State of the Museum: August 2016
September 08, 2016
By Julie Decker, Director and CEO
In 1968, the Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum opened with a borrowed collection of objects and paintings. Then-Mayor, Elmer Rasmuson, founded the museum, believing that any city aspiring to be great needed a museum.
The museum grew again in the 1970s, and in 1986 became much larger—with additional gallery space, a restaurant, a grand atrium, and room for a much larger collection. The museum was a city agency, and with this expansion, the name changed to the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
The audience for the museum continued to grow, David Chipperfield was the architect for the building addition that came in 2010, doubling the size of the museum. The drive for this addition was to re-orient the museum towards the heart of downtown, to add science to the mission, to add more space for temporary exhibitions, and to host a major long-term exhibition of Alaska objects in the Smithsonian collection. The restaurant and store expanded. There was a merger with the Imaginarium to create hands-on science at the museum. The museum moved from being a city agency to a non-profit organization, with the city retaining ownership of the building and of the collection so that they could be kept in the public trust into perpetuity. Because the mission had grown, the name of the museum was simplified to Anchorage Museum.
Today, we are growing again—not to add to our mission, but to provide anchor spaces for all parts of it so that, at all times, we can fully serve our mission and our many audiences.
There is always a push/pull between tradition and growth. Our community has grown and changed and so has the museum, always in response to the needs of the community. In many ways, we still embody the very first iteration of that 1968 museum, believing that a museum matters when you look at the identity of a place.
We haven’t left history in the past. The museum has thousands of historical objects and artifacts in our collection and hundreds of thousands of historical photographs, and we continue to acquire important historical items into our collection to preserve the stories they tell. To provide greater public access, we have made the museum’s collection accessible online.
Last year we hosted major history exhibitions in our temporary galleries (Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage, the Anchorage Centennial, photographs from the museum collection, an exhibition on the history of baseball in the North, and more). We created a curatorial position for Alaska History and Culture. Soon, we will also host a visiting curator who will focus largely on history and culture programming and will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Alaska purchase with a major exhibition that looks at connections between Alaska and Russia.
But perhaps most notably, we are investing significant resources and have raised significant funds to re-invest in the Alaska exhibition--to create an exhibition that honors many people, that celebrates Indigenous voices, and that is ready to be relevant to many new generations of students and visitors.
While the current gallery (known as the “Alaska Gallery”) is embraced with much sentiment, history also continues, and now there is a bigger story of Alaska’s history to be told. As a museum, we have an obligation to update the gallery—to meet new museum conservation standards, to acknowledge the changes in the expectations of our visitors of what an exhibition should be, to think about the future, and to consider the many cultures and voices that now call Anchorage home.
We know that the Alaska gallery has, for 30 years, been a beloved and familiar space for this institution, which is why we know it’s important to bring it forward to today and to invest in its future before it is no longer relevant, accurate or impactful. It’s a major project - one that will take one year to full realize - though its planning has been in place for a decade.
Many, many people have worked on and informed the re-envisioning. It is a shared and collective story of Alaska. A new temporary gallery space next to the Alaska exhibition will allow us space in which to explore many stories and histories in greater depth and allow for many additional ideas to be introduced.
Museums have an obligation to recognize that the way people and culture are represented in museums has greatly evolved in the last 30 years. Significant to the new Alaska exhibition is that it will look at Alaska’s Indigenous cultures as living and continuing cultures.
We considered the ever-practical solution of storing the objects away behind-the- scenes while we prepare for the new gallery but felt strongly that we wanted a way for the public to still have some connection and access to these objects and their stories. So, you will see our Conservation Lab in the first-floor galleries over the next year. Here is where many conservators will be working on preparing objects for the new Alaska exhibition and paintings for the new Art of the North wing, and here is where visitors can explore the science of conservation, and ask questions about the process and the objects.
We also haven’t left art behind. We have expanded the way we involve art and artists at the museum, though it may not always be in its traditional forms. Like history, the art story continues. As a museum, we represent all forms, from traditional to contemporary, and believe in the value of both.
Recognizing art as one the core disciplines of our mission, we are currently building a new wing to feature the paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures from our collection. It will be a comprehensive look at the art of the North, from familiar Alaskan landscape painters such as Sydney Laurence, to Indigenous perspectives of place, and people.
While we would love to have more of the museum’s art collection on display now, we are building for the future, and in just one year will have many thousands of new square footage in which to feature and interpret the collection, including new state-of-the-art gallery space.
As part of this, we are able to do conservation work on dozens of paintings to prepare them for public exhibition. We soon will have more of our art collection on exhibition than ever before and at all times.
But today, art includes new forms that are not only what can be hung on a wall in frame. So we embrace those ideas, too, and support the work of living artists, including those who experiment with definitions and media.
We have an international artist residency program, which connects the art of Alaska with art around the Circumpolar North and the globe—a program that has gained international attention. We also have created opportunities for artists from Alaska and elsewhere to use the museum for research and as a venue—from performance to creative writing, installations, film, music, theatre, and dance. We host emerging artists in the collection, partner with the Arctic Studies Center on materials workshops, and offer opportunities for artists to curate exhibitions. Our View From Up Here exhibition was chosen by USA Today as one of the twelve “must-see” exhibitions in the nation this summer.
We have a solo exhibition program for Alaska artists. We have a new residency program for Alaska artists. Our juried exhibitions feature the work of Alaska artists. We work with many Indigenous artists on projects.
We launched Art Lab to feature art education and new ways to interact with art at the museum. We are renovating the education hallway to be able to display the artwork of children. And, each year we feature the artwork of Anchorage School District students.
We have an active acquisition program to add contemporary and historical works into the museum's collection. We have received grants for our art programs from foundations and agencies around the country. We established the Northern Art Network, which is an affiliation of art museums and organizations throughout the Circumpolar North and which will lead to exchanges of art and Alaska artists with places around the globe. We have added design to the way we think about art, with three design positions added to the museum staff, with the upcoming Design Weekend, creating our own design products, and curating design exhibitions.
There are other ways we work to serve a varied audience. The museum believes in science. The Discovery Center is a key space for exploring science. The museum also opened Spark!Lab to look at innovation and invention, began more science programs for children and adults, hosted science-based summer camps, added explorations in technology to our program slate, and has created expanded programming in the planetarium.
We host hundreds of school groups to explore science at the museum, partner with community organizations, and are investigating adding a citizen science program. We have connected with many polar scientists and polar research through the Polar Lab program. We are looking forward to adding science in a more robust way to our Polar Nights programming. The new wing will add to the Discovery Center—with more space for science exploration and exhibitions and improvements to all Discovery Center spaces. Science, too, will expand.
We care about families. There was a time when museums were considered to be repositories rather than public institutions. Museums were not for children. We believe the opposite is true. We are expanding family programming through educational offerings, our partnership with the Smithsonian on our new Spark!Lab space has provided more space for families. In 2017, our goal is to have a members' entrance for easier access to the museum, and the first-floor galleries will be family-focused, so that the entire first floor will be open and inviting to all ages and re-emphasize the museum's dedication to being a place for families.
We are proud of our ongoing partnership with the Smithsonian and have just extended our agreement through 2022. We host the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian staff, Smithsonian Spotlight lecture series, Smithsonian programs, and 600 objects from the Smithsonian Institution. We have strong connections to Indigenous communities, artists and culture bearers throughout the state and are developing strong connections throughout the world. The new Alaska exhibition has been developed with Indigenous curators, artists and culture bearers. We are working on programs to explore the many communities of Alaska and to look at ideas and issues around immigration, identity, and more.
Our Curated Conversations program has traveled internationally, and in the next few months will happen in Santa Fe, Reykjavik, New York City, and Norway. Curator Aaron Leggett will be presenting in Russia this fall. We are developing a speakers’ series and programs that look at culture from historical and contemporary viewpoints, recognizing the complexities of representing people and voices.
We are currently exploring a shared staff position with the National Museum of the American Indian. We have a very strong collection of contemporary Alaska Native art in our collection and continue to acquire significant works.
Exhibitions are important to all museums, but museums are also finding new ways to be relevant in addition to exhibitions. A few years ago, it was not the norm to curate, organize and design our own exhibitions at such a grand scale. Now, the exhibitions we develop in-house travel around the country. But we have also worked very hard in the last few years to think of the museum as not just a place for exhibitions and to create an innovative and robust public programs slate. This is the best way to reach many communities and to feature many voices. We have established Polar Nights and have extended Friday hours, have added Tuesdays on the Lawn, Curated Conversations, Conservator's Corner, Cabin Fever, artist talks, special events, live music, live dance, and hosted programs in art, history, science, culture, technology, writing, film, and more.
We have welcomed kings and world dignitaries, presidents, ambassadors and senators. We have created new positions and departments for programs, outreach and community partnerships. We have added and restructured technology positions to focus on public interaction and innovation. We have experimented with furniture in the atrium to see what kinds of things create a gathering space—what encourages people to linger and investigate. These experiments will help inform the remodel of the atrium next year. In these ways and others, we are constantly looking for new ways to reach people and to be relevant to our many communities and to be a public institution. We are not a static institution, but an active one. We change, we adapt, we reach, we explore.
While this year and over the next year we are an active construction zone, we have and will remain fully operational throughout. There are challenges in this for any public institution, particularly one that is open every day in the summer and most days of the year. But, we are open throughout because we care about our public mission and believe we offer something distinct and significant to the community. Some spaces are temporarily closed during the construction - sometimes you have to shrink just a tiny bit on the way to growing into something bigger and better.
The new wing for Art of the North has been made possible by private contributions from the Rasmuson family and the Rasmuson Foundation, which continues the Rasmuson family investment in the museum and their belief that the museum is important to this community. It’s an incredible gift by the Rasmusons to the city.
It’s not easy to build a 2017 steel addition over a 1968 brick building. It requires a lot of planning and coordination. Driving columns through an occupied, public building next to 50,000 objects that are held in the public trust into perpetuity is no simple task. Finding the right balance between a 1986 brick façade and a 2010 glass monolith requires thoughtful architecture. But we are excited to be building towards a long-term future.
One year from now we will have approximately 78,000 square feet of exhibition space that pays tribute to our encyclopedic mission and the varied interests of our public. We can feature our state's history and explore contemporary ideas; it is never either/or. We can look at the landscape and explore the interactions and impact of people within it. We can host the stories of many cultures. We can be a place for questions. We can encourage critical thinking and be a safe place for many ideas and perspectives. Museums that are only cabinets of curiosities are relics in a culture that craves experiences. They are problematic in imposing dated ideas upon evolving identities and contemporary cultures. Museums don't need to provide all of the answers; they are much stronger when they are a place that allows for conversation.
We believe in serving this community and hope that you will find something to love about our future.