Juneau museum asks for public’s help figuring out who’s who

JUNEAU (AP) — They’re a who’s who of Juneau.

We just don’t know who they are.

At the end of this month, the Juneau-Douglas City Museum will take down an exhibit that has invited Juneau residents to put names to faces and identify between 2,000 and 3,000 unidentified photographs in the museum’s collection.

“This collection really documents the community of Juneau: school portraits, graduation photos, wedding photos, all of these great community faces,” explained Jodi DeBruyne, curator of collections and exhibits at the city museum.

On Tuesday morning, DeBruyne stood in front of a wall displaying 200 or so anonymous black-and-white photos identified only by their accession number.

The photos were donated by Susan Derrera, daughter of photographer Joseph Alexander, who lived in Juneau from the late 1940s to the 1980s.

“He was basically the main photographer in town from the ‘40s through the ‘80s, and he kept all these negatives,” DeBruyne said.

The photo negatives — more than 50,000 all told — came to the Museum in brown paper envelopes and colorful Kodak boxes in 2013.

After the museum received the Alexander negatives, it applied for and received a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to preserve them.

Volunteers counted and sorted the negatives, filing them in binders and archive boxes within the museum’s climate-controlled basement.

The intent is to scan them all for permanent preservation and access, but that will take some time. “Processing this is going to be a multi-year project — job security,” DeBruyne said with a laugh, gesturing to rows of boxes on a metal shelf in the basement.

Thirteen volunteers dedicated 600 man-hours to fill those boxes.

Scanning and sorting, while a titanic effort, is the easy part. Identifying the people in the images is harder but even more important. Without identification, the photographs are anonymous, unsearchable artifacts.

Most of the donated photographs had at least a family name or a date, but thousands had no identifying marks. They were simply passport photos and ID photos showing the faces of Juneau residents 50 or so years ago.

“We really needed to convert the negatives to something we could ID from,” DeBruyne said.

To do that, museum staff were inspired in part by something they already had: a photo collage of Juneau pioneers that dates from the first decade of the 20th century.

As you walk in the door of the museum, it hangs on the right. Tiny photographs fill most of an ornate frame, and each photograph is labeled with the name of its subject. Facing the frame on the opposite wall is its modern counterpart: rows of photographs printed on vinyl and stuck on the wall.

Digitally, the museum is sharing additional unidentified photos via Facebook and on its website.

The effort has had some success. “On the wall, we’ve gotten about 60 identifications out of about 212, which is awesome,” DeBruyne said. “On Facebook, I post one every Wednesday, and we’ve got about 11 out of 30 identifications there.”

Another 80 photographs have been identified via the museum’s website.

Some of the photographs on the wall now bear small notes that attest the person’s name, but DeBruyne isn’t just collecting that; she also wants information about each person — where they worked, what clubs they belonged to, and more.

“It’s really great information because it helps us create that story for people coming to look up information on their great-great-great-great grandparents,” she said. “It’s really heartwarming to connect these photographs to the people.”

One of the more convenient connections was Barbara Potter. Her photograph was an easy match — she volunteers at the museum’s front desk. Her husband’s photograph was among the anonymous passport photos.

“I knew Joe Alexander had taken the pictures, but that was a surprise,” she said. “When I first came here, he was the photographer who took everything.”

Alexander shot her wedding photos in 1964, and one photograph accompanies a display on Alexander’s life. In addition to the photo ID project, the museum’s summer exhibit is a retrospective on the lives of six Juneau photographers.

“I think it’s a neat project, I really do,” Potter said. “I enjoyed looking at it.”

The museum’s summer exhibit, including the Juneau Who’s Who display, will be available through Sept. 24. After that, the museum will close to replace the carpeting in its Juneau history gallery. The fate of the Who’s Who display hasn’t been determined, but for now the Facebook posts will continue.

Said DeBruyne: “I’m going to continue that since everybody loves it so much.”

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