How to move a museum

Construction workers in Juneau are building a new Alaska State Libraries, Archives and Museums building.

And inside the old building, a small team of museum professionals and volunteers are preparing to move. They’re packing up the entire Alaska State Museum collection – ranging from a 45-foot umiak to half-inch-tall ivory pieces.

Only five percent of the museum’s collection is displayed at any given time. The rest is stored in the basement.

As conservator for the Alaska State Museum, Ellen Carrlee is responsible for figuring out how to pack up more than 32,000 objects. It involves opening every drawer in every storage unit and coming up with a plan for each item.

“Like this drawer for example has several boxes in it already, which are really easy to travel,” Carlee says as she pulls out a drawer, “but this drum which is from the Arctic Winter Games. It’s a walrus stomach drum from 1974 and it has signatures of people all over. It’s very delicate.”

Carrlee says she and other museum staff members pack and move objects all the time – for exhibits or to go on loan – that’s part of their job description. But moving an entire collection is a once in a career type of thing.

There’s no manual on how to pack up a museum collection, so Carrlee resorted to more pedestrian means – she Googled it.

“If you look on the internet for good methods for packing museum artifacts, and you try to search Google images or whatever, you’d think there’d be a lot of images but there’s not nearly as many as we’d like to see,” says Carlee.

Move by numbers:
A quick look at what makes up part of the Alaska State Museum’s collection

  • 600 masks from Alaska’s various cultural groups
  • 1,100 baskets from around the state
  • 3,000 framed fine art pieces
  • 70 carved ivory pipes
  • One 18-ton Baldwin Locomotive from the Alaska-Gastineau Mine
  • One 45 foot walrus hide umiak

So she’s had to improvise. Carrlee has come up with about a dozen different techniques for packing various artifacts, including dance fans with feather appendages, ivory cribbage boards, spruce root baskets, and a three-foot high piece of red tree coral.

She walks around the basement with a yellow legal pad, scrutinizing each artifact and writing down a plan to stabilize it. After she’s gone through all the objects, she tapes her handwritten notes and diagrams to the outside of the cabinet.

“Every cabinet, every drawer, every item has to have a plan,” she says.

Carrlee heads up a team of staff and volunteers who are tackling different aspects of the packing.

On this day, museum professional Jon Loring is focused on ivory. He wears cotton gloves and is in the process of making custom storage mounts for carved ivory pipes.

“Ivory is one of the most fragile objects in the collection,” Loring explains.

Loring sits by a table filled with cutting materials, measuring devices, a glue gun, a spool of cotton ribbon, and different size scraps of foam and cardboard.

“Some of these are really complicated and you have to cut exactly the right angle to support the object and it’s not so easy. I can probably do about 12-15 of these a day,” he says.

The museum has 70 ivory pipes in its collection. Loring is also making custom mounts for masks. There are 600 of those.

Volunteer Fran Dameron has been helping out at the museum for 14 years. At the moment she’s putting numbers on mining artifacts.

“Did you see these enormous wrenches down here? I wouldn’t try to lift it. That’s why I was working on the floor,” Dameron laughs.

The numbers are linked to the museum’s database which keeps track of all the collection items.

Carrlee says the process of having to look through every storage unit has helped the team locate what are called “registration problems” – items without a number. “This museum goes back to 1900 so we’ve got 113 years of potential clerical errors.”

There’s also the chance of finding something that was missing, or two pieces that were separated.

“Right now I’ve got a bag that has a wing in it from a taxidermied bird and I know that through this process, I’m eventually going to find a bird with one wing and we’re going to reunite the bird with its wing,” Carlee says.

The team has until the end of February to pack up the museum’s collection. Once that’s all done safely and securely, Addison Field is in charge of moving the collection.

The majority of it will travel in carts through a tunnel to be built between the current building and the new one.

Field says other items, like paintings, may take more care. He anticipates many will need to be hand carried. “One object and one person and that’s not the most efficient way to do things, but when you’re dealing with things that are really truly treasures and need to be safeguarded, that’s the safest way to do it,” says Field.

And then there are the items that won’t fit through the tunnel, like the 8-foot wide, 45-foot long walrus hide umiak, which was originally assembled inside the building. Field doesn’t know how that will be moved. But what he does know, is when the doors of the new State Libraries, Archives and Museums building open in the spring of 2016, the umiak will be there unscathed.

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