Museum director passed on job at Field Museum
Helen Alten, who worked five years as conservator at the Alaska State Museum, has been hired as the new director of the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center.
The Sheldon Museum Board is convinced it has hired a superstar.
Last month, the board hired Helen Alten as the new museum director. With more than 30 years of experience working for museums and cultural organizations in Alaska, the Lower 48 and overseas, Alten has extensive knowledge of archeology, conservation, grant writing and fundraising.
"To put it succinctly, we were lucky to have an applicant who was so overqualified willing to move to Haines for the job," said Jim Heaton, president of the museum board.
Alten turned down a job offer at Chicago's prestigious Field Museum, where she has previously worked, to come to Haines with her husband and 12-year-old twins.
"The difference is at the Field Museum, you are dealing with stuff from all over the world, but you're not in the midst of it. But in Haines, you're living right in the midst of it: you're with the people who are making the materials, the people who are collecting them. It's kind of like being where the action is in our field," Alten said.
The education system in Chicago also made the Field Museum job a no-go. "We went and looked at the schools and my kids said, 'No way.' And my husband said, 'No way.'"
She plans to arrive in Haines Jan. 6 after traveling to Greece to teach a four-day workshop in Athens.
Alten is a conservationist, meaning she specializes in preserving and restoring cultural artifacts. With an undergraduate background in archeology and chemistry, Alten attended the Institute of Archeology at the University College London for a master's degree in conservation and material science.
"I think what will be interesting is usually directors come from the curatorial standpoint, and I'm coming from the conservation side. Most conservators don't end up becoming directors, so I think it will be interesting, and I hope that people will like that about me," she said.
The connections she has developed during her career – with museums ranging from the Smithsonian Institution to small-town museums in North Carolina – also give her access to collections across the country. Alten said she already is tapping some of these sources for materials to bring to the museum.
Alten said she would like to transform how the community feels about the museum, and how it thinks of history. Besides capturing the past, a museum should define the present and the future, she said.
"The truth is the community is making history daily. Current events are the history of tomorrow. The museums that really have a vested community are the ones that interpret current events, that have ongoing exhibits about what is going on in town," Alten said.
She is also fascinated by how collections can be used to teach just about anything, from science to art to social studies. One project she would like to see move forward is for school students to conceive of and design an entire exhibit.
"They could build cases, write labels, design it. It incorporates math, language, visual arts, editing. Let them choose the topic and the interpretation. Have the community interpret itself within the museum," Alten said.
Generating community interest and investment in the museum also is critical to Alten.
"I think in a town of 2,300 it's important that the public facility be public, that people want to go there and go regularly... I want the town to be as invested in the museum as it is in the library, to feel the museum is important to them," she said.
Blythe Carter, who is acting as interim director, said in addition to being thrilled about Alten's impending arrival, she is just glad to be over with the hiring process. "I am happy that we are going to have somebody here. It will be nice to be able to do my regular job again," Carter said.
Several months ago, the board hired another candidate who backed out at the last minute, forcing the board to repeat the hiring process.
Carter said she is confident Alten will succeed in Haines, as she worked as the state conservator in Juneau from 1989 to 1994. As the state conservator, Alten traveled to Haines several times to work with the museum.
"She knows the area as far as what to expect as far as weather so she isn't going to be getting into something she doesn't know about," Carter said.
Alten is coming to Haines from Charleston, W. Va., where she has worked as the director of the Northern States Conservation Center since 1997. She has also launched a pioneering online museum studies training program, which in nine years has grown from one annual course to more than 80.
In 1993, she was the first recipient of the Museums Alaska Award for Excellence in the Museum Profession.