|Program Area:||Arts, Culture, Humanities|
The opportunity to wonder and connect
To provide opportunities for improving museum services in Alaska and enhancing public understanding of the purposes and functions of Alaska's museums.
I remember the first time I stood before the Declaration of Independence in that small, marble entrance hall in the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. and saw the actual parchment Thomas Jefferson wrote those extraordinary words on: "We hold these truths
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .."
That's the same document he held in his own hands, the same paper from which he read to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776. It was an exhilarating and astonishing experience for me.
I get something like the same feeling when I sit in an archive or a presidential library and read the letters of an Alaska pioneer or the office memorandum of a federal official grappling with whether to create the Arctic National Wildlife Range (its original name). It's almost like being there as a participant, watching someone make a decision or formulate an observation that shaped the way we live and understand our world today. It is awesome.
A trip through the Alaska Gallery in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art always does that for me. To examine an atlatl used by an Inuit hunter on the Bering Sea or the Arctic Ocean a hundred years ago is to imagine him aiming carefully but quickly at a swimming seal, or perhaps a Sperm Whale, hurling his harpoon at just the right moment, striking home, and later bringing prized, needed food to his village. I know I don't have those skills, and if they depended on me, my fellow villagers would starve. But I can vicariously experience, albeit dimly, the responsibility that rested on his shoulders, and celebrate with the village his prowess and his success.
To stand in the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka before a silken, gold-embroidered robe worn by a Russian Orthodox bishop in the early years of the 19th century is to marvel at that man's courage and patience, serving a scattered community of faithful spread across a vast maritime parish. It's also to wonder at the dedication of the handful of Russians – 823 was the largest number of Russians ever in Russian America at one time – who lived out their lives in small remote places – Unalaska, Kodiak, St. Michael, Sitka, ministering to the faithful and building for the future, our present.
The people who staff the more than sixty member institutions of Museums Alaska give me, give us all, these opportunities to connect with the people of our past in the most tangible way, through the very things they used and fashioned, things that are now the artifacts of our history, collected and preserved by the staffs of those museums. They also hand off that legacy to the future, to Alaskans yet unborn who will have the same opportunity to wonder and connect, and become part of the greater, transcending community of all us who have lived here, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
It's irreplaceable, that magic, and I thank the people who first collected the letters and the memoranda and the artifacts, and the ones today who continue to hold and care for them. They help me remember who I am, and where I have the remarkable fortune to be.