Big state, small museums

Last month, my family and I headed to Alaska for a Viking ocean cruise. We ate too much. We drank too much. We saw a lot of mountains and snow. We saw a few eagles and whales and orcas. We didn’t see any moose (much to my dad’s disappointment). And of course, we visited a few of the local museums.

The contrast between big and small in Alaska is stark. Huge state, small population. But huge flow of tourists, that is just now restarting. As I visited these museums, I thought a lot about the weird balance these folks must maintain–serving a huge influx of tourists who will likely never come back and their small, local audience.

Two museums in Valdez were particularly impressive in this balancing act. The morning we docked, I just happened to be catching up on an old issue of History News–and there was a blurb about the digital efforts of the Valdez Museum. What are the odds?

Though Valdez has a population of less than 10,000, it has some very big stories in its past–the oil spill in 1989 and the second strongest earthquake ever recorded in 1964. The destruction to their town was so bad the entire town was relocated about 4 miles to its current location. The small museum did an excellent job of telling these stories, along with the typical local history stories of settlement.

A bit of the exhibit on the earthquake–loved the personal stories and setting it in a kitchen.

In a second location, they also had a model of the old town site, which I also enjoyed.

The model, with Jimi for scale.

However, what blew me away was something that I’m pretty sure 95% of my fellow travelers failed to notice: an extensive display on their expansion plans. They had renderings on poster board, an FAQ flyer entitled “Why build a new museum?” and a one-pager on the economic impact of the museum. Be still my heart! There was no need to have this out for the visitors that are just passing through, but I’m so glad they did. If they’re this open with strangers, I have high hopes that they’re using that same collaborative, transparent spirit with their community. Who knows if I’ll ever visit Valdez again? But I’m certainly rooting for them here in Texas.

The informational table for their expansion.

The other highlight in Valdez was the Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum. Consisting of a private collection of indigenous artifacts, the displays were stunning. The labels sparked all the right questions. It was an extraordinary use of space–only 4000 sq. ft. total, but we never felt crowded. It’s just a little jewel box of a museum, with truly beautiful things that highlight the story of the white collector, but still honored the indigenous makers of the items.

In front of this label, I had an interesting conversation with a stranger.

Great label example.

She commented on how interesting the label was, and I agreed, confessing that I was a museum person. Then, she asked “what’s the big deal about it being an artifact rather than art? It’s still being honored.” I replied “But by calling things artifacts instead of art, we’re making it different or other–and implying that the white definitions of art and culture are best.” She looked at me as if a light bulb went off–“I never thought of it like that! You’re right.” Usually, conversations with strangers about white supremacy don’t go so well. But look at what a great label can do!

Throughout the rest of the museums we visited, the indigenous voice was strong. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, including the fact that Alaska has the highest indigenous population of any state. Another highlight was the Saxman Village Totem Pole Park. We had seen lots of totem poles already, but this was the first time we had someone to explain the symbols to us. I wish that experience had been earlier in the trip!

Such a beautiful place!

The other real museum highlight was the Maritime Museum in Vancouver. They had a wonderful temporary exhibit on the canoe culture of the native people–something I knew absolutely nothing about. And it was politically bold and thought provoking. It also brought history right up to the present.

Just one example from this though provoking exhibit.

The other real joy of this museum was the ability to climb all over the St. Roch, one of the first boats to make its way through the Northwest Passage. I have no regrets about not being that kind of pioneer, but it’s always good when you can place yourself onto one of those historic vessels. In a beautifully, climate controlled space!

Below are a few other exhibit highlights from our trip.

We didn’t go into the Hammer Museum, but isn’t it cute?
One of my favorite artifacts from the State Museum–a statehood dress!
At the entrance of the VanDusen Garden in Vancouver. Love this sneak preview!

In short, the museums in Alaska are doing great–and I hope the return of the tourist economy brings them some much needed funds–and not too much damage from all those cruise ship guests.

Published by Melissa Prycer

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. Working to help build a better museum field and a better Dallas. Formerly Executive Director at Dallas Heritage Village.

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