JUNEAU — For a man tasked with keeping charge of the whereabouts and safety of more than 32,000 irreplaceable objects, Alaska State Museum chief curator Addison Field seems pretty calm.
Standing in the pristine new vault of the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum building on day two of a six-week collections transfer project from the old space to the new, Field explained how his team has approached such major upheaval within a realm devoted to constancy.
“You have to work slowly and with concentration,” he said. “There are two things that have to happen — we have to get everything, obviously, out of the old collections room and get it over here, but we can only strip it out in one fashion. It’s all packed in tight and you have to move everything out in a specific order. So it’s kind of a logistical dance to make that whole process work.”
Field is overseeing the transfer, which involves moving every object in the state museum’s collection through a short tunnel connecting the old building on Whittier Street to the new SLAM vault on Willoughby Avenue. The new vault is three times the size of the old space. The second level of the vault, now empty, will eventually house the collections of the state library and state archives.
The first set of objects came through the tunnel on Monday in a system that involves four work teams: a collections team in the old space, headed by museum conservator Ellen Carrlee; a transport team that oversees the tunnel, headed by Scott Carrlee, curator of Museum Services; a vault team in the new space, headed up by project assistant Claire Imamura; and a security team that ensures the entire area is locked down tight.
Objects are catalogued on both sides of the tunnel so staff know exactly where everything is at any given time.
“When it leaves there it’s catalogued out, and when comes here it’s catalogued in … even though it’s only 150 feet,” said Bob Banghart, deputy director of SLAM and former chief curator. “It’s not super complicated, there’s just diligence that makes it work. You can’t let it get unraveled.”
Among the first objects to come over Monday were several pairs of mukluks, chosen to be early residents of the new vault because of the placement of the cabinet they were in on the other side. Field said the idea is to move the objects only once, if possible.
The moving process builds on layers of preparation and planning, checking and cross-referencing — an intricately interconnected system of moving parts Banghart compared to a Swiss watch.
“It’s been methodically worked through time and time again,” he said. “It’s really remarkable how extensive the organizational process is.”
Museum staff planned how many objects and cabinets they need to move every day to meet their minimum goals so the entire collection can be transferred to the new vault within the six-week window. Moving within that time frame will allow the SLAM construction process to stay on schedule. Field said he expects the process to get a bit faster once everyone has gotten used to their roles.
“We’re getting faster already, and starting to get more efficient,” Field said Tuesday, the second day of the move.
Field, former curator of Collections & Exhibits for the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, came to the state museum as its registrar in October 2012. Even before his promotion to chief curator last month, he was the designated staff member in charge of the collections transfer.
“I knew I would be directing the move a couple months after I came on,” he said. “I did not expect to be chief curator at the same time. But I’m learning a different set of skills and it’s exposed me to a whole different side of the project that I hadn’t seen before, a deeper understanding.”
No misclassified or hidden treasures emerged in preparation for the move, but the transfer has given the staff a chance to strengthen the object records of everything in the collection.
“Anything that’s been in the vault for the last 50 years, that there might have been a little fuzziness on, that’s all been rectified,” Banghart said. “When we open the facility, this room is dialed right in. We know where everything is.”
Conservator Carrlee, who on Tuesday was loading carts full of artifacts in preparation for their transfer to the vault, has also welcomed the opportunity to get her eyes on everything in the collection multiple times.
“It’s a once-in-a-career opportunity to be doing collections management and upgrading preservation of housing and everything for all these things,” she said.
Carrlee and her team have been constructing individual housing or travelling mounts for each object since October, in many cases securing the objects within drawers that will be inserted in expertly-leveled cabinets on the other side.
As she works, Carrlee has been scribbling down notes of ideas and reminders for the collections — exhibit ideas, or flags on objects that need work.
“I’m even trying to keep categories of notes — fun ideas for the future, things that need to be addressed, possible grant-funded projects,” she said. “I keep a journal every day of work, kind of the raw data.”
Working with Carrlee this week are three Alaska museum professionals helping with the move and learning from the process. Carrlee said it’s been great to have helpers who are so familiar with artifact handling and museum expertise.
“It’s a win-win — we’re getting skilled labor and they’re getting on-the-job training and the ability to ask questions,” she said, from how to plan and execute a major move to cleaning a stuffed eagle.
Carrlee said even though the overall feeling at the site may be one of calm focus, team members are juggling many different things and are constantly checking and rechecking their actions to ensure everything goes as planned.
“I think there’s a little bit of the duck thing going on — on top of the water, we’re cool, and underneath we’re paddling hard,” she said with a laugh.
The SLAM building is scheduled to be completed in April 2016. The 118,000-square foot structure will house the combined collections and operations of the State Libraries, Archives and Museums. The budget for the project is $138.7 million.