Alaska State Museum Exhibit
“The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
The NN Cannery History Project is partnering with the Alaska State Museum to produce a world-class museum exhibition called “Mug Up” that will share the oft-forgotten stories of the multitudes who canned salmon and created an ethnically diverse, economically vital, cannery culture. The title is inspired by the unique cannery experience, “mug up.” In cannery parlance, the curious term means coffee break. Mug Up fueled cannery workers with caffeine and pastries, provided a respite from the monotony of the slime line and momentarily brought people together from around the world. In addition to the lap of tides, the squawk of seagulls, the rumbling of fishing boats, continuous maritime radio chatter, and the high-pitched pierce of the steam whistle signaling the beginning and end to coffee break, scores of languages might be heard on the dock at Mug Up. Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Croatians, Italians, Greeks, Scandinavians, Germans, Australians, Mexicans, Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, Unungan, Alutiiq, Yupik and Dena’ina, Tlingit, men as well as women, the young and the seasoned worked together at one time or another. Simply put, Mug Up speaks to the diversity and various perspectives reflected in the cannery workscape.
Visitors will enter the exhibition through the bustling working waterfront scene, augmented by sounds, videos, a life-size immersive image of cannery workers on the dock and perhaps the slight amora of saltwater, salmon and coffee in the air. Ideally, visitors will travel a boardwalk lined with contextual information that ground the newcomer in cannery history and serve as a wayfinding feature through the exhibit. Situated at the heart of the exhibit will be a 1/32” scale model of the NN Cannery and South Naknek Village, built by Alutiiq Artist Andrew Abyo, and placed atop a graffiti covered cannery table. The model will visually communicate to visitors the cannery’s spatial relations, its built-history and cultural associations—thus, conveying the cannery’s story from the ground up and from a local perspective. Once rendered, the model will not only map cannery work activities for curious visitors but, through Andrew’s expertise, will become an expression of art, history, imagination and memory, that allows the current generation to connect to their working past. Ancillary to the model, will be a display showing the site’s evolutionary history from the earliest record in the 1880s to the present. Historic Architect John Wachtel at NPS has offered to assist. John has also scanned and produced a virtual 3-D model of some of the cannery structures. Ideally, the site evolution will contain historic photos and virtual recreations.
Orbiting the model will be ten spaces or built environments representing work areas or building clusters that represent the historically most significant features in the cannery complex. The boardwalk will guide visitors through each space, which, depending on the story, multimedia, and available props, may change in size and complexity. By the end of the exhibit, visitors will have toured an entire cannery.
Supplementing the exhibit is the Museum’s ‘Science on a Sphere’ multimedia global display, which can project a variety of thematic journeys: the salmon journey around the Pacific, the canned product’s global network, countries connected to the NN Cannery’s workforce, routes and cannery locations, and shipwrecks. The historical data will be supplied by team historians and designed by LaRece Egli, with technical assistance from museum administrative assistant Sara Lee Chubb, who besides volunteering her time, has 20 years as a professional fisheries biologist for the U.S. Forest Service. In addition to the global map, other story maps can be generated for the project website or in booklet which might serve as a “tour guide,” informing visitors about each space, the objects and stories contained therein.
Each immersive environment will give visitors the chance to “experience” the various cannery work that was conducted by a variety of cannery people. Sections will share a perspective of cannery life through objects, images, props, first-person interviews, archival records, maps, ephemera, soundscapes, virtual experience and films. Stories from the fish house may introduce visitors to the Asian workforce, while stories from the winter watchmen quarters may explain how Native people cared for canneries after the seasonal crews left. Other stories may highlight technology, segregation, unionization and integration, global connections, and the introduction of a cash economy. Narratives will personify the once all-powerful, yet little known Alaska Packers Association and, through stories such as the Spanish Influenza pandemic, the hospital’s immersive potential will tell the story from primary sources, reminding visitors that cannery history was more than putting fish into a can. Currently, two 3-minute professionally crafted films are being planned. The Cannery Caretakers tells the local story and Mug Up tells the global one. Additionally, interviews with ten former cannery workers are being conducted (Maritime Grant), a digital storytelling workshop designed to include Naknek young people has been arranged for fall (Underrepresented Communities Grant), and content designed to inform visitors of the cannery’s international demographics are also being considered for story maps and the Museum’s digital globe. Together, the film activities will amass a rich body of material that documents and preserves the stories of cannery people. From this collection a host of multimedia products and soundscapes may be produced—for the Mug Up exhibit and future projects still to come.
Rather than attempting to thinly cover all Alaska canneries, the exhibit will concentrate on one—the 128-year old NN Cannery at South Naknek—thereby utilizing one site to tell the vast and deep social history of cannery people and how occupational life changed over time. The intimate relationship to place will frame the exhibit storyline, lending credibility and authenticity to the historical voices and thereby making the stories more relatable and understandable for visitors that come from diversity backgrounds. Re-creating one specific cannery will enliven the imagination, allowing visitors to be transported through time and space, and will give more profound meaning to the workscape in which cannery people labored. However, displayed objects may also represent canneries from Kodiak, Kenai, and Southeast, signifying a common culture and the ubiquitous traits of salmon canneries throughout Alaska. In addition to the ten spaces spotlighting work, the exhibit may also include sections that highlight cannery people’s creativity: their art, literature, poetry, theatrical dramas, as well as their adaptive furniture built to make their working lives a bit more functional, familiar and, indeed, fun. A space may also be reserved for demonstrations, educational programming, and mug-up conversations. This may be the best space to display a community commemorative setnet, which will be hung with linen twine and wooden corks (etched with the names of forgotten cannery people), fashioned in the “old-timers” style.
The aim for the Mug Up exhibit is to move cannery workers from the shadows of history and assign their work meaning. In addition to sharing Bristol Bay’s story with an international audience, our long-term goal is for Bristol Bay youth to be equally proud of a mother who cleans fish as a father who catches them. Whether originating from China, the Philippines, or simply upriver, cannery people found dignity through their laborious interactions and left a mark on Alaska history and culture. Individuals working together in a cooperative effort underscore the Aristotelian principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And even for those who never stepped foot in a cannery, this is a universal concept that connects the little-known cannery experience to knowledge and values shared by visitors from California, China or even Kansas.
If you have an object, story or photo you’d like to share, WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
Alaska State Museum
The Alaska State Museums (a state educational agency comprised of the Alaska State Museum and the Sheldon Jackson Museum) identify, collect, preserve and exhibit Alaska's material and natural history and provide public access to services and collections of the Museums. The Alaska State Museums interpret and disseminate knowledge of the history of the state, its people, and its resources, and support others in these efforts. The Museums also assist and advise in the growth, development, and excellence of other museums within Alaska.
Follow the Friends of the Alaska State Library, Archives, and Museum on Facebook...