Unalaska residents flock to Museum of the Aleutians open house

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Unalaska residents once again filled the galleries of the Museum of the Aleutians Thursday during an open house hosted by the museum’s seven board of directors. The museum remains closed to the public, but behind the scenes, a seasoned interim director has been taking stock and setting a new course for the 17-year-old institution.

At the open house, MOTA board chair Suzi Golodoff welcomed a crowd of over a hundred. She urged locals to stay involved in museum affairs.

Golodoff said, “It’s a special place, it houses our treasures and objects and artifacts…also kind-of speaks to who we are as a community, we are very vibrant and ever-changing.”

The Museum of the Aleutians has been shuttered since last fall. That’s when the museum’s board placed former director and current Unalaska city councilwoman Zoya Johnson on administrative leave after items from the museum’s collection were found in her home. It was museum’s programs director who made the discovery, and she and the collection manager resigned at that time.

The board investigated and ultimately found Johnson exercised “no criminal intent,” but voted to reprimand her for “the breach in collections protocol.” Johnson was also directed to write a letter of apology to the community. After 11 years on the job, Johnson resigned as the museum’s executive director in November.

Since then, the MOTA board has been tasked with hiring a whole new staff and overhauling institutional protocols. They opted to host an open house to give the community a chance to meet museum officials, hear the current status of operations and take a rare look at the non-public part of the museum.

Golodoff introduced the woman now serving as interim director. Cindy Jones – known as CJ – was the curator and director of the Sheldon Museum in Haines for many years. Since retiring, she’s been doing contract work for museums all over Alaska.

“I’ve been in museums from Barrow to Nanwalek and Port Graham, south of Homer,” said Jones. And of all the facilities I have worked in, this one is a beautiful building. Whoever directed the architects in their design did an awesome job, I think it’s well-laid out. And those of you who have been back in collections storage, it’s state of the art, it really is, and very few museum in the state have such a wonderful facility as you have and you should be really proud as a community for what you have here.”

Jones assured residents the museum was “in a good place” and the entire collection was “well documented and accounted for.” She arrived on Jan. 22 and says she’s planning on staying for about six weeks.

Also at the open house was Curator of Museum Services Scott Carrlee from Alaska State Museums. Carrlee flew out from Juneau to help with MOTA’s current transition. He says it’s part of the statutory mission of Alaska State Museums to foster museum development in the state.

“We realize that we can’t curate every single community, we can’t care for the artifacts that matter to you…we can’t tell your story from Juneau,” Carrlee said. “And my job, believe it or not, is to help you. That’s all I do all day long, I answer emails, I answer the phone, when Suzi called, I was there to pick it up and we had a conversation about the path forward for this museum.”

Carrlee says he’ll be working with the MOTA board over the next few months in conducting a nationwide search to “re-staff this museum with the most professional, high-quality people we can find.”

 The applicant deadline for the executive director position is March 25.

Carrlee told the open house crowd he was enthusiastic about the museum’s future.

“You could Maker’s Fairs in here, you could have kids building Legos, working with the collection,” Carrlee said. “I’ve told the board that in the future, what I think they should be looking for is 15, 20 years from now, who is going to be the director of this museum who is from this community. That’s what I would like to see. Bringing a young person up, getting them inspired about the history and the culture of this area, and having them take over this museum. I think that would be fantastic.”

Opened in 1999, the museum is a non-profit corporation. The City of Unalaska owns and maintains the nearly 10,000-square-foot facility. Community members donated many of the 35,000-plus objects housed in the museum.

Board chair Golodoff said the museum wouldn’t reopen to the public until the board has hired a full staff.

“We hoping before the summer…yeah,” said Golodoff. “We’re hoping. I think we’ll be up and running before you know it.”