Earlier this month a very exciting ground-breaking ceremony was held in Juneau’s Willoughby District. After many years of strategic planning, actual construction work has begun on the State Library, Archive & Museum (SLAM) project, great news for Juneau and for all Alaskans.
The beloved building that currently houses the Alaska State Museum was paid for by the people of Juneau through sales taxes, and opened in 1967 to celebrate the centenary of the United States’ acquisition of Alaska from the Russian Empire. It is a charming building, used to its fullest possible capacity for decades, but no longer adequate to curate, display, and safely store the State’s large collection of historical and artistic treasures. The State Library and Archive facilities here in the Capital City are in as parlous or worse shape.
The land behind the current State Museum was obtained and dedicated to a new unified State Library, Archives & Museum back in 2002. Knowing that it would take a while to line up the moneys to pay for the full design and construction process, the Friends of the Alaska State Museum (on whose Board I formerly served) suggested that the land be used for parking on an interim basis. In 2006 planning funding was obtained, in 2008 that for completion of design and architectural work. Funds for actual site development and construction have since come through the passage of a General Obligation Bond in 2010, and in a series of deeply-appreciated appropriations from the State Legislature. Out of a total project budget of about $131 million, $81 million is in place with $50 million still needed; some of this is proposed in the capital budget for the coming fiscal year.
The ground-breaking on the 16th of January was attended by a host of Juneau residents, and Mayor Merrill Sanford spoke enthusiastically about the Capital City’s long-term and thorough support for the SLAM project. It was especially heartening to see legislators from Southcentral, Interior, and rural Alaska alongside members of the Juneau delegation, because SLAM has not come as far as it has without statewide support. SLAM will be a State facility, providing a tremendous amount of distance-delivered services to arts and cultural institutions across the Last Frontier. By consolidating books and other historic library resources with artifacts, paintings, drawings, and other assets, the SLAM agencies will offer a world-class museum experience to visitors here in Juneau comparable to those at the recently rebuilt Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Anchorage Museum of History & Art. Exhibits will be curated here in the Capital City and then travel to communities around Alaska.
A further reason to be optimistic about getting the remaining funds in place for the SLAM project rather sooner than later — ensuring its completion on time and within the current budgetary parameters — is that SLAM is a very smart building project designed to save money and do more without increasing operating costs. Use of new technology in the SLAM’s energy features may reduce current operating costs by ten percent or more, and working spaces will be more efficient.
The new SLAM building will afford twice the space currently allocated to books and other library materials, archive documents, and museum collections. This will double exhibition space and allow much safer and more easily accessible storage. This increases opportunities for researchers, students, and those seeking to enjoy historical and artistic items to interface with collections, and for curators to keep things not on display in better rotation or available for loan to other institutions. The public spaces of the Museum will attract and delight Alaskans and visitors alike, and provide a venue for exciting artistic and cultural events.
Juneau’s mid-January weather was not particularly conducive to an outdoors ground-breaking ceremony, and soil was brought inside for ceremonial shoveling purposes. Given that the lot on which the SLAM project will rise is muddy even on sunny days, this was a wise choice. It was wonderful to see those in attendance line up around the walkway of the three-story diorama of Southeast rainforest full of local creatures. Juneau will no doubt miss this charming area, its walls lined with display cases housing more animals and beautiful Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artifacts. Fortunately, the SLAM project is being built in phases, with the vault space going in first. The current State Museum should be open until about this time next year, when it will close forever. If all goes as planned the grand opening of the new State Library, Archives & Museum will be held in early 2016, inside a beautiful monument to the unique wonder, history, and culture of Alaska. Now is the time for to enjoy the last year of the old State Museum and to get the new one built.
• Brown serves as Chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and is an attorney who lives in Juneau.