Airborne umiak sails over museum

Staff carefully removes 'ship in a bottle' for transport to new state museum vault

After 40 years at rest, a walrus-skin umiak embarked on an unusual voyage Thursday, sailing through a clear blue sky over downtown Juneau.


The 34-foot boat was the last artifact from the Alaska State Museum collection to be transferred to the new vault of the State Library Archives and Museum building currently under construction on Willoughby Avenue.

In an impressive display of engineering, communication and team work, state museum staff worked in collaboration with members of the PCL Construction team to carefully prepare and then hoist the 900-pound boat and supportive framework over the roof of the existing museum via crane. The boat appeared perfectly balanced as it made its unwavering journey to the new vault, a process that drew workers in the State Office Building to their windows and attracted a crowd of curious onlookers on the ground.

Crane operator Miles Derr, who had the most visible role of anyone on the PCL team, said the word “priceless” was echoing in his head as he lifted the boat into the air.

“I’m just happy it’s over,” he said with a laugh a few minutes after coming down from the crane, as the boat was pushed safely into the vault behind him.

Derr, a Seattle-based PCL employee, said he couldn’t actually see the boat from his perch on the crane until it cleared the old museum’s roof. Prior to that, colleagues over the radio served as his eyes.

“I have to trust everybody who is rigging it,” he said. “We had quite a few meetings and quite a few conversations about it, and I trusted everybody.”

The first challenge of the operation for museum staff was getting the umiak out the door. Like a ship in a bottle, the boat was assembled within the museum in the early 1970s and wouldn’t fit through the front entrance.

According to Steve Henrikson, curator of Collections, the umiak is one of the few surviving examples of the two-masted trading boats used to haul people and goods across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia. The umiak’s frame, built around 1920 by Jonathan Onalik in Wales, was moved into the museum in 1968. In 1971, the museum brought in a team from St. Lawrence Island to create a hide covering for the frame.

Henrickson said in an email that John and Lillie Apangalook, Vivian and Lewis Igakitan, Thelma and Homer Apatiki, Fred Angi and Flora Imergan made the journey from Gambell with fresh walrus hides checked as baggage.

“After soaking the hides in Gold Creek, they were meticulously sewn together using a waterproof stitch and stretched over the old frame,” he said.

Scott Carrlee, curator of Museum Services, said the umiak was installed in the gallery by the team that made the covering and it had remained there until Thursday.

“It was never designed to come in or out of the building.”

To remove it from the museum, the staff had to take out a big chunk of the wall on the first floor, remove the front doors and saw off the center posts between them. The boat was the last of 30,000 museum objects to be moved to the new space for this reason, said chief curator Addison Field.

“The minute you take down two sets of front doors, your security system is just gone,” he said.

Heading up the umiak’s move for the museum with Carrlee was exhibits specialist Aaron Elmore, who designed a wheeled cart and support system for the artifact that would only place stress on four very specific points of the wood frame.

“The whole rigor of the job was that the conservator decided the boat could not be lifted on any other place except right where it had been sitting all these years,” Elmore said. “With a skin boat, if you change the stresses, if you flex the thing, the possibility of popping the seams or doing some terrible damage very quickly is quite high.”

After being perfectly balanced on the wheeled cart by Elmore and Carrlee, the umiak was covered in Visqueen and then wrapped for stability.

The boat was then pushed on the cart out the newly-widened front door and onto a ramp, where the supporting structure was fitted with cloth stirrups attached to chains dangling from the crane. Derr took it from there.

Once on the ground on the back side of the museum, the boat was moved into the new vault where it will stay until the new exhibit spaces are constructed.

“The umiak’s journey isn’t over,” Elmore said.

The new SLAM building, which will include 118,000 square feet of new construction, is scheduled to open in April 2016. It will house the combined collections and operations of the state library, state archives and state museum.

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