Archived photos

Hayley Chambers, senior curator of collections at the Tongass Historical Museum, looks at images from the museum's photo archive collections. Courtesy of Hayley Chambers

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then the Tongass Historical Museum has a lot to say about Ketchikan's past.  

Open year-round, the museum maintains two separate collections of images; the Tongass Historical Society photo archive, and the City of Ketchikan's archive.

Hayley Chambers, the senior curator of collections at the museum, spoke to the Daily News on Thursday about the archives and how the collections are used.

Although "reluctant to throw out a quantity," Chambers conservatively estimated that there were over 28,000 records at the Tongass Historical Museum.

And in each record, there could be up to 100 images, Chambers said.

The Tongass Historical Museum might receive a request to use the photo archives for several reasons.

The images in the collection are often the subject of requests from citizens looking for family information. The museum also is contacted by local government, nonprofits, publications or media outlets that are seeking photographs. The museum staff helps the requesters locate the information they want using the archive system.

"The photo work is a lot of fun," Chambers said, adding that the work is often like a "mystery" that staff is tasked with solving through research.

"It's definitely one of our more favorite parts of the job because it allows us to interact with the public and to do research, and it's really exciting when we get to solve mysteries that come up, too," Chambers added.

Each time new requests are received, it helps broaden the staff's understanding of the collections.

"Our photos requests and our research requests are really kind of awesome because they generally result in us adding more information into our records, and that's incredibly helpful," Chambers explained.

The photo archives also help the staff at the museum better understand Ketchikan's history, and anticipate what people might want to see in the future.

"Our photo archives are incredibly important because they share a slice of time in Ketchikan's history," Chambers said. "They can provide details for places and people that no longer exist. And that's incredibly valuable for understanding the scope of this town, and how we move forward."

The archives can be used as a tool for comparing how the town has changed. For example, Chambers said, the archives have helped museum staff track the deterioration of totem poles at the Totem Heritage Center.

"There's also just a lot of really fun mysteries, especially from the early years when buildings kind of came and went," Chambers said. "Buildings caught fire, (and) that changed a lot of the landscape in the downtown area. There's a lot of potentially different uses and purposes that make the historic photos really valuable; not just to us as the museum. We're trying to interpret the history of the community, but also all of our potential end users."

Chambers noted that all the totem poles that are currently at the Totem Heritage Center were relocated from another village site, and some look different now than before they were moved.

"That's incredibly meaningful and valuable to see how things were originally," Chambers said.

The archives also have helped unravel new chapters of Ketchikan's history, such as when a Washington man recently visited the museum in hopes of learning more about his grandfather, who owned a halibut schooner in Ketchikan in the 1920s.

Museum staff helped the man find out more about his grandfather, and were able to locate pictures of his relative's vessel, the McKinley.

Another part of working with the archives that's enjoyable for museum staff is filling in gaps in the collection.

"It's very much fun, because that's part of the mystery, too," Chambers said. "Of trying to identify what do we have a lot of? And then, what do we not have very much of?"

Chambers cited the "Into the Wind: Aviation as Southeast Alaska's Lifeline" exhibit that opened at the Tongass Historical Museum in March. In that exhibit, there were plenty of photos from the times of Ellis Air or World War II, but not as many contemporary photo options.

Historic photos are still welcome at the Tongass Historical Museum — which is always open to receive a new photo – but Chambers expressed that any picture can be important enough for an archive.

"Every day we make history, and things that we're taking pictures of now are going to be historic, whether it's immediately or (for) people in the future," she explained.

"We love receiving those," Chambers said about the historic pictures. "But it's also excellent to receive more contemporary photos, (and) really starting in the 70's, 80's (and) 90's, we definitely have gaps in our photo collection that we would love to be able to add more to."

Chambers also stressed the value of personal photos to a collection.

 "We really love being able to receive personal photos," Chambers explained. "What's kind of incredible about Ketchikan is there's been a number of really wonderful professional photographers, and we have a lot of their images. But with personal photos, you might see things from a different angle. A different perspective. You might see a building that maybe is generally obscured. Or you might see people that might not normally have been photographed."

In collections that are as large as the two that are maintained by the Tongass Historical Museum, organization is key to making sure all the materials remain in good condition.

"One of the main things with maintaining archives and just museum collections in general is making sure that things are stored well," Chambers explained.

She said that some photographs need to be stored in different ways, depending on their type and condition.

"We try to ensure that everything is stored in an appropriate way where things aren't damaged in storage," said Chambers.

She explained that at the museum, "a big part of storage is having things identified and organized in a way that is accessible."

For the most part, the collections at the Tongass Historical Museum are organized by topic.

As an example, Chambers said that this means that all of the photos featuring Mission Street will be grouped in one record, while all of the photos featuring Main Street will be in a separate record.

Chambers said that even though the public has the opportunity to find photos in the archives, museum staff is spending time making it even more accessible.

"We're trying really hard to make the collection that we available in as many different ways as we can," Chambers said, referring to the online database "PastPerfect," where some of the collection is currently available.