AIA archives a gift to be unwrapped
In the coming year, Sheldon Museum workers will begin sifting through the archives of Alaska Indian Arts, a collection of photos, filmstrips, scrapbooks, texts, and documents dating back as far as 70 years that could provide new information on Native culture and history in the Chilkat Valley.
Alaska Indian Arts president Lee Heinmiller this week said the local nonprofit will donate more than 20 bankers’ boxes full of materials to the museum, items that have been collected since his father Carl Heinmiller arrived here in the mid-1940s with a fascination of Tlingit culture.
Heinmiller said he doesn’t know everything that’s in the collection, as it includes items such as films made of Native elders visiting here shot by other people. “A lot of these are things that have never even been seen in my lifetime. Some of them are bound to be incredibly great.”
One film he has seen shows Klukwan elder Dan Katzeek, renowned for his knowledge of Tlingit culture, telling a history of Klukwan’s clans, then going off to play a trumpet. Katzeek was born here in the 1880s and died in 1960. “I think the sound recordings and the language sequences will be of interest to Sealaska Heritage Institute.”
AIA is giving away the materials to save them, Heinmiller said, as time is taking a toll on them. Historic photos are fading and cellophane tape used for mounting items has turned to goop. A broken water pipe that leaked into AIA’s regalia room five years ago and the recent death of Walter Porter, one of AIA’s first Chilkat Dancers, helped prompt Heinmiller’s decision.
“These are the things that make you a little nervous. I thought, ‘We better get some of these things squared away,’” he said. AIA will receive digitized copies of materials in exchange for its donation.
Heinmiller said AIA has kept audiotapes and films in metal canisters inside boxes in cool rooms, but the company can’t match the security and modern preserving technology offered by a museum.
“Celluloid breaks down. You put something like (an old film) in a projector and you get a pile of powder, and then a plastic strip comes out of the projector,” he said. Using professional preservation technology, however, a copy of a filmstrip can be made without feeding it through a projector, he said.
Heinmiller said he initially intended to donate some older, delicate artifacts and regalia, but those would come only after making a separate agreement with the museum on how pieces would be kept and loaned out.
He said he didn’t want to donate items that would be stored away in a cabinet. Arrangements would have to be made to allow Natives to use regalia in modern-day ceremonies, he said. The Chilkat Dancers folded in 2000 after 43 years, but local Native dance groups still use AIA’s regalia in performances.
“Museum people like to put things under glass with white gloves but I’d rather see regalia falling apart from people using it than sitting in some museum gathering dust,” Heinmiller said. Use of historic regalia can have an inspiring effect on young dancers, who sometimes ask to repair them, he said.
Also, the donors of some pieces given to AIA may not have wanted them in the public domain, he said. Further, cultural considerations may prevent the museum from allowing some materials to be duplicated, but those items still would be available to researchers, he said.
Heinmiller said AIA also would keep originals of some books but allow the museum to make scanned copies. An example, he said, was one by pioneer ethnographer George Thornton Emmons with pictures of Chilkat blanket pattern boards from Klukwan. “If there’s another copy of that, it’s in the Smithsonian.”
Sheldon Museum director Helen Alten said AIA’s donation will swell the museum’s archives. The donation was part of the museum’s motivation for expanding, relocating and consolidating its archives. The museum is in the process of installing compact storage units there as part of a reorganization expected to quadruple its storage capacity.
Processing AIA’s materials – including identification, evaluation, culling and cataloguing – could take years, Alten said. She’s seeking funding for a full-time project archivist that could also work with researchers who can keep museum staff busy during summer months.
As much as one fourth of the museum’s photos aren’t catalogued, Alten said. Storage also has been an issue, as some exhibits were stored behind current ones when she started on the job two years ago, she said.
Alten said AIA’s archives also should shed light on early tourism efforts in Haines and Alaska.
Carl Heinmiller launched AIA as a way to showcase and preserve Tlingit art and culture. AIA’s Chilkat Dancers dance troupe, who performed in Haines-based tours for decades, also gave dancing and totem carving demonstrations at World’s Fairs in the 1960s and for years traveled with the State of Alaska’s official promotional entourage, Lee Heinmiller said.