Friday, December 23, 2011

What Stories are Woven into a Basket?

Anfesia Shapsnikoff, at right, instructs a basket weaving class
at the museum in the early 1970s. Kodiak Historical Society.
Have you been to the museum to see our temporary exhibit, “What Stories are Woven into a Basket”?   Baskets have been on display in the museum for decades, but this exhibit is a new look at an old topic. In this exhibit, baskets are not just beautiful artifacts, but objects that speak to stories of loss, revitalization, adaptation, and fascination. In the exhibit, visitors learn how the tradition of Aleutian-style grass basket weaving became endangered in part due to the Aleutian campaign during WWII. Anfesia Shapsnikoff, a Unangan weaver in the Attu tradition, worked to revitalize Aleutian-style grass basket weaving. Starting in the 1950s, Anfesia taught a series of workshops at the museum and trained a new generation of weavers. 

One of the first objects in the museum's
collection, this coil of cured Attu grass
was donated to the museum by Anfesia
Shapsnikoff. It is currently on exhibit.
Baskets have been a core component to the museum’s identity since the founding of the Kodiak Historical Society in 1954. In fact, during the first meeting of the new society, Anfesia donated a coil of Attu grass that was cured by a weaver in 1912, becoming one of the first objects in the museum’s collection.  

But baskets have an even longer association with the museum. After Alaska was sold to the US in 1867, the Russian American Company magazin (the building in which the museum is housed) was sold to the Alaska Commercial Company. The ACC operated a store from the magazin, and within the store sold grass baskets from Woody Island. Archaeological excavations on the museum property in 2008 unearthed a large spruce root basket left in a trash midden outside the perimeter of the building sometime before the 1912 eruption at Katmai.  The basket had evidence of being patched before it was discarded, indicating that local baskets were utilitarian objects of value in 19th century life in the magazin as well.  
This photograph was taken inside the magazin, then the
Erskine family home, likely in the 1930s or 1940s. Note
the large basket on the floor. The family had a large basket
collection of their own. Kodiak Historical Society.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the ACC manager for Alaska, W.J. Erskine, decided to open his own business and purchased ACC’s Kodiak holdings. This included the magazin, which W.J. turned into his family’s home. The Erskines were avid collectors of books and artifacts. Baskets were included in their collection, including some that are on display in the current exhibit. Recently while digging around in the archive I found an image that likely highlights baskets within the Erskine family collection. Published within the Kodiak Woman’s Club section of the Alaska Federation of Women’s Clubs’ souvenir publication from 1924-1926, the photographed baskets include some that are very similar to the Erskine’s Makah baskets. Nellie Erskine was vice president of the Kodiak Woman’s Club during this time, caring for the club’s library within her home. 

This picture from around 1926
highlights baskets that were in Kodiak
at the time and likely within the
Erskine family collection.

Baskets apparently have been on display in the magazin for well over one hundred years. However, after January our exceptional collection will return to museum storage, as the baskets have earned a well-deserved rest. Come by and see them on exhibit while you can!

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