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Legislators take a break to visit their state's museum

Support still needed for new Library, Archives and Museum project

Posted: April 26, 2011 - 9:37pm
Juneau's three-member legislative delegation, Rep. Kathy Munoz, left, Sen. Dennis Egan, center, and Rep. Beth Kurtulla  look up to view water damage in the ceiling panels of the Alaska State Museum's art collection vault during a tour given by museum staff for legislators Tuesday.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Juneau's three-member legislative delegation, Rep. Kathy Munoz, left, Sen. Dennis Egan, center, and Rep. Beth Kurtulla look up to view water damage in the ceiling panels of the Alaska State Museum's art collection vault during a tour given by museum staff for legislators Tuesday.

With only a few legislators involved in ongoing budget negotiations, members of the Juneau delegation took the opportunity to round up a dozen or so of their colleagues for a guided tour of the Alaska State Museum, one of the City and Borough of Juneau’s top priorities for improvement.

The state is currently assembling money for a new museum, to be combined with the state library and archives, which are all housed in separate, and often inadequate places, and Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, and Reps. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, want their colleagues to support the project.

Grabbing attention Tuesday was the original state flag contest entry submitted by seventh-grader Benny Benson in 1927.

“It’s too fragile to put on public display,” said Steve Henrikson, curator of collections.

The drawing and Benson’s explanation of what it represented was submitted on inexpensive school construction paper that can’t take prolonged exposure to light, he said.

Tuesday, lawmakers and staff crowded around that piece of Alaska’s history.

There were gasps from the tour group when they realized were looking at the actual beginnings of Alaska’s flag.

“It makes my heart glad to get to see it,” Kerttula said.

The museum has numerous stories to tell, various regions of the state, as well as various time periods, ranging from pre-contact Native cultures, the Russian period, mining, wildlife, art, and a host of others. The problem, said Museum Curator Bob Banghart, is simply finding space to make its history collections available to the public.

“We’ve got it, we just don’t have a way to show it,” he said.

Among the collection’s prizes: A piece of a woven basket recovered from the mud south of Sitka that’s been radio carbon-dated to 6,000 years ago.

“That’s 2,000 years earlier than the pyramids, to put it in perspective,” Banghart said.

“It’s wonderful to be able to put it in that context,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

What Banghart, along with Egan, Muñoz and Kerttula, hope to do is persuade Stevens and other legislators to continue funding the museum project.

The current plan will double exhibit space, and triple storage space, he said, along with major upgrade and modernization steps.

“Probably 90 percent of our collection is in storage at any given time,” Banghart said.

“We do what we can to get those out on exhibition,” he said.

That will allow the museum to offer the latest in exhibits, such as NOAA’s intriguing “Science on a Sphere” digital representation of our world on a nearly room-sized animated globe.

One thing that likely won’t be going away is the museum’s premier exhibit, the winding ramp around the eagle’s nest tree that’s riveted schoolchildren for decades.

“What we’re finding out as we consider what to carry forward in the new building is that this is one of the signature pieces of the institution,” Banghart said.

That means the nest, or something like it, will stay, he said.

“We need to accommodate what we’re hearing from constituents — that we need to include an element like it in our new building.

For the museum’s staff, however, the less visible but no less critical mechanics of the building are also at issue.

In the basement collections storage area, notations on the ceiling provide the date of each of the major leaks that has stained tiles above the artifacts.

That’s so they can spot newly developing leaks and protect the collections. Along the walls, plastic sheeting provides extra protection against a porous foundation.

Initial money for the project was included in a bond package voters approved recently. That was enough to begin design work, but the final building cost has not yet been determined.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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