Collections nightmare or gift from the Gods?!?

I’ll admit it. I LOVE STUFF!  Always have, always will.  But my internship this summer in Alaska has me feeling some strange new sensations I never thought I could feel…like, ‘Thank goodness half of this collection was stolen before I arrived!!!”

I’m here in Metlakatla, AK living on the only Indian Reserve in the state, and working at the Duncan Cottage Museum. Here’s a little background on the museum:

The museum building is the historic home of missionary William Duncan (1831-1918) who worked with the Tsimshian of British Columbia and Alaska for over 60 years.  He lead a mass-migration of 823 Tsimshian people from Old Metlakatla, BC to new Metlakatla, AK in 1887.  This new location on Annette Island became the Annette Island Indian Reserve in 1891. The same year, Duncan’s cottage was built for him by Tsimshian carpenters and became his base of operations as the community’s religious leader, business manager, primary school teacher, and health care practitioner. After his death, the cottage became a museum (by leaving everything in its place) with a collection consisting of Duncan’s personal belongings.

Though the museum became a national historic site in 1972, it has only functioned to serve the averaged 4,000 tourists who visit Metlakatla/year.  Without a mission to serve its local community, and without trained museum professionals to run it, the museum fell into a state of physical and institutional decay.  Since 2007, when my supervisor Mique’l became curator, she has been at work to preserve what remains of the collection, and to begin the long and arduous process of turning the Duncan Cottage into a functional museum that serves the people of Metlakatla.

The Duncan Cottage Museum

My job while I am here has to do primarily with collections.  Much of what was formerly in the museum has walked away over the years, along with the documentation of the collection, and the objects that remain are really in a state of peril.  So, in order to find out what we still have in the museum we are conducting a room by room inventory, photographing, rehousing, and entering data into Past Perfect. When we are done with this project, the museum will have a lovely searchable database of every object in the collection complete with images, descriptions, measurements, provenence, condition reports, and locations.

To show you what I mean by ‘peril’, here are a few photos of the state of the objects in the museum when I arrived.

original photographs curling in on themselves

100 year old chemicals with a sign saying 'Old Medicines Please do not handle anything'

musical instruments piled on top of one another

one of my favorites...Father Duncan's coats on wire hangers covered in drycleaner's plastic.

lastly, the closet of doom...where collections go to die.

Much of the collection is gone, a fact which would have mortified me just a month ago. But now, as I spend hours at a time cataloging what is left, I cannot help but be thankful.  We have so much work to do given the state of the records, and the basic conservation needs of the collection, that we could never finish the project if there were twice as many objects! I NEVER thought I would say it…but thank goodness for sticky fingers!!!

More to come on some of the brighter aspects of this rising institution, including news about our first public programming!

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