Today I write not from Alaska but from Montreal, where my summer of chaos draws to a close. To recap: I finished my masters degree in American history, got married, then moved to Tenakee Springs, Alaska for a two-month museum job. Once back in Philly, my husband and I had a few days to vacate our apartment and drive a jam-packed rental car up to Quebec. We will reside here in Montreal this academic year as I work on my Fulbright project.
At this point I’m ready for life to settle into a routine involving local history and top-shelf fromage. But before I begin blogging about Montreal, I must conclude the story of Tenakee Springs — a place I started missing the moment I boarded the ferry out.
First, the job aspect:
My supervisors asked me to propose an exhibition development plan for the future museum, including interpretive themes and a design. Having no prior experience in this branch of museum work, I wasn’t sure where to begin. How should a band of volunteers go about transforming a tiny, one-room liquor store into a history exhibit?
Immediately I faced a basic but important question: What was the point of the museum? Should it be a repository of amusing anecdotes? A forum for local controversies to be aired? A place for long-time residents to register their memories? An introduction to the town for visitors?
I took my cue from the Tenakee Historical Collection’s newsletter, The Store Door. The Store Door is edited by Vicki, president of the board, and a few years back it won an award for being the best historical newsletter in the state of Alaska. Vicki packs each edition with colorful tales of Tenakee’s past. Issues have featured historic photos of “Red, the Beer-Fetching Dog,” articles about old-timers researched and written by school students, artifact identification contests, and in-depth histories on topics like the canneries of Tenakee Inlet (now shuttered but once a major source of jobs).
The museum could likewise take a collage approach. An exhibit following a strict linear timeline would work against the idiosyncrasies of the collection. Meanwhile a more flexible framework would allow the staff to put forward a range of objects and photos, perhaps loosely organized around themes like leisure and transportation. The collection’s miscellaneous nature could provide a platform for both light-hearted vignettes and serious reflection.
Also, one wall of the museum could serve as a temporary exhibit: a space for experimentation, sustained focus on one topic, and/or projects by guest curators, such as local artists or students from the school.
The overall aim of the museum would be to spark curiosity about Tenakee and how it came to be the way it is today.
As for the museum’s design, I used a free web app called Floorplanner to draft a layout. Not bad for a beginner?
Later I held a workshop on collections management basics for about ten museum volunteers. I tried to make it more of a conversation than a lecture, all based around a box of musty, uncataloged objects that I pulled from the storage attic. To begin, participants “voted” on which objects from the box to accession, using a draft of a collections management policy for reference. I talked a bit about cataloging and the PastPerfect database. Then a member of the audience came up and helped me demonstrate lightly brushing and rehousing a few of the objects in acid-free materials. People seemed to enjoy the workshop– they asked good questions, and later a few participants told me they wanted to get more involved with the museum. Success!
On my last day of work, Vicki helped me load all the collections material I’d sorted onto a trailer, including more than 300 cataloged objects and photos, three small paper collections, and a jumble of items recommended for deaccession. Just then it stared to rain. In true Tenakee fashion, neighbors dashed out to help us cover the collection with a tarp. (Thanks, Pete and Karen!)
We laid the collection to rest on an old bed that proved too big to remove from the attic storage space. Real shelves someday!
All said I’m pretty pleased with what we were able to accomplish this summer.
Tonight from my Montreal apartment, where the sounds of traffic and French conversation drift up from the street, Tenakee seems like another dimension entirely. Strange to think that only a few weeks ago I lived in a cabin in a village in the forest, a continent away. And while I’m excited about being in Quebec, I do miss the close-knit rhythms of Tenakee and the kind people I got to know there.
I’ll always remember picking berries and making jelly with Vicki…
Trash disposal as an aesthetic experience…
Singing with neighbors in the hot spring bath house…
The Billy Burns party and its infamous “juice”…
Walking all the way down the trail to check out a neighbor’s collection of maritime objects that washed ashore (and trying to guess what the mysterious holes in the woods near her property might be)…
Catching coho salmon (and seeing whales bubble-feed right next to our boat)!…
And so many other things — riding a seaplane through the mountains, feasting on crab with Linda and Stan, burgers at Rosie’s, salmon swimming upstream under the Indian River Bridge — the list could go on forever.
I’m grateful to the people I met in town. They welcomed an outsider and enabled me to experience being part of a community unlike any other I have known.
Thank you, Tenakee. I’ll be back someday.