From floatplanes to 737s, aviation is a constant in the lives of many Southeast Alaska residents, and also serves as the inspiration for an upcoming special exhibit at the Tongass Historical Museum.
“Into the Wind: Aviation as Southeast Alaska's Lifeline” is set to open with an evening reception at 5 p.m. on March 6.
The new special exhibit will be the first time since an early 2000s exhibit on Ellis Airlines that the Tongass Historical Museum will have debuted an exhibit built around aviation.
Ryan McHale, the curator of exhibits at the Tongass Historical Museum, told the Daily News during a recent interview that this exhibit will be different than past aviation-focused exhibits.
“What we really wanted to focus on was every aspect of aviation,” McHale said. “So what do you not see when you're doing a flightseeing tour? What goes on behind the scenes? Which is why we were focusing on the unsung heroes — so dispatchers, mechanics, dock boys, freight hogs — it's like the different people within the industry that make sure you get your supplies.”
“Into the Wind” will be McHale's first exhibit with the museum.
Originally hailing from New Jersey, McHale earned a Master of Science in ancient history degree from the University of Edinburgh. After finishing school, McHale accepted a job in the small town of Ocotillo, California, where he worked as the head curator at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum. McHale spent a year in that position before arriving in the First City five months ago, after being hired as the curator of exhibits for the museum.
As part of the application process for his position, McHale was tasked with developing a proposal for an exhibit focused on aviation.
McHale's proposal was part of what cinched his position, and he immediately began working on plans for the exhibit.
The exhibit is focused on the effect of aviation in Ketchikan and Southeast Alaska.
“A lot of people think (of) planes here — especially floatplanes — as people down south think of cars,” McHale said. “When it comes down to it, it's just a tool. And what we're trying to tell here are the personal stories. So what do you use aviation for that helps you get your job done?”
“We really wanted to celebrate the industry, and especially visitors that come to Ketchikan, where they might only see one aspect of it, … trying to show that it's much more than that,” McHale continued. “That it's just one aspect of a much broader and larger industry that is really integral to our lives.”
McHale told the Daily News that the upcoming exhibit incorporates three themes to tell an overall story of the community and regional impact of aviation. The themes are combined with a variety of artifacts, contemporary objects, photographs, tools, visual aids and related memorabilia.
McHale described the first theme of the exhibit as “necessity.”
“You have all these communities that are all spread out, how do we connect them?” McHale said.
McHale said that aviation has served as a solution to the lack of reliable road systems of other travel difficulties throughout Alaska's history. This aspect of the industry is represented by a range of photographs and artifacts in the exhibit.
He also noted that “uniqueness” was another important theme for the exhibit.
“What is the driving force for floatplanes?” McHale asked, adding that the way Alaskans uses aviation for work, sport and daily activities is unique to the area.
He also said that “adaptability” was a final important element.
Even as transportation continues to be a topic of local conversation, “aviation is still that constant,” he explained.
To demonstrate this idea, the exhibit features trademarks of the industry throughout the years.
McHale told the Daily News that the exhibit features highlights relating to local pilots, tools of the trade, objects related to flight and navigation, old and recent photographs, and other industry paraphernalia.
He said that the goal of combining these different genres of artifacts was to “show that personal narrative throughout all of this.”
McHale said that he was unfamiliar with many aspects of Alaskan aviation when he began thinking about how to curate the exhibit. To combat this, he reached out to a variety local resources and community members.
Ketchikan Museums' Senior Curator of Collections Hayley Chambers said that a majority of the objects on display in the exhibit are on loan from community members.
Chambers said that the artifacts that the museum has in its collections “drives part of the story,” and influences the kind of exhibit that is put together.
“With this exhibit in particular, it's a lot more contemporary than what we have for aviation in our collection, and just kind of different aspects of aviation,” Chambers explained.
To balance out the kinds of artifacts that would be featured in the exhibit, the curators reached out to locals who had interesting connections to aviation.
“A lot of this exhibit as been put together because of people in the community who are giving us loans,” said McHale.
Obtaining items for an exhibit on loan is helpful.
“When we bring things in from the outside, we kind of treat them like we would our own artifacts,” Chambers explained.
Chambers said that when the museum accepts a loan, they process the object, document it with pictures and notes, and take any necessary precautions to keep it in good condition.
“It's a lot more than just seeing it and putting it up on display,” McHale added. “You don't realize what actually is going into it.”
In addition to the large number of donations in the exhibit, McHale also conducted interviews and had meetings with over 50 members of the community attached to the aviation industry.
Chambers said that the large volume of interviews wasn't usual for an exhibit.
“I think in this instance it made a lot of sense,” she said.
McHale said that despite the large number of people he got to speak with, the list of names he was given to contact continues to grow.
“I think there's a lot of people really invested in this exhibit,” McHale said.
McHale began work on developing the exhibit as soon as he was hired, with assistance from other members of the museum staff.
Usually, the staff has around 10 months to design an exhibit. In the case of “Into the Wind,” McHale and staff had only around five months.
McHale said that as the exhibit opening draws closer, “there's always that final push to really get everything done.”
“There's a whole lot of chaos and late nights,” McHale said about finishing the exhibit.
For McHale, he hopes that the exhibit turns out to be “something that you can connect with immediately.”
“Being able to actually, like, represent this story (is hard),” McHale said. “I feel a pressure of really wanting to do this justice, and making sure we accurately represent what aviation is in Ketchikan. And I'm really hoping that when locals come in, they're like 'Yeah, this is aviation.'”