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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Liu

Fish skin artefacts of the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska

A close up look of a fish skin garment exhibited in the Sheldon Jackson Museum.

The Sheldon Jackson Museum is a museum that I would like to introduce to those who are interested in fish leather and/or Alaskan native heritage.

Google the Sheldon Jackson Museum, and you'll find a beautifully written extract by the museum about itself. Before I write any further about my experience of the museum, I think it best if you read this extract first (immediately below in navy blue). What better way to be introduced than by the museum itself?

"The Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson was the moving force behind the construction of the Sheldon Jackson Museum and the collector of many of its artefacts. If there was a museum for museums, the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka would be part of the collection. It is the oldest museum in Alaska and is located in the first concrete building in the state. Construction began in 1895 and it has been occupied since 1897. The building was placed on the National Historical Register in 1972. While the building may be as old as some of the items in its collection, its exhibits reflect recent renovation and a dedication to professional museum standards. The Museum's collection has been called a jewel in the crown of Alaska ethnographic collections."

Why have I decided to write about the Sheldon Jackson Museum? It is because it has been almost three weeks since I left Sitka, and I'm still thinking about it! I have found myself still swiping through photos on my phone of fish skin artefacts that I found in the museum. Seeing these photos has once again fanned alight the embers of my curiosity, pondering my usual "what if" formula ( what if x + fish skins ). What if appliqué + fish skins? What if pleating + fish skins? The more I travel and the more I dig around, the list of "what if" formulas naturally grows.

I have found that museums function similarly to messages in a bottle. Every artefact, no matter what size, material or function, imparts an intimate message or messages of its maker/s or whom it once belonged to. Artefacts are an expression of practice-made-perfect, generational-passed-on-knowledge and experience. Walking amongst these artefacts in the Sheldon Jackson Museum, my initial response was awe. I was, and still am, in awe by how fish skins had been utilised as a material. While I slowly made my way through the museum, my eyes tried to read every detail of the artefacts protected behind glass. I found myself hungrily trying to decode the ancient techniques of how the fish skins were handled, stitched, cut and pieced. There is a wealth of knowledge there. As a designer, the Sheldon Jackson Museum is truly a pearl of unspeakable worth when it comes to the preservation of the craft and heritage of fish skins.

When you do visit Sitka and decide to go find this museum, a word of caution: don't be put off by its appearance. Visiting the Sheldon Jackson Museum is a classic "never judge a book by its cover" experience. As you walk towards the museum, you'll first observe its simple brown exterior and unusual octagonal shape. The building is small, and you wonder, how many artefacts can be exhibited in a space that size?

Entering the front door and taking a right-turn towards the exhibition area, you are immediately welcomed by passionate staff members who animately speak about the history of the museum and the collections on display. Once you purchase your ticket, you will soon find yourself overwhelmed by a seemingly never-ending wealth of Native artefacts. The only way I can explain my experience of walking through the exhibition room is by comparing the museum to Mary Poppin's bag. Every shelf, glass cabinet, drawer, every space was filled with something that would ignite some sort of vowel-sound reaction.

I must give a shout out to Judi Lehmann, who is the epitome of kindness and also a fish leather aficionado living in Sitka, for encouraging me to visit the Sheldon Jackson Museum. Judi passionately spoke of the museum's extensive collection of fish skin artefacts and highly recommended that I go and become inspired. How right she was! The hour I spent in the museum (I really could have spent days) was incredibly inspiring. Artefact after artefact, I was mesmerised by the technical skills of the Native women who tanned the skins into leather and sewed stunning pouches, elaborate garments, boots and gloves entirely out of fish leather. Here I was, still in my bubble of trying to figure out ways to further perfect the material process of tanning the skins into leather and figuring out the best way to stitch fish skins. And yet, with just a needle and sinew, these women of the past used basic, prehistoric tools to fashion so many products that were not just aesthetically stunning but also utilitarian in nature. The perfect balance for any designed product!

Instead of writing more about the wealth of artefacts in the Sheldon Jackson Museum, I believe it best to now simply show you. These photos are just a few of the many artefacts that are in the museum. Since my main interest lies in the topic of fish skins, I will only be showing some of the fish skin artefacts I came across. The museum's collection ranges from artefacts made from wood, bones, teeth, gut skins, mammal skins, beads and more. And in all sincerity, photographs really don't do the actual artefacts much justice. So, go visit if you get the chance!

Fish Skin Bags

Fish Skin Gloves + Boots

Fish Skin Clothes

A closer look, all in the details

A final word on the Sheldon Jackson Museum.

With all the beautiful and amazing things that the museum has to offer, I learned that the museum and all its artefacts are in danger of being sold. Wide-eyed listening to Judi and other Sitkans, it turns out that due to cost-cutting efforts made by their State Governor Dunleavy, plans have been revealed of selling the Sheldon Jackson Museum, a state-owned museum. A heavy uncertainty looms above the museum, as no one is truly sure about its future. I know not how to help and wholeheartedly wished I had a no-strings-attached treasure-trove of money to aid the museum. I hope that in writing about the Sheldon Jackson Museum, something miraculous could happen to keep the museum from being sold and maybe encourage more visitors to go. So, if you ever find yourself planning a trip to Alaska, make sure to travel to Sitka, and make the effort to go and support the Sitkans and their museum. I promise, you won't be disappointed!

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Nov 14, 2019

Dear Andrea-I hope you are doing well-getting ready for the Holidays-Scott & I will be going to Seattle in January 2020 to teach at the North West basket Weavers Guild-I totally loved your article-your other calling is a writer-I am blessed to have met you. Love you ❤️

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