Unalaska museum closes after ancient Bible found in director’s house

Museum of the Aleutians' Oct. 12 board meeting. Board members (at table, L-R) Melissa Good, Sharon Svarney-Livingston, Eilleen Scott and executive director Zoya Johnson. (Photo by Greta Mart/KUCB)
Museum of the Aleutians’ Oct. 12 board meeting. Board members (at table, L-R) Melissa Good, Sharon Svarney-Livingston, Eilleen Scott and executive director Zoya Johnson. (Photo by Greta Mart/KUCB)

The Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska remains closed after the discovery of museum materials–including a Russian Orthodox Bible from 1801–at the executive director’s house disrupted normal operations last week.

Download Audio

The museum’s board of directors voted Oct. 12 to close the museum and place executive director Zoya Johnson on paid administrative leave.

In a statement issued on Friday, the museum’s board said it completed an investigation and found that “no criminal intent was exercised” by Johnson. The Unalaska City Council member has served as the museum’s executive director for the past 11 years.

The board said it closed the museum to allow for a review of its policies as well as best practices at museums around the state. The board did not say when it plans to reopen the museum.

The allegations arose after a museum employee house-sat for Johnson in September. Ingrid Martis said she often house-sat for her boss over the past five years. This time, she went into a room that had always been locked before.

On Loan From Anchorage

“This time around, I run into three books that were on loan from the Russian Orthodox Museum in Anchorage since 2008,” said Martis.

Martis said she opened one of the books, a Russian Orthodox Bible from 1801.

“And opened the page and saw the loan agreement, which was – I had to sit down for a moment. Maybe she forgot, maybe I should take these books and return them to the museum right now,” Martis said. “And then I’m thinking, well, I can’t take anything from this person’s house, that would be theft, but I need to talk to someone about it.”

Martis took her concerns to museum board chair Sharon Svarney-Livingston. Svarney-Livingston and board member Eileen Scott accompanied Johnson to her home to retrieve the 19th-century religious books.

According to Martis, when the board members initially came to the museum and asked Johnson about the books, Johnson denied they were in her home.

“The facts were that, yes, the books were in my house,” Johnson said on Friday. She said she had forgotten about them.

The books had been part of a 2008 exhibit at the Museum of the Aleutians on the history of the Russian Orthodox mission in Alaska. Johnson said when the exhibit came down, she was supposed to courier the books back to the Russian Orthodox Museum in Anchorage. She said it is common in the museum world for staff to hand-deliver items between institutions.

But in 2009, the Russian Orthodox Museum closed its doors for good.

The books never made it back to the Museum of the Aleutians’ collection storage room. Johnson said she forgot about the books in the wake of her husband’s death in 2009.

“It was a time of, extremely hard time for me, of grief and personal tragedy for me. People who live here know I lose my husband in an accident and they know that I have a very hard time,” said Johnson. “So if they haven’t forgotten anything in their lives, in a period like that, then they must be super-human.”

Martis starting working at the museum in 2010 as collections manager. She said she documented that the three books were missing from the museum inventory shortly after she arrived and Johnson told her she did not know where they were.

Key Staffers Quit

Martis resigned from the museum four days after alerting the board of her discovery. She said she had planned to leave her job soon to return to her native France, but the current situation prompted a hasty exit.

Martis said when she saw the books in Johnson’s house, they were on a shelf and appeared spotless. They did not have years of dust on them.

Museum collections manager Sara Strain also resigned in the aftermath of the discovery.

The museum’s board said on Friday it is satisfied with Johnson’s explanation of how and why the books were in her home for the past seven years.

“We all believe that Zoya didn’t take these books intentionally, but we do want to go through the right process on how we deal with this. Because many of us are new to the museum, we want to make sure we are taking the right steps,” board member Melissa Good said at the museum’s board meeting last week.

Interim Unalaska city manager Don Moore also voiced support for Johnson at that meeting.

“My opinion, and the opinion of the city, is that this is a very fine, well-run institution and go ahead and check with the other small town museums,” Moore said. “I have no problem with the investigation, but I hope the museum doesn’t stay closed for very long.”

“I thank my board for the vote of confidence,” Johnson said on Friday.

“I personally believe this was just a fluke, having known Zoya and the excellent work she has done,” board member Eileen Scott said. “I hate doing this.”

In its statement on Friday, the museum board said the allegations that Johnson had removed the books and a document listing them were “proven untrue during the investigation. Proper documentation was in the item file.”

The board also said it was taking action to close the museum and clarify policy to satisfy community members who had sent them letters of concern.

Longtime Unalaska resident and artist Ray Hudson, who now lives in Vermont, urged the board to work to restore confidence in the museum.

“It appears that the board condones the removal of priceless materials and appears to knowingly avoid oversight to safeguard what has been placed in its trust,” Hudson wrote in an Oct. 8 email to the board.

Anne Rowland, the museum’s first collections manager and curator when it opened in 1999, called on the board to take the allegations seriously.

She said she expressed her concern to Johnson and the board about the “obvious loss of control with collection documentation” in 2008. She said the current situation is a major problem for the museum.

According to the International Council of Museums’ ethics guidebook, no one associated with a museum should be permitted to take items from museum collections for personal use, even temporarily.

Unalaska deputy police chief Michael Holman said there will be no criminal investigation.