by Olivia Havens (MA, 2016)
When it came time to start looking for an internship last winter, I applied for different types of internships in many different types of places, a few just on a whim. I’m the type of person who always has a voice of doubt in the back of her head, believing it’s impossible to succeed in something, until I actually do it. I didn’t think any of the museums I applied to would want me, so imagine my surprise when I got a phone call inviting me to Alaska!
The museum I was invited to was a small museum in the equally small town of Haines, Alaska (of Disney’s White Fang fame and Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush t.v. show). Haines, which is 92 miles from the capital city of Juneau, 40 miles from the Canadian Border, and 19 miles from Skagway (a gold rush town which is preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Park) is surrounded by snow topped mountains and rolling, tree covered hills. It is also home to a plethora of eagles, bears, and whales; The Hammer Museum (located on Main Street and the only museum dedicated to the history of the hammer in the U.S.); The American Bald Eagle Foundation; and my internship site, the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center. For being such a small town in the northern part of Alaska’s Panhandle (near Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve) Haines is full of kind and helpful people who all have stories to tell, and who almost weekly put on plays, contests, fundraisers, trips for the local clubs, and salmon bakes.
Perched on a grassy hill overlooking water and mountains, The Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, as I said before, is a small museum with only three galleries, but it holds a rich collection of historical, cultural, and ethnographic objects and materials related to the local Tlingit people and the local history of the area. The museum also holds regularly changing exhibitions of local artists’ works. Volunteers give tours and talks every Wednesday (a cruise ship pulls in every week!) and put on summer camps. We’re now getting ready for the third annual Totem Trot, a local half marathon and 5K run/walk fundraiser for the museum.
The Sheldon has a staff of six, three of whom are year-round residents of Haines. My job as the only intern at the museum is to do a bit of everything. This includes working on the front line at the admission desk, where I sell tickets, ring up museum shop purchases, give (only slightly muddled) directions to tourists, and keep an eye on the gallery. I also work behind the scenes: I care for and accession the various objects in the collection, research objects and produce labels, as well as handle any miscellaneous tasks that need to be done.
One of my main projects is to design an exhibit for the museum’s research area, where, as the name implies, people come to do research using the objects and documents the museum has stored in the archives. When my supervisor, Helen Alten, asked me to work on this project, I was both excited and nervous: it seemed like a big job. The museum has lots of interesting and wonderful things in its archives, and after I got over my initial surprise of the honor of being asked to design such an exhibit from scratch, I dove into PastPerfect to see what I could come up with. After making a short list of a dozen or so things I thought would be interesting to the potential researcher, and some input from various museum employees, a theme started to appear, and I had my exhibit theme and title: Haines, Building a Town.
The museum does not seem to have any particular process for planning and carrying out the various exhibitions when it comes time to change them. As of this writing, my exhibit is still in its infancy. I am the only one working on it (I pretty much have complete control over the whole process). I do not know if I will get to type up and hang any labels as of yet, let alone the objects themselves. It very well may be that I won’t even be the one to finish the project, because of time constraints. Such is the struggles of a small museum.
While examining the collection in order to assess if the objects I picked were suitable for this exhibit, I discovered my favorite object: a map of the Lynn Canal, dated to 1904. It’s over one hundred years old and many of the towns labeled on it were just over twenty years old at the time. Haines is labeled on the map as simply, “Haines Mission,” as the town was still in its beginning stages, acting as a mission and school, with a few local businesses and families. Thus my exhibition will arrange documents and pictures, maps and letters from the very beginnings of the town’s history in 1881. It will tell the story of the native tribes, families, businesses, and people that made Haines what it is today: a town of fascinating people with a rich and enduring history.
For more information on University of San Francisco’s Museum Studies program, click here.