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New exhibit opens at Tongass Historical Museum
Examples of Ketchikan ingenuity are prepared for the new exhibit titled “Solving Problems, Telling Stories: Handcraft In A Harsh Environment” at the Tongass Historical Museum. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

The Tongass Historical Museum will be launching its newest exhibit, “Solving Problems, Telling Stories: Handcraft in a Harsh Environment” in an opening on Friday evening.

The opening of the annual special exhibit is scheduled earlier this year than has been traditional, which will allow locals more time to peruse the exhibit before the tourist season.

Curator of Exhibits Steven Villano said that the idea for the new special exhibit was sparked by conversations he and the staff had conducted with the community.

“We asked the community, and we continue: ‘Ketchikan is what?’ Villano said of their approach to choosing the museum’s exhibit themes.

Villano said that when community members were surveyed, in separate groups, with the question of what the heart of Ketchikan really is, he said the results were striking. Every group, independently, came up with the idea of the central role of people’s hands.

“What is so important about our hands?” Villano said was the question that needed to be addressed in the upcoming exhibit.

He said that he realized that when the Europeans first arrived in the area, around the time of the industrial revolution, those people could have simply stayed in cities, where all of the industry was happening.

“But, this was a group who came here and fashioned a city on a mountainside, in the water, and they did it with their hands,” he explained.

“We are a town that is made by hand,” Villano said. “Not something that was flown in and dropped here, or purpose-built in a sense, but something that was just cobbled together from what we had, to make it work.”

Villano said that one moment he remembers that underscored the history of Ketchikan as created from practicality and by hand, was when he asked local Skip Thompson why Ketchikan had been built on pilings.

“Well, back then it was really hard to move a rock, but it was really easy to float a log,” Villano remembers Thompson answering.

Building Ketchikan also was part of a longer ancestral and evolutionary trajectory, Villano said, all created with people’s hands.

Villano said he organized the exhibit, which features a wide array of handmade items, from very old historical Native Alaskan pieces to modern items, into three categories: items created for comfort, those created with ties to tradition through the idea of “imitating the ancestors” and those created for utilitarian reasons.

In the center of the exhibit, he displayed items that overlap those categories, “to make you feel as though you are inside those three areas, rather than they are external,” Villano explained.

On display tables in the center are a variety of handmade items, including a bentwood halibut hook, old sewing tools, and an elaborately beaded pincushion.

Also featured in the center of the exhibit, are two video screens on which historical and modern videos will play, featuring people using their hands to craft, to build and to work.

In the “comfort” area of the exhibit, there are displayed dolls, quilts, a child’s red sled and fancy handmade clothing items, among myriad other creations.

“These are the things that we do that are just because it’s fun,” Villano said, gesturing to the cases of items in the museum’s special exhibits room.

“These are the things that just make life more comfortable,” he added. Some of the items, especially the clothing, also perform the function of allowing the creator or wearer to feel comfortable in a certain environment, or to answer the question “how do I want to appear?”

Some of the clothing items show a blend of Native Alaskan arts with European style — such as a spruce root hat that had been woven in the shape of a derby hat.

Many of the items in the utilitarian section of the exhibit cross the boundary between the utilitarian and comfort categories, Villano pointed out.

He used a woven cedar cape with long fringes, created by Holly Churchill, as an example.

“It provides comfort, provides utility and is a beautiful, beautiful piece that is incredibly functional,” he explained.

He also pointed out a gillnet hanging bench on display, used to hang weedline on a gillnet, on loan from Robert Odmark. The bench belonged to Odmark’s father, Ted Odmark, who ran the F/V Pennock, which Robert now runs.

Alongside the gillnet hanging bench are handmade cooper’s planes that were made to smooth the storage barrels that people built.

Villano said that the idea of carrying forward ancestral skills and ideas is critical to the creation of new objects and tools, and that idea is a common thread in the exhibit’s objects.

“If you’re trying to achieve the highest level you can, there’s a certain amount of understanding that you are in a trajectory and that you are picking it up and moving it forward,” Villano said.

“So, this idea of imitating the ancestors simply means, I believe, that you are accepting a mantle to say that ‘I’m going to be a generation that moves this — what you did, what you gave me — into the future, and I will share it with others so it will live on,” Villano explained.  

One of the more fanciful, yet practical, items displayed is a three-dimensional picture frame created with “logger scrimshaw.” It is a complex, layered structure made of small, sharp spikes that a logger had carved out of wood scraps.

More modern loans to the exhibit include yarn dyed with mushrooms collected by locals Leif and Erik Sivertsen, as well as pottery bowls they crafted from clay they harvested locally. There also is a large basket on display, created by Ketchikan weaver Kathy Rousso.

One of the more unusual items is a decades-old handmade book by C.R. Snow, who lived on Gravina Island, and who planned to publish the volume to guide people in the skills needed to succeed in the area.

Each page has type-written instructions in chapters including information about how to cross a mountain, how to make a shelter for the night, how to use a compass and how to process clams, grow vegetables and forage for edible plants. Pages feature his photographs attached as illustrations.

Humans have long focused on the importance of hands, said Villano who spoke of the hand images that have been discovered in caves located all around the globe.

“This image of your hand and the pigment blown onto the hand to leave this negative impression was something human beings did to say ‘I am here,’” Villano explained.

Villano said he has a vision for what he’d like visitors to bring away from the exhibit.

“I want you to look at your hands,” he said. “I want you to know your hands differently and think about all this stuff and where it comes from and where it’s made.”

Villano said he will be accepting video submissions of people creating objects or working with their hands as the show continues. To submit a video, or to get more information, contact Senior Curator of Programs Marni Rickelmann at marnir@ktn-ak.us.

The museum’s opening is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday. The museum, located at 529 Dock St., will be open and will offer free admission from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday until May 1, when the museum will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day during the summer season.