Kenai Visitors Center a treasure trove of objects

By Molly Dischner
Kenai, Alaska (AP) March 2011

The back room at Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center is a frenzy of found objects and their stories.

With financial support from the City of Kenai, the center recently hired Christina Conn to undertake an inventory of the whole collection. That’s about 3,000 objects, she said.

Conn’s job is to catalogue the objects and help tell their stories. She’s about halfway through them, although some she had looked at during a 2009 internship, so those will go more quickly.

Executive Director Natasha Ala said the objects are only useful as they tell or enhance a story.

“It’s a bigger job than just to be able to stick a label on it and put it in a glass case,” Ala said.

The goal is to help connect future visitors to each item, said Laura Forbes, the director of programs and exhibits.

“It becomes more like a conversation you have with a person and not just a thingywop in a case,” she said.

Part of the inventory process is figuring out just what everything is. In 1990, the center got a flatbed truck load of stuff from Fort Kenay. Not all of it had good records associated with it. And some of the donations brought in by community members over the years are missing details.

“Now we’re putting together the history,” Ala said.

The center uses a computer database program to list everything in their collection with as much information as possible.

Conn is charged with matching items and their descriptions.

Part of that includes transferring written donation records to filing cabinets. Everything is organized by year and the order received. Not all records have details of who brought an item in and where it came from.

“Some, they just say child’s racing dog sled,” Conn said, pulling a file.

So far, Conn said she has found about 45 items that had paperwork but weren’t in the database.

And then there’s the items listed in the database as donated but missing.

“I found 25 objects so far that have been missing in the database,” Conn said.

She also records the condition an item is in. Some condition reports were done in 2002, but not everything was part of that effort.

Conn looks at each item and notes cracks or stains. Next time an inventory is done, they’ll see if things are still in the same shape.

The list of things that can damage the collection is long: light, air pollution, insects, and natural disasters, like volcanoes and earthquakes.

“The way you display something can also damage it over time,” Ala said.

The center is responsible for keeping things in perpetuity, so they want to minimize that damage.

“This is the city’s collection,” Conn said. “This is your collection. This is her collection.”

The center is just a steward for future generations, Ala said.

Sometimes Conn is able to chat with the very people who lent the center an item.

“It’s not just about numbering and cataloguing and putting things in boxes,” Conn said.

One day, a man filled her in on the backstory of a carving. He had traded a lithograph for the bear-and-salmon piece, which was crafted by a cannery employee.

The inventory is not the only project at the center this month.

As Conn lays out mukluks, projectile points and dance fans, Forbes is busy using those items and their stories to develop a comparative cultures exhibit. The exhibit examines the local Kenaitze and Dena’ina Athabascan people in the context of Alaska Natives as a whole.

“We have a pretty broad collection,” Forbes said. About as broad as the variety in native cultures, she said.

The exhibit will show that the each culture developed over time, and continues to develop today. Contemporary art will provide a modern side of the cultures. Forbes said they hope to make the leap from history to today for visitors.

The center is also working with Alaska Natives to best represent their stories in the way they want to be represented. That includes a screen that plays educational programs produced by the Kenaitze tribe about their language and culture, Ala said.

Forbes said that as visitors enter the exhibit, they’ll have a sort of timeline for life on the Kenai Peninsula, and the context provided by seeing other cultures around the state. Russian fur traders, Captain Cook and the influx of Americans will all have their place in the story. Eventually, canneries and the oil and gas industry will also be displayed.

Essentially, the exhibits show that people have been coming to the Peninsula for thousands of years for the same reasons: resources and trade.

Ultimately, they want to tell a story that gives everyone from local students to visitors from other countries a context of what this place is and why people are here, Ala said.

Reaching out to local schools is another goal as the center explores the stories it can tell.

Conn said that they’re trying to make the collection information available online so teachers can see what is there and provide feedback on how the center can fit into their classrooms. Students could even do research using the collection, Ala said.

Last spring, Ala said 1,000 kids visited the museum.

Forbes said they want to see kids visit in the winter, too.

And they also work to provide educational programs for adults. This summer they are planning lectures, performances and even considering a writer’s event to tie-in with the summer exhibit that centers around intersecting journeys, and Kenai’s role as an epicenter for migratory birds, animals and even cultures.

Ala said the inventory process developed out of Conn’s internship in 2009. She did some work on the project then, which highlighted the need for a complete inventory.

Conn also helped create an intake process that should make future inventories go more smoothly. Having a collections policy means that the center can consider how an items fits into the story of Kenai before they accept it.

When you accept something, you’re agreeing to take care of it forever, Ala said. “Which is kind of a long time.”

Ala said the center is also looking at a possible storage expansion. The city manager is helping with that project, she said.