As the official repository of the state's history, Juneau’s Alaska State Museum is charged with collecting, preserving and interpreting a wealth of ethnographic, artistic and historical material. Founded in 1900, only 33 years after Alaska was purchased from Russia, the museum’s collections have a depth that few other institutions can duplicate. More than 35,000 artifacts, specimens and works of art are housed in the museum, only a portion of which can be exhibited at any given time.
As visitors enter the museum, they are dwarfed by a life-size eagle-nesting tree. Below the tree, behind mossy logs and Devil’s club shrubs, forages an Alaska brown bear sow and cub. A gentle ramp spirals up around the tree, bringing visitors alongside a large eagle’s nest with seven magnificently perched and suspended bald eagles. Near the base of the tree is the Beaver Totem Pole, depicting Tlingit clan stories, among them, Strong Man story.
Just beyond the eagle tree, visitors may pause at a large sphere suspended in a darkened foyer. The sphere is a technological wonder that springs to life as a 3-D representation of Earth spinning in space. The museum recently installed this permanent display, titled Science on a Sphere, in partnership with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The exhibit features a six-foot diameter sphere upon which can be projected computer-generated moving images of the earth’s surface, weather and natural resource data. The result is a fully-detailed, living planet alive with information that highlights Alaska’s prominence in issues of climate change and helps to better understand complex environmental issues. A variety of cutting edge programs are shown on the sphere and new programs are constantly under development as scientists learn more about our planet.
Volunteers offer tours of the museum during the summer and by special arrangement during the rest of the year. The museum’s store, operated by The Friends of the Alaska State Museum, features baskets, jewelry and carvings made by Alaskans, as well as books, note cards and audio/visual materials.
Alaska’s Native Cultures
The museum is perhaps best known for its exhibits of objects from Alaska’s distinct Native peoples: Northwest Coast, Inupiaq and Yup’ik, Athabascan and Aleut and Alutiiq cultures [Links to below]. Visitors are often excited to learn about the extraordinary variety, richness and depth of Alaska’s Native heritage. Besides showcasing historical Native traditions, the exhibits include examples of the work of contemporary Alaska Native artists that both continue traditions and also push traditional boundaries.
The museum’s collection of cultural materials from the people of the Northwest Coast – Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian – are exhibited in a dramatic gallery that simulates part of the interior of a traditional plank house, the Frog House from the Tlingit village of Klukwan of northern Southeast Alaska. The room incorporates display cases containing Tlingit and Haida precious objects and utilitarian items. Here, under subdued lighting in front of a painted wall screen, are mannequins in ceremonial dress, flanked by massive original carved and painted house posts on loan from the people of Klukwan. The spruce-root hat and Frog Hat on display are world-class works of art of historical and contemporary significance.
Additional highlights include ceremonial use items and shamanic items. The importance of trade among Native cultures is juxtaposed with Chinese, Russian and Hudson’s Bay trade items.
A 19th century totem pole fragment is of particular interest as it portrays a man with a likeness to Abraham Lincoln. Some have assumed that the carver used an image of Lincoln as a model. The Thunderbird Screen, a wooden painted panel which one sees across from the visitor services desk, was made for the Thunderbird House in Yakutat in the early 1900s. The Wolf houseposts, carved in 1904, were dedicated at a potlatch feast at a time with such ceremonies were discouraged by missionaries.
In the Eskimo exhibits, one can marvel at the ingenuity required in developing skills and technologies for living in one of the most hostile climates in the world. The term “Eskimo” has long been applied to numerous arctic cultures. The two primary groups in Alaska are the Yup’ik, in western Alaska, and the Inupiat, in northern Alaska. Displays feature clothing, hunting and fishing implements, ceremonial materials and archaeological artifacts from older cultures.
One exhibit shows a fully equipped Yup’ik kayak complete with a kayaker wearing a waterproof parka and hunting hat. The kayak is displayed without the usual seal skin covering, leaving the carved wooden frame exposed so the viewer can see the sophistication and intricacy of the construction techniques.
Contrast that with the enormous 34-foot long Inupiaq umiak raised overhead on a scaffold – the traditional storage method. Boats like this, constructed of a driftwood frame covered with the skins from walruses, made voyages between Alaska and Siberia before the advent of more recent political boundaries.
The great river valleys of Interior Alaska are the home of the Athabascan people, whose traditional homelands extend into Canada. The heart of this display is a life-size diorama depicting an Athabascan man and woman in exquisite traditional beaded clothing, standing next to a birch-bark canoe. Adjacent displays feature masks, beadwork, snowshoes, tools and weapons. An electrified violin illustrates the longstanding musical tradition and continued cultural importance of Athabascan folk fiddling over the past century.
The Aleut and Alutiiq people’s traditional homelands include the islands and coast from Prince William Sound to Kodiak Island, and westward along the Aleutian Island chain. Among the outstanding exhibits in the Aleut gallery is the varied collection of baskets woven from fine strips of beach grass. The Aleut weaving is so fine it has been compared to linen. A bentwood Aleut hunting hat, several kayak models and purses made from gut are also displayed in this section.
In the second floor galleries, one can trace Alaska’s history beginning with its Russian discovery in 1741. During its almost 130-year presence, Russia established a number of settlements, most notably Sitka and Kodiak. Here you can see medals awarded to Russian explorers for their accomplishments as well as a rare double-headed eagle emblem, the only example known to exist, given by a Russian administrator to a Tlingit chief 200 years ago as a sign of good will. Also shown are items of settlement life, weapons, religious icons and documents, providing a comprehensive representation of life in Russian America.
Political pressures and the over-hunting of the sea otter led Russia to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million. The transition from Russian to American governance is represented by personal effects of Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, as well as Russian and American military equipment. A black cloak worn by Seward, is displayed across from the desk on which the purchase agreement for the transfer of Alaska to the U.S. was drafted. A vintage newspaper cartoon reminds us that opponents to the purchase of Alaska referred to it as Seward’s Folly. The American period of Alaska's history has been a story of development fueled by the exploitation of natural resources – furs, whales, fisheries, timber, minerals, oil and tourism. Related objects from the collection include illustrations of early fur seal harvests, whaling implements and a label from the first Alaska salmon cannery.
If it’s the Wild West allure of the Gold Rush that captures your fancy, the mining room features many artifacts and mineral specimens from Alaska’s many mines. Boomtown lawlessness is represented with a display about the fatal showdown between the outlaw "Soapy" Smith and a vigilante group in Skagway in 1898.
A beautiful display case from a long-closed Juneau store holds curios related to the very early tourism industry, while other exhibits chronicle World War II and the quest for statehood. A replica of the original design for Alaska’s flag, submitted by a 13-year-old schoolboy in 1927, highlights a display of political memorabilia. Alaska’s nautical history is reflected by a massive lighthouse lens and several ship models. One can also see clean-up materials from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
For Kids Only
If you are traveling with children, the Children’s Room is tucked away near the mining exhibits. The room features a scaled-down version of the stern of Capt. George Vancouver’s ship, Discovery, which plied Southeast Alaskan waters in 1793 and 1794. Here kids can climb aboard, explore and dress up in period costumes. The room also provides a variety of other learning activities.