone and ivory carving of a walrus that his friends had been teasing him about, saying he looked like the walrus. While he was looking at the walrus I showed him the marks on the bottom from where the artist had cut the block (circular saw!), which he thought was the coolest thing.

I am the walrus!(Jesse and Wilbur the Walrus)

Just yesterday, Brittany’s friend Shane was in the museum while we were working on a case full of baskets. Shane, too, offered to help, sI set him up with a pair of gloves so that he could help me position baskets to be photographed. He was particularly fascinated with their construction, and also had a keen eye and was able to help identify several flaws during our condition reports. Perhaps the best moment was when I found a letter inside one of the baskets, detailing its provenance and possible uses. This basket came to the museum in the 1970s, and at that time was several generations old. It is a coiled basket made of twine that was used to collect sea bird eggs by several generations of Yup’ik women from this area. I, of course, was freaking out over this letter and all the information it provided, while the kids looked at me like I was crazy. However, by the time we were done photographing the basket, Shane, Brittany, and Ben were all looking at the letter and the basket more closely, and heard Shane say “Cool!”

Shane and a basket(Shane examining a basket.)

It might not seem like much, but this is great exposure for these kids who are largely Native Alaskan. Here they are surrounded by thousands of years of products of their own cultures, and I hope they’re able to take pride in that. I’m slowly beginning to see how complicated Native Alaskan identity is today. On the one hand there’s a big push on the part of the elders to preserve culture, language, and tradition by educating younger generations, but on the other hand, a lot of people are rejecting traditional lifestyles. I can’t even begin to understand this push and pull… But I’m trying. It makes me wish I had more time here, that’s for sure.

But regardless, I’m seeing wth my own eyes what these kids are learning from the time they spend in the museum. And it makes all the inventories totally worth it.

A Pox On Both Your Houses!

June 17, 2009

Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder, and a little bit worse!

Not really. It’s been a pretty good week so far. I’ve made progress on several of my projects including catalogging, and getting new cases. On Monday Deb and I started taping out the new floorplan.

Rearranging the furniture

(the tape kind of reminds me of a chalk body outline…)

I’ve begun working with that company case[werks] to see if we can come up with an affordable combination of museum quality cases. It’s an interesting experience, maybe a little hum-drum on the surface, but a lot more valuable than I would have thought. I mean, of course someone has to think about the concrete elements of an exhibit, the parts that don’t really change, but I had never thought about how that happens.

In other news, the second summer intern started yesterday. Her name is Brittany and she’s a high school student here in Dillingham. Her position is through the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. Every year, they fund a variety of jobs and internships around the area that provide local high schoolers with valuable work experience. Brittany is 15, a native Alaskan, and, so far at least, a hard worker. Since I’m the only other staff here, I’ve sort of become her defacto supervisor. Who would’ve thought the intern would have an intern? She’s been tearing through the projects Deb and I assign her and I’m starting to worry I’ll be spending more time keeping her busy that I will getting my own projects done. The other thing is, and this is a bit ridiculous, I’m having a hard time remembering what being 15 was like, academically at least. Had I learned how to make bibliographies by then? Was I still working in MLA? My lapse in memory is making it hard to know what to expect from her. Any suggestions? Memories? Things you loved or hated about school at that age? While I’m of course concerned with having a fabulous experience myself, I’d like her to enjoy her time here and come out of it with some real skills and tools for looking to the future.

And now for your new OBJECT OF THE WEEEEEEK.

Small Pox Vaccination Kit(wha?)

Well, yesterday evening I was entering a few last object id cards into PastPerfect when I came across a peculiar thing. And what was that you might ask? SMALL POX, THAT’S WHAT! Well, sort of small pox. This, my friends, is a small pox vaccination kit from before the disease was eradicated in 1979. There are five vials of vaccine, one of which is broken (!) as though it’s been used, and four which still contain a powdery white substance (!!!). It was found right here in Dillingham on Scandanavian Beach, in the later 70s.¬†Currently, I’m trying to figure out just what I’m supposed to do with it. Tomorrow I’m calling the CDC to see if there are any regulations or anything about disposing of it. I’m sure that whatever was/is in those vials is long dead now, if it was ever alive, but still… Kind of spooky stuff.

Eek!

(eek!)

Sam K. Fox Is My Homeboy

June 10, 2009

So I’ve been working at the museum for two days now and I’m starting to get a sense of how this summer’s going to pan out.

First Day of Work(first day of work)

I should begin by explaining that the Sam K. Fox Museum has NO staff. It is entirely run by volunteers. Even the woman who applied to the Alaska State Museum for an intern (and got me) is a volunteer. This, of course, means that all the wonderful people who have anything to do with the museum also have day jobs. Which in turn means, that most of the time I am alone in the museum. Luckily, it’s connected to the city library where there are a couple of nice teenagers working. The other good thing about the library connection is that it gets us visitors. People come in to use the library, see we’re right there, and take a turn through the museum, too. So I do occassionally have contact with living humans during the day.

With no real staff, there’s a LOT to be done here in Dillingham. First and foremost on my list of things to accomplish is essentially a complete inventory of the museum’s collections as well as entering all of that information into Past Perfect, which the museum only recently obtained. Which brings us to obstacle number one: Until now, accession records were maintained on cards, 2 to 3 sets of cards to be exact. That weren’t kept with one another. And so are discombobulated to say the least. I’m going through and matching up these cards, so as to get the most complete picture possible of the accession and condition of each object, then entering that info into the computer.

Old School(taking this…)

New School(and making it this!)

As most of you know, registration and collections management ain’t really my bag, but it has to be done. And I am more than willing to do it if it means the museum’s in a better place when I leave.

But it’s not all data entry for Johanna. Seeing as I’m it for the museum most of the time, I’ll get to dabble in a number of other areas as well. First up? Figuring out what to do about this:

Parka vs. Anorak(parkas galore!)

The museum has something like ten parkas in this exhibit in all different shapes and sizes, and mostly in terrifce condition. However, right now there’s virtually no information about any of them. Hopefully, next week I’ll begin bringing them out of the case in order to inventory them and do condition reports. I’ll also be researching the parkas and writing up label copy to go with them when they are reinstalled. In addition to the parka project, I have a similar task with our doll exhibit, and I’m helping Deb, my supervisor, research museum quality exhibit cases for a grant she’s preparing. I found an interesting website today for those of you interested in such things.

I’ve also hatched a plan. A plan that is only in the germination stage. A plan that involves developing some sort of lesson plan/activity for local teachers that will bring them and their classes into the museum, which rarely happens now. It would have to be the kind of activity that could be easily adapted to a variety of age levels as social studies standards in Alaska don’t target specific topics for specifc age levels. I’m thinking something with the parkas could work. Suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

And now for your object of the week:

Shaman's Hands(Shaman’s Hands)

These are the crown jewel of the museum’s collection/exhibits right now. The hands were part of a shaman’s ceremonial regalia. The picture in the background shows a shaman wearing the hands while he rids the boy in the picture of a devil/evil spirit/disease. The hands technically belong to the Smithsonian, but are on loan to the museum while they and the community attempt to uncover the identity of the shaman. I believe that if this man can be identified the Smithsonian will repatriate the hands to the community from whence he came.

So friends, I have stayed up WAY past my bedtime writing this post. It’s 3:15am and there’s still a glimmer of light on the horizon. Ugh, I doubt I’ll ever get used to that. So good night, good morning, good afternoon, whatever it is, wherever you are.

Alaska Bound

June 5, 2009

Well, I have yet to arrive in Alaska, but my departure is quickly approaching. I fly out of Seattle Saturday morning and get in to Dillingham, AK Saturday afternoon. Once I arrive, my cell phone will be virtually useless and I will be a full 4 hours earlier that most of you on the East Coast, practically a world away. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out my personal blog “North to the Future.” Well friends, I look forward to hearing of your adventures this summer, as well as sharing mine with you.