The Sheldon Museum is digging into the Chilkat Valley’s unique history of and relationship with food. It’s a local side dish to the entrée that is ‘Key Ingredients‘ – a traveling Smithsonian exhibit.
The Key Ingredients exhibit is made up of seven sleek panels that explore perspectives on food. Everything from table manners, to Thanksgiving, to food in different cultures.
Alongside the Smithsonian panels, there are artifacts that tell stories about food in Haines.
“We are emphasizing the large role that subsistence foods and wild plants and animals have in our diet,” curator Andrea Nelson said. “Not just as a novelty, but as a real part of our sustenance here, and something we take very seriously.”
The museum will display jarred foods, from seal meat to blueberry jam. There are also historical items from their collection, like some worn-out berry picking baskets.
“They’re working baskets, and you can see it in them,” Nelson said. “You can see actual berry stains on them, you can see where the handles broke. They’re just living artifacts that have a history.”
Nelson talked about how this exhibit has a sort of juxtaposition between the sleek, professional Smithsonian displays and the more gritty objects from Haines.
“When I work with the jars of food and the old fishing nets and the objects from around here, they’ve just got a lot of soul and it just reminds me of how physical Alaska is,” Nelson said. “We’re not this flat, manufactured, clean package, but we get our hands dirty and the product is beautiful.”
If that doesn’t make you feel proud of Haines, wait for the story about how the Smithsonian exhibit got here. Museum director Helen Alten says, she was looking for exhibits, and she found that Key Ingredients was traveling around Alaska, but was going to end in Fairbanks.
“I called the Smithsonian and said, ‘You’ve got this exhibit up here already. Is there any chance we could get it, and what would it take to get it?'” Alten said. “And they said, ‘Well we can’t afford to transport it down to you…if you can get it from Fairbanks, you can have it.'”
When local farmer and assembly member George Campbell heard about the dilemma…
“He said, ‘I’ll go up and get it,'” Alten said. “And they went up on Thanksgiving and got the exhibit and drove back, he and his wife. And we paid for the housing and mileage but we didn’t pay for their time.”
That kindness might not only benefit this exhibit, but future ones. Since the Sheldon Museum is the last stop for the traveling Smithsonian panels, the museum gets to keep them.
“We’re thinking about how can we reach out and bring Haines to the world,” Alten said. “And one way is through traveling exhibits. And I’ve been thinking about taking some of our stories on the world.”
Alten says the Smithsonian panels could be stripped of their food information and filled with Haines information. She says it makes the idea of the traveling Haines exhibit more likely to happen.
Key Ingredients opens on Friday with a potluck at the museum from 4-6 p.m. Alten is planning food-related events throughout the summer. The exhibit will be on display in the downstairs area of the museum until October.
Alten is also looking for volunteer docents for Key Ingredients. Docents are guides who talk about the exhibit with visitors. They’ll be able to give summer tourists a first-person perspective on the foods that fill the Chilkat Valley.