About the Collections

Introduction

The collections of the Alaska State Museums (Alaska State Museum and Sheldon Jackson Museum) represent the diverse cultures and rich historical record of a large geographic area. The museums' broad mandate is to collect, preserve and interpret the state’s human and natural history. The museums have more than 32,000 cataloged objects including Alaska Native material, historic artifacts, works of art, and natural history specimens. Alaska Native material, amounting to more than 15,000 objects, is the most outstanding part of the collection. Items from daily life as well as ceremonial objects and archaeological material represent all major cultural groups.

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Search our online database of artifacts in the State and Sheldon Jackson Museum.

Alaska State Museum

Alaska was under the Russian flag for 126 years, almost as long as it has been part of the United States. The museum's historical collection of 1,700 objects includes both the Russian colonial era and the American period (1867 to present). Outstanding among the Russian objects are a bronze double-headed eagle emblem, one of only two known to exist, a medallion presented to Alexander Baranov by Catherine the Great, a tri-corner hat and brocaded caftan from the 1840s, and material related to Russian exploration. Tools, weapons, religious icons, documents, and utensils form a comprehensive representation of life in Russian America.

Objects from the American period highlight exploration, transportation, commerce, domestic culture, and government. Shipwreck artifacts, a lighthouse lens, tourism ephemera, gold rush memorabilia, mining equipment, mountaineering gear, aircraft, firearms, fishing boats, whaling equipment, World War II materials and items from the Exxon Valdez oil spill represent Alaska’s fascinating past century.

Alaska Native material dominates the collection and includes objects from Alaskan Eskimo, Athabascan, Aleut, and Northwest Coast groups. Items from daily life as well as ceremonial and sacred objects are well represented. The collection of Northwest Coast and Eskimo baskets is among the most comprehensive in existence, and includes fragments of three recently discovered baskets which have been dated to 5,000 years b.p., the oldest ever recovered in Alaska or the Northwest Coast. The collection of Eskimo carved ivory is comprehensive, ranging from prehistoric to twentieth century. The Alaska State Museum also maintains an outstanding collection of work by contemporary Native artists.

The fine art collection consists of approximately 1,800 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculptures. A watercolor by William Ellis made during Captain Cook’s exploration of Alaska in 1778 represents the earliest original image of Alaska in any collection in the state. Early engravings illustrate the exploration of Alaska. Rare watercolors from the Russian period depict Sitka, the former capital of Russian Alaska. The collection also includes works by Sydney Laurence and Eustace Ziegler, the most famous of Alaska’s landscapists. Rockwell Kent and Ilya Bolotowsky are among the nationally known artists in the collection who visited Alaska. Much of the collection reflects the Alaska State Museum’s efforts to keep pace with the development of contemporary art in the state since the 1970s. The museum often purchases work from in-house exhibits by Alaska artists.

The natural history collection contains approximately 1,200 seashells, minerals, skeletons, fossils, and mounted animals and birds. A valuable herbarium in collection storage includes over 6,000 mounted plant specimens and is used for research.

To better represent the history and cultures of Alaska, the Museum is seeking items relating to certain areas and subjects. The following is a partial list:

  • Russian America
  • World War II in Alaska: Attu, Kiska, Dutch Harbor, the Alaska Territorial Guard, Lend Lease, etc.
  • Civil Defense and the Cold War
  • The Matanuska Colony
  • Tourism industry, steamship and cruise lines
  • Early aviation
  • Canneries and fishing
  • Missionary activities
  • Territorial Government and the Justice System
  • 19th and early 20th century Alaska paintings
  • Alaska Native technology, tools and utensils

To donate items to the collection, contact the curator of collections:

Sheldon Jackson Museum

View the Sheldon Jackson Artifact of the Month

The Sheldon Jackson Museum collections include objects from each of the Native groups in Alaska: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Aleut, Alutiiq, Yup’ik, Inupiat and Athabascan. The collections strongly reflect the collecting done by founder, Sheldon Jackson, from 1887 through about 1898 during his tenure as General Agent of Education for Alaska. Other objects were subsequently added to the collection, but in 1984 when the museum was purchased by the State of Alaska, the decision was made to add only Alaska Native materials made prior to the early 1930s.

The Yup’ik and Inupiat objects are the most widely represented and have the broadest selection of materials but in no way provide a comprehensive picture of the cultures.

The collection of objects from Southeast Alaska is rich in objects made for sale around the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. Spruce root baskets, engraved silver objects, and bead work are important representatives of traditional skills and materials being used to make items for sale. However, there is only a smattering of stone tools, fishing and hunting equipment and clothing in the collection. Many everyday utilitarian objects are missing.

Sheldon Jackson only traveled deep into the interior once in his career in Alaska. He or his representative collected only a dozen Athabascan objects during that time. Athabascan objects have been added but well over half of the 106 Athabascan objects came to the museum after 1960.

Aleut and Alutiiq materials are even more rare. By the time Jackson and his teachers began collecting in the Aleutian Islands and Prince William Sound, those cultures had been impacted by Western cultures for nearly 150 years. Museums in St. Petersburg, Russia and Finland are rich in material culture from those areas. Jackson was able to purchase made-for-sale grass baskets, gut bags and model baidarkas, but little else in the way of materials representing the people of the Aleutians.
To better represent the cultures of Alaska, the Museum is seeking items relating to certain areas and subjects. The following is a partial list:

  1. Tlingit spoon bag, spoon mold, digging stick, bentwood box with woven cover and other utilitarian objects.
  2. Aleut/Alutiiq clothing, kayak bailer, wood carvings and utilitarian objects.
  3. Athabascan masks and utilitarian objects.
  4. Any objects collected by Sheldon Jackson.

To make a tax deductible donation to the museum, contact:

All objects would be considered for appropriateness and need.

Page last updated 05/25/2017