Creating the figures for tomorrow's museums

“Make room for my forty-fives

Along beside your seventy-eights

Nothing survives but the way we live our lives”

• Jackson Browne, from the song Daddy’s Tune

Last Friday, hundreds of people got their last nostalgic look the Alaska State Museum before it closed its doors forever. But for a moment fast-forward your imagination to the dying days of the 21st century. The State Library Archives and Museum has also become too small to house the growing collection of cultural and historical treasures. It’s your great-grandchildren wandering through the SLAM one last time. Now the question this gives us today is what new artifacts are telling them stories of the formative events and interesting characters from our lifetime.

Constructed in 1967, the old building survived its intended lifespan of 50 years. It had been the home for hundreds of Native cultural displays, the relics of Russian-Alaskan history in the Great Land, and exhibits chronicling America’s purchase, settlement and admission as the 49th state. Those will always have a prominent place in the new museum as well. There will be lots more, for as chief curator Bob Banghart said about the business he’s known his entire career, “nothing stays the same.”

The rapid growth in our society is already brewing a different tomorrow. With every change comes new challenges. How we and our children meet them will help form the stories on display for future generations to study. Metaphorically speaking, we’ll get to write them, but not tell them. That’s the job for later historians, and they don’t have to be kind to us. But a look back can at least tell us what’s on the horizon.

Mining will always have a place in Alaska history. The new museum will continue to tell visitors about the discovery of gold by Joe Juneau and Richard Harris and the Klondike Gold Rush. The newer exhibits may include the massive open-pit Pebble mine complex above the Bristol Bay watershed. If so, what will be the story about the world’s richest salmon grounds? Will it tell our great-grandchildren about a visionary success or shortsighted failure?

From the global perspective, we’ve been handed a civilization that’s heavily reliant on fossil fuels to meet our transportation, manufacturing, heat and electrical power needs. Meanwhile here in Alaska, diminished oil taxes and royalties from North Slope production threatens the state’s fiscal solvency. But burning oil degrades the air we breathe. It’s now understood that fossil fuel fallout is making oceans acidic. And most scientists believe that fallout is a major contributor to rising temperatures across the globe. The story of how we rectify this multilevel dichotomy will certainly have a place in the SLAM before it’s torn down.

How much will Alaska have grown by 2090? Our population has tripled since the 49th state was born. During the same span, it about doubled across the world and will likely double again by the time the SLAM closes its doors. What share of that growth will be taken up by Alaska? What kind of impact will it have on our fisheries and wildlife? The bigger question might be that as the world gets more crowded, will the competition for land and resources mean more wars or will we finally learn to live in harmony?

These are just a few of the human plots that future historians will be analyzing. It’s impossible to predict the magnitude of other problems that will confront the children of today. Who will step up to face the challenges and make names for themselves like the William Henry Seward, Bob Bartlett, and Elizabeth Peratrovich? But as Banghart explained to me, for every major historical character there are countless supporting actors who made their story possible. In other words, it takes movements to find leaders. It’s not the other way around.

For better or worse, the way we live our lives will be our story. So instead of sitting on the sidelines waiting for coming attractions, we’d be better off trying to write our history as active agents for the changes we hope to see in the world. By doing so, we just might give life to some of the figures in tomorrow’s museums.

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