Wyatt: Molding a museum

Mary Pat Wyatt thinks inanimate objects are fascinating.

Posted: Friday, October 27, 2000

Juneau Color

"Objects are the physical manifestation of history," said Wyatt, the Juneau-Douglas City Museum's curator. "You can see photographs and read about historical events in the newspaper, but the objects themselves also have their own story to tell."

"I just love the idea that somebody from 500 years ago, or whatever the time period, handled the very same objects that we have in the museum," she added.

Although a passion for historical objects has driven Wyatt's career as a collector, conservator and museum curator, it's her ability to get things done that has transformed the Juneau-Douglas City Museum into a legitimate institution.

"Mary Pat's creativity in finding funding sources and her constant generation of ideas on how to present information is how the museum gained respect from both the city government and the public," said Kathryn Cohen of the city's Historic Resources Advisory Committee.

A personal collector for decades, Wyatt began her interest in objects while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"My early love was for Yupik and Aleut Native artifacts,'' Wyatt said. "I was fascinated with the way things were made and how they were used."

Her hobby quickly developed into a career as a conservator and curator that led to positions with the University of Alaska Museum, the Anchorage Museum, the Smithsonian National Institute, the Alaska State Museum and The House of Wickersham.

In 1984, Juneau hired Wyatt to run its museum.

"At that time, the museum was known as the Last Chance Mining Museum. It was essentially a mining museum with a permanent collection of about 50 catalogued items," said Wyatt. "My dream was to create a museum for the residents of Juneau that would interpret all of the city's history.

"I saw a place where the old-timers wanted to go to remember what was and a place where the newcomers and children could find out what makes Juneau so special," she added.

Wyatt's goals were not easily achieved. The museum survived more than four location changes, including homelessness, before it found its current home in the Veterans Memorial Building in 1991.

"Mary Pat was instrumental in securing that building for the museum," said Cohen, who has known Wyatt since they were roommates in college. "Once the museum had a permanent place, it was used more intensively and finally legitimized."

Today, the Juneau-Douglas City Museum offers year-round exhibits, a history grant, school and youth programs, art and culture classes, community research assistance and houses more than 6,000 catalogued item in its permanent collection.

"Mary Pat was determined to keep the museum going and did an incredible job with scarce resources," said Gary Gillette, president of the Gastineau Channel Historical Society, an organization that now operates the Last Chance Mining Museum for the city.

"A lot of other people might have given up but she kept going," he said. "I've always been impressed with how she brought in volunteers and found the people to create a first-rate museum."

With four part-time employees, including the janitor, volunteers play a key role in the museum's survival.

"We have around 50 volunteers throughout the year and they almost equal one full-time employee,'' said Wyatt, from the museum's cluttered office. "That's really important since we are understaffed and open 54 hours a week in the summer."

The museum, like many other Juneau establishments, is busiest in the summer.

"Eighty percent of our visitors come from the cruise ships. They are our bread and butter," said Wyatt. "But, I still feel very strongly that the museum's focus is to our community not our visitors," said Wyatt.

This winter, along with working on recently awarded state and federal grants that enable the museum staff to further document its collection and have its community performance evaluated by federal assessors, Wyatt is excited about the arrival of the museum's newest object.

"We have a turn-of-the-century canoe, an old Tlingit-style canoe, coming next week. It's a 16 1/2-foot dugout canoe and there's only one other canoe like it in Southeast," she said.

"This is going to be a fun project," said Wyatt, as a large grin played across her face. "I just love historical objects and the stories they tell."

Despite the museum's current services and a budget that has tripled since Wyatt was hired, funding is still a critical element.

"It's actually remarkable what Mary Pat has accomplished with the limited resources that have been available over the years,'' said Cohen, of the Historic Resources Advisory Committee. "It would be wonderful to see what she could do with adequate funding."

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