The core of the Museum's collection comes from the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary who served as General Agent for Education in Alaska in the 1890s. In that capacity he made annual trips to Alaska, traveling extensively throughout the region. Dr. Jackson took collecting seriously, acquiring nearly 5,000 items during his travels.
While others were also collecting in Alaska and sending their items to noted museums, universities and societies around the world, Dr. Jackson was the only one who collected pieces for an Alaskan museum. The Sheldon Jackson Museum was founded in 1887, to house the collection and a growing library. The first building was quickly outgrown and the second, present-day structure opened to the public in 1897.
The Museum's collection is noted for its breadth. Among its best-known pieces are totems, masks, baskets, and traditional clothing noted for its beautiful ornamentation and fine sewing. The full-size kayaks and baidarka are among pieces that are favorites with visitors. There is also a fine collection of argillite carvings – the sculptures carved in the softly glowing black rock unique to the Queen Charlotte Islands of the Pacific coast.
The small size of the Museum, and its unusual octagonal structure, create an intimate setting that invites visitors to take their time looking at the exhibits. Many of the smaller artifacts, from jewelry to traditional toys, are stored in glass-covered drawers, allowing visitors an unusually close view of dozens of items. Other cases hold traditional clothing and larger artifacts. The Museum also has several totem poles on exhibit.
A baidarka – the traditional skin-covered watercraft used by the Aleut and Alutiiq people – is a highlight of the Museum's collection of material from the people who inhabit the Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and the southern parts of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. The Aleut and Alutiiq people developed a unique culture based on a subsistence lifestyle derived from the sea. Sea mammals, sea birds, fish and intertidal life provided many of the materials needed for survival.
Baskets, clothing and a birch bark canoe are among the items in the Museum's collection representing the Athabascan Indians. Living in the tundra, boreal forests and mountains of Alaska's Interior, the Athabascans contended with an annual temperature range from -60° to 100° F. In their traditional semi-nomadic life, they rely upon migrating caribou herds, moose, salmon and birds for food, clothing and shelter. Athabascan speaking people live throughout western North America, and include the Apache and Navajo People of the Southwest.
The largest collection in the Museum comes from the Inupiat and Yup'ik. It includes masks, baskets, ivory carvings, clothing of gut and skin, and kayaks. These people thrive on rich supplies of marine mammals, waterfowl, salmon, caribou and fur-bearing animals. With few trees in their land, driftwood, ivory and bone were traditionally used to build houses, sleds, boats, tools and weapons and household utensils. Historically referred to as Eskimo, the Inupiaq and Yup'ik people today prefer the terms that identify them as distinct from one another.
A fine collection of Tlingit regalia, a Tlingit dugout canoe and the black argillite carvings unique to the Haida highlight the Museum's collection of material from the Northwest Coast Indians of Alaska. Extending from Yakutat Bay in Alaska to Northern California, this group of Native peoples are represented in Alaska by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. These linguistically different groups lived in well-established communities in large split cedar or spruce houses that sheltered members of matrilineally-related clans. An elaborate social structure and rich ceremonial life were possible by the abundance of food resources, raw materials from the forests, beaches and sea, and extensive trade. Today, these tribes retain a complex social structure, traditional ceremonies, and a sophisticated art style.