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Highlighting the state's collections: Designing the SLAM exhibit floor

Behind the scenes of the State Library Archives and Museum project, Part 1

Posted: June 1, 2013 - 6:56pm  |  Updated: June 1, 2013 - 11:11pm
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Paul Gardinier, left, retired Curator of Exhibitions at the Alaska State Museum, works with Bob Banghart, Deputy Director of the Alaska State Libraries Archives and Museums and Chief Curator at the Alaska State Museums, as they look over blueprints of Project SLAM in May.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Paul Gardinier, left, retired Curator of Exhibitions at the Alaska State Museum, works with Bob Banghart, Deputy Director of the Alaska State Libraries Archives and Museums and Chief Curator at the Alaska State Museums, as they look over blueprints of Project SLAM in May.

The giant crane currently towering over the Willoughby district broadcasts a clear message: the State Library Archives and Museum building is well on its way to becoming a reality. When compete — April 2016 is the projected opening date — the 118,000-square foot building will house the combined collections of the Alaska State Library, State Archives and State Museum, and serve as a central hub for access to those objects and statewide operations.

What is now visible on the construction site, located between the current Alaska State Museum building and the Foodland shopping complex, is the future collections vault — a burly structure that in many ways represents the heart of the new facility. Built of epoxy-coated steel and poured concrete, the vault will provide long-term protection for the division’s collections, removing them from present dangers that include water, fire and overcrowding.

As the vault goes up, a parallel and equally important building process is going on behind the scenes, as LAM staff work on the internal mechanisms of the collaboration. This three-part series will provide a snapshot of that behind-the-scenes process, particularly in terms of how the team is handling public access. Part one will focus on current planning for the most prominent public venue in the building, the exhibits floor. Part two will focus on the development of other spaces, such as the research rooms and the vault. And part three will focus on the developing role of technology within SLAM itself and in reaching constituents around the state — and the rest of the world.

Storytelling

All three departments of the Division of Libraries Archives and Museums share a common double goal: to collect and preserve the state’s treasures, whether artifacts, art, papers, photos or other materials, and to provide public access to them, while assisting other facilities in similar goals around the state.

Put another way, all three departments are charged with telling the unique stories of Alaska through the collection and presentation of physical objects. For the museum, in particular, storytelling lies at the heart of what they do, said Bob Banghart, deputy director of LAM, and chief curator of the Alaska State Museum.

“It’s a pretty simple equation,” Banghart said, “though it sounds complex. We’re telling stories and we’re protecting materials that help to illustrate the stories that we’re telling. That’s at the root of it.”

The main public storytelling space of the new building will be the exhibits floor, currently being designed by Paul Gardinier, former curator of exhibitions at the state museum.

Though the museum artifacts on display will be the dominant objects in the room, LAM staff are working on ways to incorporate objects and information from the collections of the library and archives as well, in a way that deepens visitors’ experience and understanding of history. Gardinier said the three departments, while different, have a lot of common ground to build on.

“We have different methodologies and professional standards for how we do things, but it really has been surprising how everybody in each department is really alike too,” he said. “They all have this profound love of the object, and this sense of community service to share that. And there is that shared passion to make sure that what we have in these collections is relevant and useful to our constituents.”

Designing a ‘treasure house’

Gardinier has been working with architect Brian Meissner at ECI/Hyer in Anchorage, the firm that designed the building, as well as others to design the exhibits space. He said that though the huge responsibility is somewhat stressful, the commitment of the team and potential of the finished building make it really exciting.

“For our own community — which really includes the state — it’s going to be a treasure house,” Gardinier said.

The exhibit floor itself will be two-and-a-half times as large as the current museum, giving LAM staff more room to showcase the state’s treasures – but still necessitating an excruciatingly difficult process of selection, currently underway. The new space will include expanded exhibits on the human and natural history of Alaska — such as mining, maritime activities, exploration, World War II and Alaska Native cultures — stretching back to when people first set foot in the state.

Gardinier has also designed an expanded and centrally located children’s area, a major part of the overall concept of the room, and one that underscores the fact that LAM is overseen by Alaska Department of Education & Early Development. This area will include an updated version of the pirate ship at the current museum (built by Gardinier himself, many years ago).

“I can’t go anywhere in town without a little guy tugging on my leg saying, ‘You’re going to keep the boat, right?‚’” Gardinier said with a chuckle. “That’s a given.”

As Gardinier puzzles out the overall map of the exhibits space, curator of collections Steve Henrikson is down in the collections vault making the specific decisions about what to put out on the floor. Like Gardinier, Henrikson has extensive first-hand knowledge of the museum’s collections.

“I’ve been here for 23 years and from day one I’ve been collecting artifacts for this day,” Henrikson said. “I didn’t know when it was going to happen. I figured that it would be somebody else that came after me that would be the one that would get to decide... To have the opportunity to do this is just fantastic.”

To assist with these complicated decisions, the museum has enlisted the aid of a curatorial committee, a group made of up of roughly 100 experts in different fields — archeologists, historians, Native elders, artists and others — who are, like Henrikson, deeply engaged with the stories these objects tell. Their input reinforces the idea that the museum isn’t interested in presenting a “clean and tidy” view of history, Henrikson said, or romanticized generalizations about cultural interaction.

“The main reason we’re going out to the community is that we don’t want people to consider what’s on display here as the official state version of Alaskan history,” Henrikson said. We’re very conscious of our position as the state museum and we don’t want to have that affect what we talk about in the displays.”

Banghart said the interaction with the curatorial committee amounts to a giant research project — complicated but extremely valuable in developing snapshots in space and time.

“If you can imagine, it’s a big lumbering beast,” he said. “But it’s got order to it.”

In the case of some Alaska Native objects, the curatorial committee is also being asked to help compose the exhibit labels. When appropriate, they will be written in the languages that reflect that object’s origin, Banghart said.

“It’s a statement we can make that changes the dynamic, changes the acknowledgement of the source. It’s a subtle switch but it speaks volumes as to who the masters of those stories are,” he said.

One of the many challenges of the design and selection process is figuring out how to weave together the specificity of individual experience with the broad movements of state history, Henrikson and Gardinier said.

“Throughout we’re going to isolate key and interesting characters in Alaska’s history,” Gardinier said. “So we’ll tell the story of people as a whole, history as a whole, but we’ll isolate people — Willoughby, perhaps, or Peratrovich, or Wickersham, or Kasherverof. We really want to try to highlight real faces and real stories,”

Henrikson said the exhibits will also explore the role of the environment, and how each of Alaska’s different populations adapted to the land, from specific Alaska Native cultures to Gold Rush prospectors.

“We’re interested in exploring that in quite alot of detail, using as examples of that the artifacts that were made for people to survive in Alaska,” Henrikson said. “It’s quite remarabkle.”

Relying on root sources

Throughout the process, Gardinier and Henrikson have been thinking about how to incorporate materials from the state library and archives. One way this could work is for photos or documents — either originals or digital copies — to be placed adjacent to a museum artifact, providing background and additional information. This will be the case with one of the floor’s largest items, an 18-ton electric locomotive previously owned by the Alaska-Gastineau mine. (The train, along with a Bristol Bay double ender, will be among the largest items on the floor.)

Jim Simard, Head of Historical Collections at the Alaska State Library, said his department has lots of material on the train — including shipping bills, blueprints and photographs from the mine’s collection, donated by Bill Corbus — linking the object to the history of that mine and mining in general.

“The ways those collections intersect is just beautiful,” Simard said.

Simard said his team is currently working on coming up with similar places where such overlap can occur.

“We’ve been asked at this point to think about the kinds of materials that can be compatible,” Simard said. “I know from experience with the exhibits department that so much of the pertinent documentation of the stories they tell at the museum, the objects, comes out of manuscript and photo collections. It just naturally does.”

One area where paper documentation will be particularly helpful is in the period that covers early explorations of the state.

“There just isn’t a lot of artifactural material from that period of time,” Simard said. “What there is is their publications, because that was the material goods that was produced by those expeditions. And the historical library holds quite a bit of that stuff.”

Another opportunity for overlap is in use of audio and video files — taped samples of Alaska Native languages, for example — that can supplement the visual displays, or video interviews with weavers placed alongside an exhibit of basketry.

Photos and documentation from the library and archives are also being worked into the design as stand-alone exhibits, in cases that allow the material to be rotated out easily, Gardinier said.

State Archivist Dean Dawson said he was excited about the possibilities for exhibit space — something the archives has not really had in the past.

“Since the museum is the driver of the really interesting artifactural information, we can assist in that understanding of that story,” he said. “We’re looking forward to that, and just having everyone on site will enable that to happen.”

Running through conversations in each of the departments is an acknowledgment that exhibit planning is a very complex task, one that balances practical considerations with abstract concepts. The objects in these collections carry meaning, one that changes depending on the context and the viewers’ perception. For that reason, museum exhibits — and museums in general — are largely about emotion, Banghart said.

“You can get people incredibly passionate over this. To the point where they’ll attack a painting, they’ll attack a piece of sculpture, they’ll embrace and defend with their lives objects. They’ll go to court to fight to get something back that represents something from their perspective ... that has significance, that resonates deeply in ways that people don’t even understand.”

“This is a living breathing device. It’s not a friggin’ building.”

• Contact Art & Culture Editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or at amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com.

 

Part two of this series will run in tomorrow’s Empire. For more on this project, visit museums.alaska.gov/lam/slam.html.

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