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Juneau museum prepares for new era

By Rhonda McBride 6:43 AM March 10, 2014

Elaborate game of musical chairs at Juneau’s state museum

JUNEAU – The State Museum in Juneau may be closed, but inside the museum is a highly choreographed hub of activity, with staffers and other experts working to pack up more than 30,000 objects.

“It’s a very methodical deconstruction of everything that’s in the house,” said Bob Banghart, chief curator for Alaska State Museums.

The reason? Everything must be moved so the building can be torn down.

Part of the museum’s new home is under construction, right behind the existing building. Once it’s finished, the old museum  will be demolished and replaced — almost like an elaborate game musical chairs. The move has been in the planning stages for more than a year, and Banghart takes pride in how well-thought-out it is. The move also includes professionals on loan from other museums in Alaska.

As the saying goes, many hands make light work. But there’s another reason why museums across the state have been willing to send their staffers to Juneau.

Amy Steffian, who is director of research and publications at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, has been helping to break down the Alaska Native exhibits. Her museum is sending  three staffers to assist in the move.

Steffian said this experience will help them, when the time comes, to expand the museum in Kodiak.

“We’re now out of space, and we just got a $76,000 grant from the Murdock Charitable Trust to expand our storage collection in the basement of our building,” Steffian said.

It’s not just anyone who can do the packing. There’s much more going on than meets the eye.

Each object must be catalogued, even the mountings, which were custom made for display.

Staffers are also taking time to consolidate information about each object, gleaning bits of information from the old catalogue cards and adding it to the newer digital archives. In some cases, items in a collection that became separated have been reunited.

Galleries in the existing museum have been repurposed for storage space. It helps that the rooms are already controlled for temperature and humidity.

Banghart said the storage facilities needed for the kind of treasures housed in the museum are hard to come by and expensive — and there’s also the risk of moving them to another location.

“It would cost me thousands of dollars, so it’s much easier to sequence the building process,” Banghart said.

So how does the sequence work?

A door will soon be cut out of the old museum for a tunnel made of two 40-foot shipping containers.

The tunnel will serve as a portal from the old museum to a collections vault in new building — a portal where objects can safely travel from the past to the future.

“I think probably my worst fear is that we probably don’t get the collection transferred before there is some sort of cataclysmic, seismic event,” Banghart said.

The current storage facility for the State Archives on Willoughby Street actually has a crack, several inches wide, due to seismic shifting. The archives will eventually move into the new building, along with the State Library. Both occupy space on the eighth floor of the State Office Building, also known as the SOB, near the Capitol.

Banghart said the consolidation of these programs into one building will help cut operating costs, while at the same time free up space for other state programs which are now renting commercial space.

The co-location of these programs will also be a one-stop shopping place for researchers and others trying to track down information about Alaska’s culture and history.

Some of the museum’s workers have had mixed feelings about tearing down the museum: staffers like Scott Carrlee, who has worked 14 years with the museum.

“When I first heard from the architects,” Carrlee said, “I did have some regret and thought, ‘Oh, I’ve worked in this building so long. Why can’t they fix it?’”

But he learned that the costs of the remodeling and upgrades would be as much as a new building, and still not fix all of the problems with the old museum, such as the shortage of space and perhaps the biggest threat of all: The building is under sea level and at high risk of flooding.

“This building was a great building, but it sort of lived its purpose,” said Carrlee, who is looking forward to all the benefits the new space would afford, such as doubling the amount of storage and exhibition space.

The new collections vault will be seven feet above sea level, and new technology will better preserve the collections, which are made of wood, grass, fur and other biodegradable materials.

The project will also house two state-of-the art conservation labs — the only such facilities in the Alaska. They will be used to restore and better care for fragile artifacts and documents from across the state.

The challenges for Carrlee and other museum workers are many.

As an example, Carrlee pointed to the ceiling where a skin boat hangs.

“That was practically built in the gallery. We have to take the doors all apart to get it out,” Carrlee said. “That’ll be one of the last things to leave.”

But by far, the biggest challenge may be getting the rest of the funding for the new facility, which is scheduled to open in 2016.

The project is called SLAM,  as in “State Library Archives and Museum.” It has a price tag of about $137 million. The state Legislature has only funded about $100 million of SLAM.

The governor has included $15 million in his budget, which leaves the project about $22 million short.

If there are delays in getting that funding, that could increase the total cost of the project by almost $10 million, according to project managers.

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