At Reopened Museum of the Aleutians, A Focus On Storytelling
The Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska re-opened recently after five months of renovations. The space has been transformed in an effort to tell the whole story of the chain.
Stepping into the newly renovated Museum of the Aleutians is meant to feel like stepping into the sea.
A model kayaker in a traditional 18-foot craft appears to paddle toward visitors. The backdrop — a mural of the churning ocean.
Jeff Hawley: “When you walk in there and you see the depth of the water and it just makes you feel like you’re on one of the boats, and you’re just down in one of the holes when you’re waiting to come up. It’s pretty fabulous actually, they did a wonderful, wonderful job with that.”
Jeff Hawley is Unalaska’s director of parks, culture, and recreation. He was one of the community leaders and donors who got to see the new space for the first time Friday, at a gala to kick off the museum’s opening weekend.
Designer Alan Ransenberg was there too. He’s the man behind the new exhibit. And he says the kayak scene is the beginning of a journey.
Ransenberg: “The story is the story of the Unangan or the Aleuts — about how they lived prior to contact with Russia, with the Russians, and they lived in a very expansive place, lots of horizon because of the water, and then they slowly got constricted.”
Ransenberg says the museum wanted to do more than show off its artifacts. Now, the galleries feature dioramas, video displays and other interactive elements. They cover the early history of the Aleutians, all the way to Russian colonization, World War II and beyond.
Ransenberg: “But in the end, it opens up into the collection room, that has a lot to do with that the Aleuts are still here, even after all of this.”
That room is designed like an Unangan barabara, a traditional pit dwelling with a notched wooden ladder in the center.
The display cases along the walls show off Native handicrafts and tools. Collections manager Ingrid Martis says the museum strived to provide context for them all:
Martis: “Before, there wasn’t any storyline — there wasn’t even any panels, so you had to guess, okay, that’s a lithic point. Well, I suppose that they were using lithic points. Now there’s more explanation. Why were they using lithic points? Because they were hunters, and they would go at sea and hunt for sea otters and sea lions.”
Museum director Zoya Johnson says this transformation cost $800,000 in private and public funding and has been in the works for years. She hopes it will help visitors learn more from what’s on display.
Johnson: “We have such a rich, incredible story here that we felt that there are different ways, better ways to tell that story. And at the same time, this is a very small museum – we have a very small space. We can use the space better.”
One way to do that is to let visitors literally walk in the shoes of the people they’re learning about. A section of the museum about the fishing industry and the Coast Guard includes samples of rain gear and Xtratuf boots – adult and child-sized. Unalaska resident Carol Bunes spent some time admiring them on Sunday.
Bunes: “It’s more interactive now, there’s video, there’s stuff to try on and stuff like that, it’s really cool.”
Bunes has lived in Unalaska for 20 years. She remembers the old museum layout well.
Bunes: “There was great history in it before, but this kind of represents more the segments of the community, and I think it shows people that are visiting a little bit more of the well-roundedness of what we have to offer here.”
Bunes has seen plenty of transformation in her time in Unalaska. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the history of this region and its people. The museum is hoping to preserve that heritage, through all the change that’s still to come.