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Serendipity: How Some Archival Collections Come To Be

Photograph by Samuel Fleming. Three of Fleming's children (Sheldon, Randy, and Greg) enjoy winter in Anchorage in the 1960s.

By Julie Varee, Community Outreach Archivist

"We met this Black guy who was born in Anchorage. His father took tons of pictures when they lived there," my brother-in-law, Roger, tells me, sipping a cocktail with my sister on the balcony of their apartment in Atlanta. A photographer himself, Roger always manages to find others who love using a camera. "I told him about you working at the Anchorage Museum's archives," Roger continues, "and he says his family's looking for a place for his dad's Alaska photos. You should give him a call, right?"

This is how museum archivists began to learn about Samuel Fleming’s experience in 1950s Fairbanks and in 1960s Anchorage. Soon, Deputy Director of Collections and Conservation Monica Shah and I would gaze into Zoom squares on our laptop screens at the faces of 89-year-old Samuel Fleming and his sons, Sheldon and Randal, and share our efforts to tell more stories of people of color through the museum archives. Connecting remotely over stories and images, like those with the Fleming family, is how the museum expands the history of Alaska and brings often forgotten perspectives to the public’s attention.

"Everyone has a story to tell," says Anchorage Museum Archivist Arabeth Balasko. "You truly never know where those conversations may go." Thanks to our ability to work with prospective donors remotely, conversations with the Flemings have continued easily. The family sent sample images electronically for initial review by archives staff, and the Flemings have begun going through approximately 75 photographs and slides with Samuel Fleming to add information about the images.

In addition to building a collection of photographs and films in the Anchorage Museum archives, images from Samuel Fleming will be part of the exhibition Black Lives in Alaska: Journey, Justice, Joy, which opens at the museum April 30.

The paths to creating archival collections can be direct or winding, taking shape quickly or over many years. And, the journey to tell stories through materials in an archive can begin like it did with Samuel Fleming and his sons -- serendipitously.

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