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Alaska State Museum

History comes alive in Juneau's multi-faceted cultural gem

A visit to the comprehensive Alaska State Museum provides a captivating overview of Alaska's immense cultural and historical landscape.

Established back as the Historical Library and Museum for the Territory of Alaska, the museum didn’t have a permanent home until 1920. Its collection grew quickly and, by the 1960s, it was clear that a new building was needed. In 1967, in honor of the centennial of the purchase of Alaska from Russia, the citizens of Juneau implemented a 1 percent sales tax to help fund the current two-story building in downtown Juneau. Since its opening, the museum’s collection has grown from 5,500 to 27,000 objects.

The museum offers a range of permanent displays highlighting Alaska’s history, indigenous cultures and natural history. These displays, which take up more than half of the exhibition space, range from a tiny Aleut thimble basket to a life-sized eagle nesting tree and a scaled-down version of the stern of Capt. George Vancouver’s ship, Discovery, which plied the waters of Southeast Alaska from 1776 to 1779 in order to map the area.

Objects that reflect the richness of the state today are continuously collected. Five permanent galleries, grouped into Native peoples, Russian America, American period, natural history, and the Children’s Room, feature an array of specimens and works of art.

Diversity on Display

Among the most popular permanent exhibitions are clothing, weapons, tools, and ceremonial objects from Alaska's distinct Alaska Native populations, such as Northwest Coast, Athabascan, Aleut, Inupiaq and Yup'ik. Highlights include a large explanatory map of the state, a 34-foot umiak (boat), one of the famed Chilkat blankets, and the top of the Lincoln Totem, whose carver used President Lincoln as a model.

Russian America days are represented by a wide variety of items. Generally dating from the 1740s to 1867, when Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million, artifacts in this fascinating gallery include a Russian imperial crest of a double-headed eagle and a large samovar, which was often used to brew tea.

The American period details the role of the United States in the region, with particular attention given to the development of the state’s natural resources. An entire room covers mining and is creatively constructed to resemble a rugged assay (substance analysis) office from the early days of Alaskan mining ventures. There’s also an exhibition of minerals found in Alaska, as well as mining equipment and a display case from a long-closed Juneau store including early tourist curios.

The Children’s Room contains the aforementioned Discovery model, as well as several nature-oriented exhibitions and one with dress-up clothes geared to kids--and kids at heart, who are sure to regain the wonder of discovery!

Spotlighting Past and Present

The Alaska State Museum is also well-known for staging temporary exhibitions that enhance the enjoyment of both veteran and first-time museum visitors. The 2007 offerings are particularly appealing.

From unique souvenirs to sublime jewelry, Native traditions blend with modern sensibilities in two special exhibitions scheduled from spring to fall 2007. One exhibit explores the broad influences of tourism on Alaska culture and art, while the other exhibit provides a 25-year retrospective of prominent Alaska Native jewelers Denise and Samuel Wallace.

“The Lure of the North: the History of Alaska Tourism” details the history of tourist travel in Alaska. From 1880s steamship travel through the current scope of tourism in Alaska today, the new exhibition takes visitors on a journey through time. It includes an automaton figure of infamous con man Soapy Smith--taken from a bar in Skagway--along with beaded lighters, bird quill belts, baskets, gold rush nuggets, dolls, and small totem poles shaped into lamps, bookends, bottle openers and candles.

“Arctic Transformations: the Jewelry of Denise and Samuel Wallace,” provides a gleaming example of Native artists using new materials and modern techniques to convey traditional images. Working in gold, silver, semi-precious stones, and walrus ivory, the Wallaces translate traditional stories into sculptural jewelry. Often, they are inspired by Denise’s Chugach Aleut heritage or the stories of other indigenous Alaskans. This 25-year retrospective of the couple’s work includes 150 pieces of jewelry and 16 belts--all seen together for the first time. "Arctic Transformations" comes to the Alaska State Museum after touring the world, with stops in New York, Sydney, Phoenix, Santa Fe, and San Diego.

If You Go

The Museum is located in Juneau at 395 Whittier Street. For further information, call (907) 465-2901 or visit www.museums.state.ak.us (including “online“ exhibits). Volunteers offer tours of the Museum during the summer and by special arrangement during the rest of the year. The Museum’s store, operated by the Friends of the Alaska State Museum, features baskets, jewelry and carvings made by Alaskans, as well as books and note cards. Summer hours at the Alaska State Museum are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Fall, winter, and spring hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. General admission is $5 during the summer season and $3 at other times, with annual passes that allow unlimited visits available for $15.