The extraordinary lives of ordinary objects

City museum's storytelling project highlights personal, local history

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what about an actual object? Such as, say, a glass milk bottle, a wooden Juneau Cold Storage box or a metal ladle?


A handful of Juneau residents were recently invited to explore the narrative fertility of these objects and others as part of a first-time exhibit at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, on view through the end of the month. The exhibit, “Ordinary Things/Extraordinary Tales,” was organized by Curator of Public Programs Marjorie Hamburger and Curator of Collections Jodi DeBruyne, who were inspired in part the Portland Art Museum’s “Object Stories” exhibit, which began in 2010. For the Juneau exhibit, 13 participants were invited to write a 250-word response to a utilitarian object from the museum’s collection. Those responses (including my own) are on view with the objects in the museum’s main gallery.

An event held last Friday at the museum expanded the experiment to include object-based stories from the whole community. The public was invited to come to the museum with an object of their choosing and share a story inspired by that object with the assembled audience. Storytellers included exhibit participants Ross Soboleff, Rhonda Gardinier, Paul Gardinier, lifelong Juneau resident Marie Darlin and the event’s host, Hamburger, among others.

One strong theme of the exhibit, reflected in Friday’s event, was how these everyday objects conveyed not only a strong sense of history, but also of emotion for the storytellers.

For Tony Newman, a metal melting ladle called up images of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” and, along with it, images and characters that inspired him to be “a writer and illustrator, an Alaskan and a father.” Aaron Elmore’s response to a sea chest from the museum collection included vivid descriptions of childhood trips to the beach: “The road’s end, intoxicating, the salt on the air and on glasses, the dull roar from the sky and the earth, more felt than heard.” Art Rotch described childhood memories of life on a blueberry farm, inspired by a Juneau Cold Storage box. And Ernestine Hayes’ inspiring object, a glass plate with sunflowers, stirred memories of her grandmother, “an imposing, grey-haired woman who taught me I was Eagle, told me bears were my cousins, reminded me that the wind was my grandfather.”

Family relationships were a common thread in Friday’s storytelling session as well. Rhonda Gardinier said she had expected to find something beautiful from the museum’s collection to inspire her personal response, but instead found her object — an old bottle of Chanel No. 5 — to be far and away the most vocal item in the room, drawing her in with strong memories of her mother, who wore the perfume daily.

Her husband Paul also described his thought process in selecting his controversial object: the Juneau charter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Paul Gardinier, former curator of the Alaska State Museum, used the charter as a jumping off point for a discussion about the complex nature of history and memory, and about the difficulty in assigning labels of “good” or “bad” to human lives, using members of his own family as examples.

Marie Darlin, another of Friday’s storytellers, presented an object that also wove together personal and local history. She brought a Juneau High School graduation document from 1916, which belonged to her uncle, Waino Hendrickson. Hendrickson, born in Juneau in 1896, held many public positions, including mayor of Juneau, a seat in the Territorial House of Representatives, Secretary of State under Territorial Gov. Frank Heintzleman and Acting Governor (his photo is also on view at the city museum in the “Juneau Melting Pot” exhibit). As Darlin read out the list of names of the 13 Juneau residents who graduated with young Waino in 1916, she talked about the impact each of these individuals had on Juneau as adults — through their jobs and businesses, relationships and contributions.

“A lot of those names are still here, really, in one way or another,” Darlin said.

Her words called to mind those of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What better place to be reminded of this than a museum?

Hamburger said she hopes to make the exhibit an annual event.

For more information, visit or call 586-3572. Fall/winter hours at the museum are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free during the month of January in memory of Harold O. Fossum.


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