Mukluks, and Parkas, and Dolls, Oh My!

July 9, 2009 by

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.


Point of Entry: In Pictures!

June 22, 2009 by

So. In my first post I explained a bit (okay, a lot) about the Point of Entry programs that the development staff is trying to implement. While they’ve been putting them on for a while now, this past Tuesday (June 16) was my first opportunity to see one of these events in action. I grabbed my camera, figuring that if the “picture…thousand words” meme is true, some visuals might be handy.

So without further ado…a photo recap (behind the cut)!

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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

June 20, 2009 by

The curatorial department has me writing text for three small exhibits, plus updating the records room, so that I can get some practice in label writing. It’s pretty straight forward stuff, usually between 50 and 80 words, but I am surprised at the amount of pressure I’ve been feeling while I write them. Where does this pressure come from you ask? Is it the curatorial staff? The president of the Hall of Fame? Is it the ghost of Enos Slaughter (best ballplayer name EVER) or my fear of ruining CGP’s reputation? Nope, it’s the visitors.

I have never been to a museum where the visitors are so quick to criticize or correct the exhibit text and to be honest, it’s great. The curatorial department has to triple check even the smallest facts because we know that as soon as it goes up, a visitor is going to notice if we’ve gotten something. Since objects are constantly coming to us, we have to work quickly, but we cannot sacrifice quality. If they do find a mistake or have some grievance, they are encouraged to leave a message with the curatorial staff and somebody actually calls them back to discuss the issue. Now sometimes the complaints are ridiculous, but for the most part they are taken seriously and dealt with quickly.

I’m not only impressed with the curators willingness to talk to the public, but also the willingness of the pubic to talk to the curators and have a say in the museum. What’s most interesting is that there is no facebook or twitter page for these discussions or even a sign that says, “Complaints? Please see one of our docents.” Perhaps the subject of baseball and the environment of the HoF are enough to encourage discussion.

I thought I would include screenshots of some labels I’m working on. Again, nothing fancy.

recent donations intro

carter 09-11-34

I also decided to take some pictures of my workspace yesterday. Unfortunately, my camera died and the memory card filled up after a few random pictures. So no desk shot or one of me working. Enjoy these anyway.



Hope all is well in your corner of the world. Keep kicking ass.

Dr. Matt Destruction’s Song to Sing-Along to: “Heads Will Role” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Show & Tell & Dance at BCM

June 19, 2009 by

We’re nearly three weeks into the internships, and we’re moving right along with our Engaging Underserved Populations Project. (Update after first official Working Group Meeting later this month/early July) When I’m not slogging through visitor surveys, past studies, zip codes and census stuff, I have found time to get out and have a great time in the museum.

Last Friday, I stuck around from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m for our $1 admission night, sponsored by Target — which might be the greatest company in the world for allowing people to visit museum around the country for reduced prices. We put on a first-time program of Show & Tell. Our collections manager, Jennifer, and I showed Vietnamese Water Puppets, while two of our Teen Ambassadors brought in items of their own.  The star of the show, however, was Nelson, a five-year-old superbaby, who reads Greek mythology and created a Medusa sculpture to show off. When he got tired, Akemi from the Japanese house exhibit came with wax food to show off. It was pretty sweet.

We had plenty of visitors, and the kids loved wearing the special white gloves in order to gently touch the objects. Unfortunately we didn’t have any parents or children interested in signing up to bring in their own objects for another Show & Tell session. We will be trying again in July, and I will be bringing in the brass crab that all of you have seen probably 12 times by now. Any suggestions on how we can do a better job in welcoming parents and kids to participate in Show & Tell? Check out the pictures on Facebook and become a fan!

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Greetings from Palmer: cataloging Alaska’s colonial past

June 18, 2009 by

I have now been an intern at the Palmer Historical Society’s Colony House Museum for two weeks.  Today was my first time experiencing an earthquake while working at the museum.  Luckily it was a small earthquake (magnitude 3.3).  As I heard all of the objects in the house shaking, there was a moment when I was thinking, “I hope this house, which was built hastily to get new Palmer colonists out of tents before the Alaskan winter, can withstand earthquakes…”  Obviously the museum and I both survived, but I guess earthquakes will definitely fall into the risk management portion of the collections plan I am writing.

Colony House Museum in Palmer, AK

The Colony House Museum interprets a unique part of American and Alaskan history.  In 1935, one of the New Deal reforms resettled families in need of aid to different communities throughout the U.S.  The largest of these projects, called the Matanuska Colony, resettled 204 families from the Midwest to settle the Matanuska Valley, about 40 miles north of Anchorage.  While there were already a few homesteaders in the area, this resettlement program was the beginning of Palmer as a town.  The house, formerly the home of Oscar and Irene Beyland on track 94, was moved to downtown Palmer and is mostly furnished through donations from colonists and “colony kids” (children of colonists now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s) to represent the typical home of the colony between 1935 and 1945.

Gerry and Mary Pat

My basic tasks at the Colony House Museum are collections related: initiating a accessioning scheme, creating a collections plan, teaching the volunteers how to use PastPerfect, etc.  I’ll go into more detail in future posts.

Living Room of Colony House

exhibit space on left, my workspace on the right

Driving to Alaska: A Journey in Numbers

June 18, 2009 by

While this is a little late, I’m posting a numeric review our cross-continental trip:

6,803 km / 4,227 miles from Kent, NY to Palmer, AK

46 state license plates

18 bison

10 open range horses

9 states

8 province license plates

7 days

6 specially made road trip cds (thanks!)

5 provinces

4 campsites

3 moose

3 pretty birds

2 grizzly bears

2 caribou

2 black bears

2 black bear cubs

1 brown bear

1 generous CGP host (thank you!)

1 hopping bunny

1 non-hopping bunny

1 wild horse

Unfortunately, this numeric post cannot cover all the scenic views, so I’ll leave you with a picture.

Muncho Lake, British Columbia

A Pox On Both Your Houses!

June 17, 2009 by

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.



The Pirates of Pennsylvania Ave.

June 17, 2009 by

(Not really, but I think it sounds clever…)

Anyone up for a trip to DC to see American History’s new permanent exhibit, “On The Water: Stories from Maritime America”? It received a pretty positive review from the Washington Post, and it sounds like they’re doing some pretty solid social history, rather than technological, which is what their old sea faring exhibit focused on.

Anyway, you don’t see a new permanent exhibit opening at the Smithsonian very often, so it might be worth making the drive…

Greetings from Butte (and multiple airports)

June 14, 2009 by

Like you, summer is a time for the faculty to see new places and try new things. I spent the past week in Butte, Montana, for the annual meeting of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. The first thing I learned is that it is very hard to get to Butte, as there are only two flights into the airport each day. A rain delay in Philadelphia led to an 8.5 hour layover in Salt Lake City. I turns out the Mormons know how to do tourism. They run a free shuttle from the airport to Temple Square where you can take a tour, visit the museum and two historic houses, listen to a concert, and get something to eat. Interestingly, although people were much shorter in the past, both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were quite tall, something pointed out to me on two separate occasions.

An unexpected visit to Salt Lake City


Butte itself, and southwestern Montana generally, are really fascinating places. If you take American Material Culture II next spring (or even if you don’t) you will hear lots about my trip.  Museum visits included Mai Wah (a former Chinese noodle parlor) and the Dumas brothel, not to mention the whole town of Nevada City, which was created much like our own Farmers’ Museum.  Just as importantly, the VAF plans tours of privately owned buildings and collections that aren’t normally open to the public.  This year these including all sort of buildings related to the mining of cooper and gold, as well as the residences and community buildings that supported the miners.  I even got to tour a new 3,000 sq. ft. house built inside a grain storage bin!

Butte landscape with headframe for taking people to and ore from the underground mines

Butte landscape with headframe for taking people to and ore from the underground mines

One of the really interesting things about this area is the relative blurring between present and past.  Mining was still going on in Butte through the 1980s, and the whole town suffers from environmental and human degradation as a result of it.  As people there think about preserving the material remains of their past, they are also trying to figure out how to live in the present and the role that heritage tourism may or may not play.  The keynote speaker at the VAF conference focused on the dangers of romanticizing the gritty history of Butte to make it more tolerable. In places like Virginia City, which hit its gold peak in the 1860s, on the other hand, it is hard to discern the real (authentic) from the created tourist environment.   Below is a picture of tourist cabins created by Charlie Bovey in the 1950s from military barracks he brought to Virginia City and decorated with false fronts painted with the names of real businesses that used to exist in the town.  Ironically, this village has now reached an age that it is historic in its own right!

Western town "Daylight Village" created by Charlie Bovey from army barracks for tourist housing in Virginia City

Cooperstown Perk #1

June 12, 2009 by

Rally Cap

Minor league baseball games with Will “Rally Cap” Walker. Let’s go B-Mets!