Kodiak History Museum publishes database showcasing its entire object archive

The Kodiak History Museum has published an online photo database of thousands of items in its collection. As KMXT’s Brian Venua reports, the project has taken museum staff a year to complete, and was published Jan. 31. 

The Kodiak History Museum is in the old Russian Magazin, the oldest standing wood building in Alaska, October 11, 2024. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

The new database has been a long term project for staff at the Kodiak History Museum. Chief Curator Margaret Greutert said it’s taken over a year to document the condition of over 2,300 objects in the museum’s storage. 

“The project kind of had two components,” she said. “One is we wanted to photograph all of the objects in our collection and then the second component is we wanted to make all of those photographs available online.” 

The museum used a $48,278 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to pay for new camera equipment, lights, and a small studio to photograph the items, as well as to pay staff for their time. 

The database also has a “browse” feature for visitors to scroll through random objects in their collections. (Courtesy of the Kodiak History Museum)

Greutert said it was a tedious process to make sure every object was named and numbered correctly. 

“We got this really nice inventory list that we can just handy-dandy print that has all of the object IDs and the description on it,” she said. “And then we were able to go down the list, photograph it, and then when you photograph on the camera, it’ll assign it a photo number.” 

She said those photo numbers were then marked next to each item on their inventory to keep accurate labels. 

Lena Amason is one of the museum assistants who helped move and photograph the archives. She said she and her coworker Tiffany Cannon got to work with items deep in the museum’s archive rooms. 

“I had to squeeze into this upstairs corridor and photograph oil lamps that were super heavy and impossible to move, but that we would have normally never gotten to see because they’re way up and hidden away,” Amason said. 

Lena Amason (left) and Tiffany Cannon (right) photographed the museum’s art pieces like this painting by Alvin Amason. (Courtesy of the Kodiak History Museum)

She said some of her favorite pieces were ivory otter charms that used to be carried by Alutiiq hunters for good luck and safety. She said some of the most stressful parts were working with delicate pieces like a model kayak. 

“You wouldn’t think you’d break a sweat photographing a teeny tiny, lightweight object, but you can,” Amason said. 

Greutert said taking photos of every object served another, bigger purpose though. The museum now has a visual record for its entire collection, including photos of the fronts, backs, and some details of every object.

She noted despite the museum’s efforts to preserve every item, the reality is that they can’t preserve everything forever. 

“You can put them in the best conditions and some pigments just fade over 100 years or things like that,” Greutert said. “So there’s some things that are just inevitable so it’s nice to have that snapshot in time.” 

The online database is up now and staff are soliciting public opinion on how to proceed with writing captions. 

Greutert said she hopes it will spark more conversations about the role of cultural preservation. 

“One of our institutional values is transparency and so we’re just trying to do that,” she said. “Trying to open the doors and show what we got.”

The chief curator said she hopes to find another grant to do a similar project and publish all of the museum’s photo collections as well. 

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