Putting The ‘State’ In Alaska State Museum

Eva Malvich from Bethel’s Yupiit Piciryarait Museum takes a break from packing objects at the Alaska State Museum. Photo by Casey Kelly, KTOO - Juneau.
Eva Malvich from Bethel’s Yupiit Piciryarait Museum takes a break from packing objects at the Alaska State Museum. Photo by Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau.

The Alaska State Museum in Juneau is getting a lot of help from other Alaska museums ahead of its move to a new facility in 2016.

As the staff works to pack up the more than 32,000 artifacts in its collection, museum professionals from around the state are lending a hand, and learning what it takes to safely store and transport priceless historical objects.

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In the basement of the Alaska State Museum, Eva Malvich uses a box cutter to slice a thin piece of gray cardboard into a small rectangle. Mounted on the cardboard, supported by four pieces of foam, is a makeup brush with an ornately carved metal handle. Malvich doesn’t know much about the brush, except that it came from a woman who collected items for her vanity.

“But then, you know, with objects you have to preserve them forever,” she says.

Malvich is director of the tribally owned Yupiit Piciryarait Museum in Bethel. The name means “The people’s way of living.”

“We’re the only museum in the [Yukon Kuskowkwim] Delta,” she proudly declares.

After a career in public administration, Malvich started working at the museum about a year ago. She had no practical experience, so she’s learning the best way to handle and preserve objects. She points to a piece of cardboard, like the one on which she just mounted the makeup brush.

“I used to wonder what the heck this was, because we have boxes of this,” she says. “I used to think, why do I have so much cardboard? Now I know it’s called blue board and it’s useful for making containers for my objects.”

Malvich is learning under the direction of husband and wife team Scott and Ellen Carlee. Ellen is the Alaska State Museum conservator. Scott is curator of museum services. His job is to assist and advise other museums and historical societies throughout the state.

“I help them with projects that they are working on. I help them get grants,” he says. “I actually have a small grant that I can give out to help them do projects. I can do assessments.”

During his travels, Carlee says other Alaska museum professionals wanted to know how the state museum was going to move its collection to a new State Library Archives and Museum building, scheduled to open in 2016. That’s how he got the idea to bring them to Juneau to see the project firsthand.

“I thought, well, it would be really nice to have them help me. But I would feel bad if it was, you know, on their own nickel,” Carlee says. “So I thought we should at least try to pay for their travel expenses. So I wrote this grant to the Institute for Museums and Library Services to help fund this travel down here as a professional development opportunity for these museum professionals throughout Alaska.”

The grant is for $83,000, which the state museum is matching. Carlee says each museum professional will get to visit Juneau twice – once during the packing and planning phase and again during the actual move.

“We’re calling them XOs, because ‘outside museum professionals’ is a little hard to say all the time and to write down,” Carlee says. “So XOs, just, we kind of think of it as like external operative or something. Somebody from the outside is coming in to help us.”

Anjuli Grantham is Curator of Collections at the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. Located inside the Russian American Magazin – a two-story log structure built in 1808 – it houses a treasure trove of colonial Alaska history. The museum’s not moving anytime soon, but Grantham says the staff is redesigning all of its exhibits.

“That’s going to mean that a lot of the objects that are currently in collection storage are going to be on exhibit,” says Grantham. “So, it’s going to require a lot of shuffling of things. It’s a perfect opportunity to implement some of these new solutions.”

Grantham had some experience preserving and caring for objects prior to working for the Baranof Museum. Still, she says the opportunity to learn from the staff at the Alaska State Museum is unique.

“This is what they do,” she says. “They conserve objects and they create these really amazing storage solutions for fragile objects of many different types of materials. It’s kind of like, now I’m here under the tutelage of masters.”

Grantham and Malvich were the fourth group of XOs to visit Juneau as part of the project. The grant is providing travel for 27 museum professionals from 12 Alaska institutions. Carlee says he works with between 60 and 70 museums around the state.

Casey Kelly is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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