At the museum

A display case is on exhibit in the offices of the first president of the University of Alaska, Charles Bunnell.

FAIRBANKS - The dictionary definition of heritage is “something handed down from the past.” There are many examples, from a wedding ring shared through generations to an artifact displayed at a museum. In fact, talking about heritage means using some of the same terms that describe the work museums do: traditions, preservation and culture.

Heritage is personal but it’s also very public. There are shared events, traditions and objects that connect all of us, without regard to our personal history. For example, the ideas preserved in the Declaration of Independence are a heritage that Americans can identify with, no matter how long their families have been in the country.

Emily Koehler-Platten is an educator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. She is planning a variety of programs during January exploring the topic. “Heritage is not just about preserving old things in your attic,” she said. “It is constantly reflecting on what they mean, both personally and publicly, and how to interpret them. It is learning from the lessons of the past and applying them to the future. If we don’t know where we come from, how can we create a better world in the future?”

This year marks the anniversary of several events and institutions that indicate a shared heritage for Alaskans, though the events mean something different depending on your personal history. For example, it is the sesquicentennial of the transfer of Alaska to the United States from Russia. In 1867, the two countries signed the Treaty of Cession, agreeing to the sale of what would become the 49th state for $7 million.

Koehler-Platten said one of the goals of the museum’s programs this month is to help visitors think about how broad heritage is, encompassing both personal and shared identities, and how it affects their lives on a daily basis.

Another example and one that is part of the heritage of the Museum of the North is the centennial of the University of Alaska. After Congress set aside land for a college and Alaska’s territorial delegate James Wickersham asked community members to help him place a cornerstone at Troth Yeddha’, Alaska’s territorial governor signed a bill on May 3, 1917, to create a state university.

The first campus building was completed the following year, but it took several more years for funding to be allocated. The university’s mission expanded from there. Its first president, Charles Bunnell, envisioned the institution as a center of Alaska research. What better way to support that vision than with a museum intended to preserve the state’s artifacts and natural history specimens?

According to tradition, the university museum began in 1922 as a single display case in Bunnell’s office featuring his personal collections of Alaska Native objects. Four years later, Otto Geist went on the school’s first official expedition that would form the nucleus of the museum’s collections.

From Geist’s journey came the university’s first museum exhibit in 1929. It included an array of artifacts and fossils, along with tools and clothing collected from Alaska Native communities. Visitors can learn more about him in the new “Expedition Alaska” exhibit in the museum’s Collections Gallery, which examines the scientific discoveries made by the archaeology and mammalogy departments.

In the ensuing years, anthropologists, archaeologists and other museum scientists have worked with communities and families across the state to add additional artifacts, from religious items to works of art. These items demonstrate the incredibly rich heritage of Alaskan cultures, Koehler-Platten said. “These are objects that people used to survive and pass down cultural values through thousands of years.

“More contemporary objects show how people today draw on this heritage in their lives, carrying on the traditions of their ancestors, reflecting on the meaning of those traditions in the 21st century and making something new.”

Artifacts now on display at the museum also give evidence to this shared heritage. A collection of gold nuggets illustrates the founding of Fairbanks as a mining community. While other items, such as a 1917 Fairbanks High School diploma, a typewriter and even a motorcycle, reflect the daily life of the people who settled in the region. Their deeds and actions are our shared heritage as residents of Interior Alaska.

The museum’s earth sciences curator, Pat Druckenmiller, said Geist is also part of the museum’s legacy. “I have lots of Otto Geist-collected material, with his distinctive handwriting on big bones from Alaska. These represent the core of the earth sciences collection and the start of the museum’s collections as a whole.”

The museum even named a beloved specimen on display at the entrance to the Gallery of Alaska for the collector. Otto, the nearly 9-foot-tall brown bear, has been greeting guests for more than 40 years. Generations of museum visitors have connected with it over the years, posing for selfies and posting photos on social media. He’s a visible part of the museum’s heritage.

To try at home

• Make a family tree. Add names to branches or leaves on a tree outline. Discuss the connections you share, talk about where each family member lives and explore a trait you share; for example, a love of cookies. Family can include whoever is important in your life. If some of your influences are from a family friend, add them to your tree.

• Discover diversity. Explore the heritage of others. Check out library books about holiday traditions and look up various cultural recipes to try. Listen to kids’ music from around the world.

If You Go

The UA Museum of the North, 907 Yukon Drive, is exploring heritage at its hands-on programs in January. Early Explorers, for children 5 and younger, meets 10 a.m. to noon each Friday. Kids 6 and older are invited to Junior Curators from 2-4 p.m. Jan. 7. Registration is required for a newer program, Teen Studio, on Jan. 21, which offers an opportunity for young adults ages 13-18 to create a time capsule. The museum is also offering a “Museum Treasures” program at the Noel Wien Library, 1215 Cowles St., from 1:30-2:30 p.m. Jan. 22. And the annual open house on Jan. 28 is a chance for the community to go behind-the-scenes and tour the museum’s labs and collections. For more information about the museum’s programs and events, visit or call 474-7505.

Theresa Bakker is the manager of marketing and communications at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Contact her by phone at 474-6941 or by email at