Museum protects artifacts, history

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2003

"I sank altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags, and wooden cases ... Every step I took I crushed a mummy. ... I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian. ... The purpose of my research was to rob the Egyptians of their papyri."

Giovanni Belzoni, "Patterns in Prehistory."

This firsthand description of how Belzoni, an Italian adventurer, looted dozens of ancient Egyptian tombs and sold their precious artifacts to museums, is a testament to the profound difference between the methods of archaeologists past and present.

Unfortunately, many people still think museums acquire their materials in this fashion, and, more importantly, many people still think the role of museums is just to collect and display curious and valuable relics. A notion quite far from the truth.

That's where Dana Woodard comes in. Woodard is the collections and exhibits manager at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. She looks beyond the 3,150 artifacts in the collection to seek a more profound understanding of the past and of ourselves in relation to the past.

"It's much more about education than it is about display," Woodard said. "We don't want people to just say, 'Wow! That's neat' and take away nothing else."

The items in the center are there to preserve the past, but, just as importantly, they define the present and educate for the future.


The center has a jacket made from animal intestines, called a kamelika, on display.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It's astonishing what the items can teach us," Woodard said. "We try to use the artifacts to show and explain the history of the Kenai Peninsula. We hope people go away with what happened here, when it happened and why it is important."

Take, for example, the journals of British explorer Capt. James Cook the man for which Cook Inlet is named. The center houses two sets of Cook's journals.

The center's first edition was donated by Mary Margaret Casey of Kasilof. Woodard said the collection has been appraised at $22,500.

The second edition includes three volumes of text and one volume of lithographs.

"The second edition was donated by Donald Mellish of Anchorage," said Woodard. "It was printed in 1785 and has been appraised at $18,000."

So, what's the big deal about such an old book?

"They tell all about where he went, what he did, and what he saw when he was in Cook Inlet," Woodard said.


Alaska natives are depicted in a lithograph titled "Canoes of Oonalashka" found in a hardbound book printed following Cook's voyage through the Pacific.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

This information can be important in many ways, according to Woodard.

Cook kept accounts of the Alaska Native people he came in contact with. He recorded many aspects of their culture, customs and how they lived. These accounts can be of use to modern Alaska Natives wishing to rediscover and reassert their traditional cultural identities.


An Alaska Native stone oil lamp from the Ryan collection has a face carved on one side and a hollow receptacle for oil on the other.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Cook also recorded the flora and fauna he encountered. This information can be useful to biologists and botanists looking to restore an altered natural habitat.

In addition to the journals, the center houses many other examples of the rich heritage of the community. Some of the items are on loan, but most of the artifacts in the center's care were acquired as gifts and donations from people in the community.

"We primarily focus on artifacts from the Kenai Peninsula, but display items from throughout Alaska," Woodard said. "The items are representative of several cultures of Alaskan Native peoples, as well as Russian culture, early American and gold rush culture, and many other people and animals that called this region their home."

Many of the artifacts can give patterns and meaning to the past. Groups of humans have the tendency to develop identity markers that distinguish them from other groups. These markers can include clothing, jewelry, tools and other similar items.


Harpoon points made from slate are also on display.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Some of the center artifacts are believed to date back to 1000 B.C. These artifacts belong to a group known to anthropologists as the Riverine Kachemak people.

"We have a lot of notched stones from the Riverine Kachemak," Woodard said. She explained how it can be extrapolated that these people lived near water and probably ate a diet of fish, since notched stones were believed to be used to weigh down gill nets for salmon fishing.

Around the same time period a group known as the Marine Kachemak also existed.While the Riverine Kachemak lived near rivers like the Kenai and the Kasilof, the Marine Kachemak were believed to have lived around Kachemak Bay, the outer Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island.

"(Marine Kachemak) artifacts tend to be quite a bit different," Woodard said. "Their artifacts suggest a more marine lifestyle."


An Alaska Native stone oil lamp from the Ryan collection has a face carved on one side and a hollow receptacle for oil on the other.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Marine Kachemak artifacts at the center include many tools made of ivory, slate ulus and scrapers and toggling harpoons.

"Toggling harpoons will stay in the animal better," Woodard said.

She explained how these harpoons would be attached to a line that was attached to a buoy made of inflated seal intestine. These buoys would exhaust an animal attempting to dive, forcing it back to the surface where a hunter would be waiting.


Notched stones from the Riverine Kachemak people were believed to hold nets in the water.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Toggling harpoons were probably one of their most important tools, since they would allow sea mammals which provided an abundant source of calories and nutrients to be harvested with greater success.

"We also have a few stone lamps," Woodard said. She explained how these lamps were created by sculpting fine-grained igneous rock into a bowl-like structure that would be filled with seal oil. Moss would be used as a wick.

Woodard also holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology. She's been on several archaeological digs, including one in the Kachemak Bay area in 2000 where a large stone lamp was excavated.

Stone lamps were known to exist in both the Riverine and Marine Kachemak cultures. These unique lamps tend to be few and far between in Alaska, though, since they often are displayed in large museums outside the state or slip into the hands of private collectors.

One of the most impressive items in the center is a seal intestine parka, known as a kamelika, which would have been worn by hunters to keep them warm and dry while hunting from canoes and kayaks.

"The sewing on the parka is amazing," Woodard said. "It's designed to be airtight so no water gets in. The fact that they were able to make this with their tools and materials, and with such precision and intricacy it's really almost a form of art," she said.

Despite how impressed Woodard is with the garment, she knows it was more about function than fashion to whoever wore it. It would have allowed someone to stay dry while hunting in Alaska's frigid water and could possibly have been the difference between life and death for a hunter unlucky enough to fall in.

"I think it was probably significant to their survival," Woodard said.


The center displays Alaska Native tools, including this slate ulu.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Not all of the artifacts at the center are from human cultures. The center also display an impressive collection of natural history artifacts.

Included in its collection are more than 65 stuffed bird mounts, several mounted land and marine mammals and more than 30 mountings of freshwater and marine life, including fish, crustaceans and aquatic plants.

"People seem to really like the bird mounts," Woodard said. "We get people in all the time that say, 'I saw this bird, but I'm not sure what it was.' We'll take them through the collection and help them identify which species they saw."

In addition to the cultural and natural history artifacts, the center also routinely exhibits paintings, photographs, sculptures and other work from numerous traveling art shows.

The center, like all museums, does not have every item in their possession on display. Some items are especially sensitive to UV light, temperature and humidity, and so require unique preservation methods. Also, the frequency of earthquakes in Alaska, a challenge many other museums in the country don't have to contend with, requires some items to be off exhibit as well.

The center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. In addition to the museum, there is a museum store with books and videos on Alaska, and visitor information with maps and guide books to area attractions and events.

For more information, call 283-1991.

Special thanks to Alan Boraas, professor of Anthropology for University of Alaska Anchorage at Kenai Peninsula College for allowing course material to be paraphrased for this article.

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