For Alaska State Museum chief curator Bob Banghart, calling the museum’s last day of public operation “Final Friday” is maybe a bit too stark. Though the building will be closed to the public for good after that day, construction of a new facility — the State Library Archives and Museum building, expected to open in April 2016 — is continuing as planned. And in terms of the state museum’s collections, mission and reach, it’s still “an expanding universe,” Banghart said.
“It’s a transitional point, not an ending point,” he said.
Final Friday, a community event to be held this Friday from 5-9 p.m. at the museum, will include live music, a salon-style exhibit of paintings from the museum’s permanent collection, and an opportunity for locals to share their own stories and memories about the Whittier Street building, constructed in 1967.
Though Banghart has a long history of involvement with the building — he got his first job there, straight out of college, in 1974 — he said any sentimentality about the closure is overshadowed by his excitement for what’s coming next. The new building will include more than twice the exhibit space, he said, as well as many more opportunities for community engagement, technological advances, and cooperative efforts between the museum, state library and archives. Perhaps most importantly, the new building will provide a safe place to store the state’s treasures.
“There are a lot of people with a lot of emotion in the facility, I don’t particularly have that. I’m too excited about the potential for the new one.”
For others in the building, the closure hits closer to the heart. Museum Protection and Visitor Services Manager Lisa Golisek said she became unexpectedly emotional while giving her last tour of the building to a school group, Erin Mitchell’s third-grade class from Auke Bay Elementary School. Her eyes filled with tears as she brought the tour to a close, prompting a similar reaction in Mitchell, she said, leaving the kids wondering what was going on.
Golisek’s employment with the museum goes back almost 30 years — and in all that time she’s only had two bosses: former chief curator Bruce Kato and current curator Banghart.
“That tells you something,” she said, referring to the work environment.
Friday’s event is designed to make room for community reactions to the museum closure on both ends of the scale: excitement about the new facility and sadness about the old one.
“It’s to let people, in their own way, come to an understanding that it’s not going to be here,” Banghart said.
In addition to talking about their memories, attendees can write them down. On the walls of the ramp that extends from the first to second level of the museum, surrounding the eagle tree, sheets of blank paper have been hung to give attendees a place to record their thoughts and memories. Also on the walls are lists of the names of all the museum employees and volunteers, stretching back more than 100 years: though the building opened in 1967, the museum was created in 1900. Another list shows the temporary exhibits and artists the museum has hosted.
All three lists are edit-able by visitors, Banghart said -- if you see an omission, write in a correction.
“We’re looking to supplement our documentation ... with the recollections of the individuals that were here,” Banghart said.
The exhibiting artists list includes those whose work spans decades, offering an opportunity for some interesting “then and now” observations. For example, Rie Muñoz had a show of her watercolors in 1971 and a retrospective of her watercolors in 2006, Alan Munro had a solo show in 1973 and another in 1997, and Dan DeRoux had a solo show in 1973 and in 2012.
All three of those artists also appear on the employee list: Muñoz was curator of collections at the museum from 1968-1972; Munro was a curator from 1971-3, chief curator from 1973-80 and director from 1980-86; and DeRoux was curator of visual arts from 1978-79.
In addition to the lists, the ramp up to the second floor includes a display of posters from museum events, and video of longtime volunteer Bea Shepard talking about the museum.
In the second floor gallery, an exhibit of paintings from the museum’s permanent collection has been hung “salon style” — informally, with paintings at several different levels. The paintings were hung partly to help clear out space in the basement, and party to let the public get a look at them before they’re packed up for the move.
Another aspect of Final Friday will be live music and jam sessions — a nod to the museum’s role in the early days of the Alaska Folk Festival. The very first folk festival, called the First Annual Southeast Alaska Folk Festival, was held at the museum in 1975 with only a handful of musicians performing (including Banghart and Alan Munro, as well as Dan Monroe, June Hall, Paul Disdier, Dan Hopson and Uncle Bob Pavitt). In the intervening years, the museum has continued to be actively involved the event, for example through the Annual Liars’ and Fiddlers’ Consort.
The jam sessions reinforce the idea that Friday’s event is designed to be casual. All of the museum’s doors, with the exception of the collections area in the basement, will open to the public and people can roam freely though the building.
“We didn’t want to put the burden of any talking heads, (or make it) somber or pompous,” Banghart said. “It’s, ‘Hey, we’re moving into a new arena for this institution’s history, this is a choice time for town, a choice time for the state in regard to opportunities, so let’s celebrate that.’”
The Alaska State Museum was created by an Act of Congress on June 6, 1900. Known as the Historical Library and Museum for the District of Alaska, its mission was “to collect, preserve and exhibit objects from the territory.” No permanent space was dedicated to those collections until 1920, when they were housed in the Arctic Brotherhood Building in Juneau. The collection continued to grow, as did opportunities for public access and the museum’s role as research and educational facility. Over the years, the collection has grown from 5,500 objects and specimens to more than 32,000.
The Whittier Street building, funded through a one percent sales tax at that time, was as part of a statewide effort to create new buildings in celebration of the centennial of the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. More than 40 buildings were created (or planned) throughout the state as part of the effort, headed up by the Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission. Other buildings constructed at that time include Sitka’s Harrigan Centennial Hall 1967, and “Alaskaland,” now known as Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. Funding for the projects also came from the National Park Service, under the provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act.
The state museum is currently in the process of putting together a publication about the Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission and the projects spurred by the effort, as a way to honor the history of the Whittier Street building and connect it to the history of the state.
“We sent five historians, five photographers and five writers to the far reaches of the state to photograph what was there, what was remaining or what wasn’t there, interview anybody they could find that was involved with the process, and then used the historians to put it into an encapsulated view and put its significance in place,” Banghart said.
Research for the publication will also be used to create a traveling exhibition on the project, and will be incorporated into a permanent display about the museum’s history, to be installed in the lobby of the new SLAM building. The publication and traveling exhibit will probably be revealed in 2017, when the 150th anniversary is celebrated.
Another way the history of the Whittier Street building will be honored in the new facility is through the permanent placement of two of the distinctive panels on the outside of the building — provided that they can be removed without getting too cracked or chipped. The cast concrete panels, which feature a stylized flicker feather motif, were designed by architect Linn Forrest.
The idea for a museum expansion has been around since the 1980s, Banghart said, with many different scenarios presented, including building onto or around the existing building.
“We went around and around and around — ‘We need to save it, we can’t save it, we have to save it, we should save it.’ And there just wasn’t enough rationale in saving it,” he said. “We would have had to strip the interior of the building, relocate collections to a temporary space, then pull the asbestos out, take care of the structural problems — and then what have we gained? ... This building has lived its lifetime.”
The next step after the building is closed to the public is to finish packing the collections and move them over into the new vault, probably sometime in May. After that the demolition crew will come in and begin stripping down the inside of the building, sending the asbestos and other hazardous materials to a processing plant, maybe in July. Anything usable on the inside will be given to other museums and nonprofits. Then the crew will move on to the outside of the building.
In the meantime, the staff will continue working on relocating the collections and construction of the new exhibits. The staff will be split between the State Office Building and the archives until they can occupy the new space.
Striking a more philosophical note, Banghart said getting ready to move out of the old building has also been an exercise in accepting a basic fact of life.
“I guess if there’s anything I’ve taken away from this whole process, and being in this business forever, it’s this: nothing stays the same,” he said.