Dunleavy budget proposal spares Sitka museum from sale, but fees could rise

The Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska. (Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/KCAW)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget was released last week, and it’s a mixed message for the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. The governor has removed the museum from a proposed list of assets to sell. But the price of admission is likely to increase, both at the Sheldon Jackson and at the state museum in Juneau.

The industrial-sized freezer hums loudly. It’s holding something really special- and no, it’s not food. Jackie Fernandez-Hamberg is the curator at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, and as she lifts the freezer’s lid, she explains exactly why a museum would need a freezer to begin with.

“Taking in a new artifact or a piece to examine for research purposes- if it’s made with organic matter- so say feather, grass or fur or hide or wood, they tend to go through a process of isolating the artifact or the piece and most often that involves freezing.”

Hamberg is storing a hat in this freezer- a woven spruce root hat, made by master Haida weaver Delores Churchill. 

“It is just tremendous, it’s a beautiful piece,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of contemporary artwork. We’ve been collecting contemporary Alaska Native art since 2013, and we’ve been trying to add to that collection slowly.” 

A hat woven by master Haida weaver Delores Churchill and purchased by the Sheldon Jackson Museum in December 2019. (Katherine Rose/KCAW)

The Sheldon Jackson Museum, in December, received a $15,000 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation in partnership with Museums Alaska to purchase the piece. Churchill started weaving this hat over a decade ago, moved on to other projects, and then returned to finish it last year. As a result, there are two different color tones to the spruce root, giving the hat an ombre effect. The hat illustrates the “Gitansk” story of the spider and snail.

“The story is that a spider was making a web and when the morning dew hit the spider web, it sent out beautiful rainbow colors,” said Churchill, speaking to KCAW by phone. “And the snail was looking up at it and said, ‘I think I could make something.’”

So the snail goes back and forth leaving his trail, in a zig-zag pattern, which you can see on the hat, just beneath a spiderweb weave. And when the sun rises, that snail trail turns the light into a rainbow too.

“The Haida story is ‘Beauty can come from very ugly things so look for the beauty in everything,’” Churchill said.

An internationally renowned artist, Churchill teaches several apprentices now through Sealaska, and leads workshops at UAS in Sitka and across the state. Hamberg hopes that when Churchill brings students to the museum, she can use that hat as a teaching tool.

The hat will go into the museum’s collection. The future of that collection — and the future of the entire museum — was called into question earlier this year.  In February 2019, as a part of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first state budget proposal, the Sheldon Jackson Museum was put on a list of assets to sell. It prompted concern from museum supporters, artists, and families who had donated precious traditional art and cultural artifacts. Where would those go? Would they be sold for a profit? 

Then, after a year of uncertainty — a glimmer of hope. In the governor’s latest budget proposal, released on December 13, Sheldon Jackson Museum is off the asset disposal list. In an email to KCAW, Rochelle Lindley, who works for the Alaska Department of Education, said the governor also directed just under $400,000 in deferred maintenance money to replace the museum’s roof.

This was welcome news to Rosemary Carlton, former curator of the Sheldon Jackson Museum. 

“It’s very good news and I really appreciate our local legislators who have done so much work and have been the ones that have been in there and just kept pounding away that this is not a building that can be disposed of. This is an historic landmark, it is a world-class collection,” Carlton said. “They understand that and they have gone to bat for us.” 

But even in this latest budget iteration, the museum is not out of the woods. In Juneau, the well-water cooling system at the Andrew Kashevaroff facility — the building that encompasses the Alaska State Museum, and state library and archives — failed this year. The governor’s budget proposes raising fees at the Alaska State Museum and the Sheldon Jackson museum to cover those unanticipated expenses, and the higher operating costs of the new, more traditional cooling system that was installed after the first one broke. 

Lindley says those fees haven’t been decided yet. During the summer months, general admission costs $12 at the Alaska State Museum, and $7 at Sheldon Jackson with discounts for seniors, children and off-season visitors.

While we don’t know how much the fee increase could be or when it would be enacted, Carlton, the former curator, says with people paying $15 to $20 dollars to go to a local concert, she doesn’t think a small fee increase will dissuade museum attendees. 

Nothing about the state budget will be settled until the Alaska Legislature meets beginning in January. In the meantime, Churchill’s spruce root hat will go back in the freezer for another week for safekeeping, until it’s been prepared for accession into the permanent collection of the Sheldon Jackson Museum.