When my friend and I arrived at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, there were people everywhere. It was one of those rare sunny days in Southeast Alaska when the sky is brilliant blue and temperatures warm enough to roll up your sleeves and stretch that lunch break for as long as possible. Thanks to the museum’s new, expansive courtyard, many folks were doing just that.
One of two Alaska museums run by the state, the Juneau facility is open at full capacity after a two-year, $139 million renovation to expand, enhance, and encourage visitors. We were there, sans children, to take a closer look at this gem of Alaska’s capital city.
Conveniently located within an easy walk of downtown Juneau and most hotels, the Alaska State Museum is hard to miss as one approaches Whittier Street near Centennial Hall. Vast and impressive, the building is a marvel of sleek architecture and Alaska heritage, and is a joy to view from outside. Housing not just the museum itself, but the State Archives and State Library as well, the building is undoubtedly the place for information pertaining to the history, culture, and governance of the Great Land.
The museum entrance is directly to the left as you approach the bright entryway. Until May 1, 2017, winter hours are still in effect (Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.), but after that, the facility will be open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in an effort to accommodate the masses of visitors set to arrive via ferry, cruise ship, and airplane.
With a mission to “protect, preserve, and interpret” the state’s human and natural history, both Alaska State Museums are treasure troves for those interested in the life cycle of the farthest-north state in the Union (the second facility, the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, is smaller but no less fabulous, and I highly recommend a visit).
Efforts to this mission were endeavored in earnest, and it is obvious as we walked into the first collection, a Native Alaskan clan house that felt quiet and reserved after the busyness of a bustling Juneau work day. Here was space to reflect and review the often-tragic history of Alaska Native People and their relationship with the strangers who appeared out of nowhere on board massive ships so long ago. It matters, and it is critical to expose children to the realities of our history – good or bad. You’ll find it here, in an incredible series of displays that young people will be drawn to. Toys, clothing, tools — all things kids their age utilized on a daily basis, and wonderfully preserved.
From forestry to tourism and Russia’s interesting relationship with the 49th state, it’s all here, and all displayed in such a way as to prevent “museum burnout,” a common malady for visitors (especially kids) who find walking from one exhibit to another, and another, too hard to take. Not so here.
How about a dress worn by Mrs. Bill Egan for Alaska’s very first inaugural ball? Or, perhaps, a very old copy of The Milepost might tickle your traveling fancy. Kids are lucky to have their own room with activities to engage and space to spread out. There will even be period costumes to try on and compare to those in the display halls. Each display case is expected to have a kid-friendly viewing space as well, close to the ground and designed in a way so as to encourage kids to learn more; written words, pictures, diagrams are all on the list.
My favorite part? The “Art By You” section inside the kid zone. Blank frames are installed along an entire wall, and kids are asked to draw a picture, write a poem or story, or jot down a note to anyone they wish about their experience. Museum staff told me they come in and see new things every day, and it’s heartwarming to read perspectives from the youngest museum visitors.
Allow at least 90 minutes to wander each exhibition (21 separate themes in all) then go back and visit the areas that truly made an impression on you. Ask questions, ponder timelines, and celebrate this wondrous place known as Alaska.
If you go:
Location: 395 Whittier Street, Juneau, AK 99801. (907) 465-2901. Very accessible from most downtown Juneau hotels and the cruise ship docks. The new facility doubles previous square footage, and has a leture hall and classroom space as well.
Cost: Now through April 30 – $5/adults, $4/seniors 65+, FREE children 18 and under, FREE active duty military (with ID).
May 1-September 15 – $12/adults, $11/seniors, FREE children 18 and under, FREE active duty military.
An annual pass is availble for $25/adults to visit both Juneau and Sheldon Jackson museums.
Who will enjoy the museum? Anyone from school-age on up. Smaller children may become restless eventually, but that is an excellent time to take them to the kid zone or giant merchant ship and let them play. The Alaska State Museum is fully accessible, and this includes the ship.
What else is there? A gift shop and book store are in the process of being finished and should open June 1 (psst: my newest book will be there!), and a small cafe is on-site for munchies and coffee. Outside, the museum grounds are a lovely place to run around if you’re a pint-sized visitor. Well, grownups can run around too.