Resiliency. This is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the University of Alaska Museum of the North (UAMN) over the past 16 months. Throughout its nearly century-long existence, UAMN has faced many challenges, but the Covid-19 pandemic has been a storm for the record books. Like our parent organization, the University of Alaska, our staff and supporters have recognized throughout the importance of serving our extended community of stakeholders, particularly during this global crisis.
Like most US museums, the pandemic has had a profound impact on our operations at many levels. First, we reluctantly closed our doors to the public on March 13, 2020, shuttering our physical exhibits for several months. Docent-led K-12 tours in our galleries, normally thriving in the spring season, abruptly came to a complete halt as remote learning became the norm. And students, faculty and visiting researchers who had planned study and scholarly work in our collections were unable to access the state’s single largest holdings of cultural and natural history collections.
Although necessary, we were saddened to shutter our public galleries. When we eventually reopened in July 2020, visitation numbers were a mere 5% of 2019 numbers. This had major consequences for our financial bottom line. As state appropriations to the university continue to decline, UAMN has increasingly relied on admissions and store sales for our bread and butter. In a normal year, visitor income is nearly 50 percent of our total annual earnings (followed by grants and then state dollars). Therefore, the near absence of tourism in 2020 resulted in extreme belt-tightening.
Faced with financial uncertainty, a largely teleworking staff, and ever-evolving Covid mitigation plans that limited building access, the museum faced an critical threat to meeting its core mission to collect, preserve, study, teach and exhibit Alaska’s cultural and natural history. As a state and federal repository, many agencies also rely on UAMN to house publicly owned collections because we have the facilities and expertise to care for Alaska’s treasures. It is testament to the commitment and dedication of our staff that we did not sit idly by waiting for better times. Rather, we recognized the urgency to continue serving our vast community of stakeholders, especially in these trying times. We also leveraged this unforeseen opportunity to adapt and diversify.
On the surface, it might seem trivial to ramp-down operations at a museum, particularly our research collections, which occupy much of the museum’s lower level. In reality the collections are a dynamic, living, ever-changing entity. Similar to a centuries-old wooden sailing vessel, one needs to continually repair the sails, tar the rigging and pump the holds. Failure to care for the thousands of tasks endangers the entire ship. Similarly, UAMN’s diverse holdings, which number over 2.5 million objects of art and artifacts, plant and animal specimens, and my personal favorites — fossils — require cleaning, conservation, rehousing, monitoring, loan processing and databasing. It’s a never-ending task. Our collections also include one of the nation’s largest frozen tissue samples stored in liquid nitrogen cryovats that are used by researchers world-wide to track genetic changes, diseases and environmental contaminants in plants and animals. Simply put, it is never an option to simply turn off the lights and come back a year later.
We were equally committed to better serve our visitors, which number up to 90,000 in a non-pandemic year. Most significantly, UAMN can now proudly boast of having the only articulated and suspended bowhead whale skeleton in North America. The bowhead is an iconic Arctic species and our specimen, harvested in Utqiagvik in 1963 by Iñupiaq whalers, showcases the tightly interwoven fabric that is both cultural and natural history. Funding for the project was provided by a generous gift from the Bill Stroecker Foundation, near the end of 2019. As the Covid-19 clouds gathered in early 2020, we decided not to let the pandemic derail this project. In fact, the bowhead whale became emblematic of our collective desire and tenacity to make the most of a bad situation. Assembling the skeleton and producing a new special exhibition “Perspective: Ways to see a whale”, provided much-needed inspiration throughout the 16-month process and brought together the talents of many different museum and university staff who were committed to finishing this world-class display.
Knowing that many families were unable to come to see our exhibits for over a year, we also invested considerable energy into bringing our exhibits online to share at home. We expanded our Virtual Museum (www.uaf.edu/museum/virtualmuseum) to include more of our exhibits and collections, video podcasts, and activities and lesson plans. Through our immersive app (free for download) you can also now enjoy an interactive replica of our exhibition “ShAKe: Earthquakes in Interior Alaska” in 3D. We acquired the internationally known Bus 142 (“Into the Wild Bus”) in the fall of 2020 and are in the process of preparing it for eventual exhibition into a free, outdoor display. We even moved our museum store into a wonderful new space and now offer many products online.
Our Education and Public Programs team also continued to deliver in creative new ways, such as virtual versions of our popular family programs. They also created and distributed nearly 1,000 education packets for families to do hands-on, at-home learning about our museum collections. Museum curators and collections managers also developed a new college-level Museum Studies curriculum and taught the first classes online at UAF during the last academic year.
I am immensely proud of our curators, staff and students who made this work possible. What has really carried us through is the deep commitment of our staff to preserve and share our Alaskan heritage. Equally important is the support of our university and the trust placed in us by our supporters. The pandemic is not over yet, but UAMN will continue to be stewards of our shared history, conduct research, and share knowledge through world-class exhibits and outreach.