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SLAM part two: Digging deeper into the state's collections

Posted: June 3, 2013 - 12:07am
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State Archivist Dean Dawson shows one of the oldest bound records in the state's Archives vault in May.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
State Archivist Dean Dawson shows one of the oldest bound records in the state's Archives vault in May.

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series that examines a few of the behind-the-scenes processes of the SLAM project. The project will place the statewide operations of the Library, Archives and Museums division in one building, currently under construction on Willoughby Avenue.

One of the things Alaska State Archivist Dean Dawson is looking forward to as part of the State Library Archives and Museum project is the opportunity to stop worrying. For Dawson, for whom safe storage of the state’s archives is top priority, the new vault, currently under construction on Willoughby Avenue, will be SLAM’s most important feature.

“That is the biggie,” Dawson said. “The (current archives building) has been failing for three decades. It will help me sleep better at night that the records will be elsewhere.”

Dawson, who took the position of state archivist in 2010 after 25 years with the state, helped manage damage control for the collections following a 2009 roof failure in the building during a rainstorm, a stressful experience he says underscored the need for a new facility. A walk through the current building, which opened in the 1970s, also shows gaps in the walls where the building is breaking apart — one half was built on bedrock and the other on pilings.

Running a close second to the vault on Dawson’s list is the opportunity the project provides for collaboration between departments, he said, particularly between the archives department and the historical collections division of the Alaska State Library, currently located on the eighth floor of the State Office Building.

“The real benefit (of the collaboration), what I foresee, is the assistance out at the research area,” Dawson said. “The staff will become familiar with archival holdings and historical collections holdings, and one person, irrespective of whether they work in historical or in archives, will be able to make sure that the clients have access to everything that’s available.”

Dawson said the merger will also help facilitate some of the departments’ other functions, such as statewide training and consultation.

The SLAM project is designed to put the state library, archives and museum collections in one building, as well as provide a central hub for LAM’s statewide operations. The projected opening date for the new facility is April 2016.

The research library of the new facility will be located on the second floor, along with the public reading room and library stacks, and will be shared by the two departments. Though there are some places where the two collections come very close to touching, they are for the most part distinct. The archives contain official government records going back to 1884, including executive, legislative, and court records. Historical collections materials consist mostly of private and corporate records, as well as government publications. Both collections also contain photographs and audio visual materials.

Collaboration between the two departments makes a lot of sense, said Jim Simard, head of Historical Collections.

“It’s a natural thing to do and we’re all really excited about doing it,” Simard said. “We think it’s a much better way to provide access ... and we feel like our level of service will be much improved. We’re also counting on having quite a bit more research going on because we’re in the same building.”

Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the state museum, said having the research library above the exhibit hall of the SLAM building will also allow museum visitors to continue their exploration of stories that catch their attention on the exhibit floor.

“If somebody’s in the museum and they see something they’re really fired up about, we can invite them to go upstairs and they can spend the rest of the day there reading about Tlingit art or whatever, seeing files relating to different parts of history,” Henrikson said.

 

Drawing on the collections in the vault

Like the museum, the historical collections and archives departments must balance the sometimes competing goals of preserving Alaska’s treasures while providing public access to them. Both departments have closed stacks, meaning staff gather whatever materials the visitor needs from the vault and bring them out. In some cases, the preservation issue can be skirted by allowing researchers to see a scanned reproduction of a document instead of the real thing. (Unlike the museum, the two departments are primarily geared toward delivering information, not necessarily the object that contains it — though in many cases the objects themselves are historical artifacts). Making digital copies is mostly about access, Simard said.

“We don’t do that to preserve the document, we do that to provide access to the document,” Simard said. “(But) that has a role in preservation, as nobody is handling it so much.”

For the museum, reproduction of materials is not an option — with some exceptions. For example, the original Benny’s flag, which used to be on display, was placed in storage after it sustained light damage and replaced with a replica. Still, if someone really wants to see it — a third grade class or a visitor from Florida who had his heart set on it — they will usually be accommodated, Henrikson said.

The vault’s role as a research facility for artists is also important, particularly in the case of Alaska Native artifacts, one of the museum’s strengths. For example, the museum’s Native basketry, a highlight of the collection, provides access to knowledge that has in some cases passed out of the world entirely.

“Some of these (baskets) are so old that there are no living people that have done those techniques,” Henrikson said. “(The baskets) are like the master artists here, and their apprentices come in and consult with them to learn how to do it.”

Henrikson said when viewed as a whole, the collections in the vault also offer important insight into Alaska history — concepts that are difficult to summarize in an exhibit.

“One of the strengths of our collection is having examples of work by Native artists who were active in the early 20th century at a time when a lot of books say that Native art had fallen apart completely. But there was a generation of artists who kept it alive.”

 

A big move in a short time

Registrar Addison Field, who’s in charge of organizing the objects and documentation of the museum’s collections, said he’s interested in making things even easier for artists and researchers in the new facility.

For example, he said, some of the Chilkat robes in the museum’s collection are laid out in drawers that are too short to show them, while others are rolled up. He hopes to provide larger drawers for the entire collection, so that they can be viewed more easily.

Right now, however, he’s busy with another task: Field is heading up the physical move of the museum collections from the old building to the new one, beginning in March 2014, a task that involves keeping track of 30,000 objects and their documentation, as well as making sure they arrive at their destination safely. The objects will be carried through a tunnel connecting the old museum and the new vault, currently under construction. The time frame: Six weeks.

“It’s a short amount of time,” Field said. “But I’m just viewing it as moving the collection from one room to another.”

 

Ceremonial use of museum objects

Another point of access for collections in the vault is in is the ceremonial use of Alaska Native objects, a program that’s been in place for 30 years and one for which the state museum is widely known. Some of the objects in the museum collection are held under agreement with the clans that own them and if the clan wants to use the object, they are allowed to do so. Henrikson said it goes against traditional museum procedure but has been very successful from the museum’s perspective.

“In museum school, that’s something they tell you never to do. Once you put that (catalog) number on something, you try to make all wear and tear stop and not do anything to it that’s going to alter the materials, the appearance, anything.... (but) we’ve compromised, we figured out a good mechanism to provide as much protection as possible to the object while still being able to have it travel out to events like the recent rededication of Chief Shakes house in Wrangell.”

 

New conservation labs on the way

For objects that do show signs of wear and tear, or for new acquisitions, all three departments will be able to draw on the resources of two state of the art conservation labs in the new facility — one for three-dimensional objects and one for paper. Currently, historical collections and archives have no professional paper or photo conservation systems in place, Dawson said, so the new labs represent a significant step up.

Though the SLAM project has been a long time coming, Dawson said overall he feels great about the way things are progressing so far.

“I wasn’t a believer at first,” he said. “We’ve been through a couple different consultants and this goes back years and years, you’d hear the same regurgitated lines — everybody, I think, was skeptical at first. (But) it slowly evolved into something that, yeah, this is going to happen. Let’s make it happen right.”

• Contact reporter Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or at amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com.

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