Local column: Library, archives and museum project should be a SLAM dunk

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The motto of the National Endowment for the Arts is, "a great nation deserves great art."

In my capacity as chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, I often paraphrase this slogan, and tell people that Alaska - where I was born and am privileged to live - is the greatest state in the union, and therefore deserves the greatest arts. We do have some incredible artistic activities around us and in our daily lives.

As an actor, I'm most grateful for the opportunities I've had to perform with Perseverance Theatre and other wonderful companies across Alaska.

As an audience member, I'm equally pleased. The performing artists that we bring into our community also are a source of joy and pride to me. But everyone knows there's more to the arts than live performance.

Visual arts are among the oldest means of human self-expression. They relay historical perceptions and reflect cultural mores. Museums are repositories of historical artifacts and artistic masterpieces, and are essential to the well-being of a healthy society. We in Alaska are extremely fortunate to have an array of wonderful museums, from Dillingham to Kodiak, in Homer, Fairbanks, Palmer, and Anchorage. Here in Juneau we are blessed to have two significant museum facilities right in downtown. And one is bursting at the seams.

To provide some historical context, the Alaska State Museum was born when Congress established the Alaska Historical Library and Museum in 1900. The museum moved to the Capitol's second floor in 1931, where it remained until 1968. The people of Juneau financed the current building through a 1 percent sales tax in honor of the centennial of Alaska's purchase from czarist Russia by the United States. The city of Juneau handed the building over to the state at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in January 1970.

The Alaska State Museum is an old building, with asbestos problems and a severe lack of capacity to display the priceless treasures in its collection. The museum is run by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, which also is responsible for the State Library and the State Archives. Both of these state agencies are housed in equally, if not more, outdated and inefficient facilities. There is tremendous promise to the idea of collocating the library, archives and museum in one facility; that is exactly the plan currently before the Legislature.

What was once known as the State Museum Expansion Project is now being called the SLAM Project, an acronym for State Library, Archives and Museum. Several years ago, the Legislature appropriated money to purchase the large empty lot that lies between the State Museum and the Foodland Shopping Center. It has been dedicated for a new, state-of-the-art facility to house the library, archives and museum.

A few years ago, the Legislature appropriated more money to fund planning and preliminary design work for this project. This year, Gov. Sarah Palin put a significant sum into her proposed capital budget to finish the design work so there are concrete engineering and architectural plans in place to allow for the final phase - constructing and opening the facility.

Juneau residents ought naturally to support the SLAM Project. It will expand a much-loved facility and make it something we can all enjoy year-round. I believe that Alaskans from across the Last Frontier ought to join in supporting the project. It will house artistic and historical works that belong to all of us, and will enable these masterpieces to be displayed in a way we can be proud of and from which we will learn.

The newly housed library and archives will allow Alaskans to access these unique collections of documents, books and other materials efficiently and with ease. The facility will showcase all that is best about Alaska's past, and our commitment to Alaska's future.

The Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is a world-class facility that elicits the best responses from those who visit it. The expansion of the Anchorage Museum of History & Art currently underway will produce a beautiful and user-friendly home for artistic and historical treasures. The time is now for the aging building that houses the Alaska State Museum to be born again, enlarged to house the sister agencies of the State Library and Archives.

I am grateful to Palin for her commitment to SLAM, and I encourage all Alaskans to ask their legislators to join in this culturally crucial project. We can and will make it happen.

• Ben Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.

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