Looking Back to Look Ahead: An Interview with Dr. Ellen Carrlee, conservator at Alaska State Museum, Juneau

Editor’s Note: In researching a forthcoming book, I am reaching out to learned individuals in fields far beyond innovation. Recently I was in Juneau, Alaska, and interviewed Dr. Ellen Carrlee, conservator at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. Here is a summation of the many questions I posed to Ellen, and her thoughts on how museums can help us “find our place in the world” and have transformative experiences. We also spoke of themes not only involved in her professional work, but having to do with her life in Alaska, and the future of the planet. Please enjoy. I know that I did in speaking with this amazing woman.

As the objects conservator, I’m responsible for the treatment of objects, which includes chemistry, preservation of art and science, and outreach. Two-thirds of the Museum’s collection is indigenous. I’m working most of the time on a heritage and identity that is not my own. I am originally from Wisconsin and received my MA from NYU, and a PhD from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Living on Aak’w Kwaan land, I’m constantly aware there’s a better way of dealing with these materials, and that they are sacred.

My goal is to preserve the past for future generations. It’s all about the experience. Someone could go to a museum and have a transformative experience. It happens. Alaska’s native peoples have generated a lot of items; you’re going to have amazing material culture if you’re going to kill large animals, and that’s how they survive. They’ve also got creation stories. There’s one (at Bishop Museum in Hawaii) where a baby dies, they bury the body and a plant. There’s a belief about the animal being hunted giving himself up to the hunter. Great stories, and at the museum we have the privilege of telling stories.

Museums can help us find our place in the world. I’m convinced of that. I’ve been a conservator for 25 years and more recently studied to become an anthropologist. I wanted to get more meaning from my work and to better understand the context of things. Studying anthropology has enabled that. Lately, I’ve become interested in Chilkat weaving and preserving these amazing robes for the future. The ethics of my profession are that you don’t do anything [to an object] that’s not reversible. How do we clean this [artifact], or repair it if it’s damaged? We called in weavers and asked them: how should we be intervening with this?. But even light [on an object] is existential because we know that light, over time, breaks down an object. So if we project less light on an object, it will last longer into the future. None of the questions we deal with are simple, and yet, it’s the future generations who will judge us for our decisions and the ingenuity of our approaches to preservation.

My focus is how do I collaborate better and more fully with these Native cultures. As I say, I am acutely aware each day that I’m working on a heritage and an identity that is not my own. In pre-capitalist societies, the form of exchange is not money but goods, objects, trust. There are gifts that circulate thru society. And with a gift goes an obligation to give, to receive, to reciprocate. Lots of the way money moves is transactional. Not to keep the relationship going. The more I’ve pushed that with museum visitors, the better my work has been.

We look to historians and to conservators to inform us of the past and rekindle the reality and the experience of the past, and we look to futurists to help us get a better grasp on the future, and on its potentialities. I see futurists as people who identify that way, rather than a set of skills or credentials. You ask if futurists can predict and I’d say my answer is not very well if at all. After the shocks of 9/11, the Great Recession, and the Global Pandemic, I think we now know how difficult it is to predict anything. 

This desire to have control has always been there, but confidence that we can control events or nature or anything really is fairly recent. In the past, they built walls around cities and did all kinds of things to protect themselves and have a sense of control. It’s a question of do we or do we not have agency in our lives?

Maybe it is because I’m constantly working to better preserve the past, but what I see is that if you don’t spend any time on the future it jumps out at you and blindsides you.  And yet if you spend too much time thinking about the future it promotes anxiety.

There was a lot of optimism about the future coming out of World War II. The Baby Boomers were coming of age, and the future seemed boundless. Tomorrowland at Disneyland was exciting to visit, and progress was palpable. If you attended the World’s Fair in 1964, that was a high watermark. People rushed into the exhibits by the score, eager to absorb the latest and greatest technologies, the latest ideas. I remember the movie, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman. He was this college graduate who didn’t yet know what he wanted to do, and a friend of his parents told him, “plastics, kid. That’s the future.”

My sense is that people are pessimistic about the future, at least right now. But that may be changing because there are some encouraging signs.

I like your notion of looking back in order to see farther ahead. If you look at demographic change or any category of change, really, you see tipping points ahead. At some point, we won’t be this white Christian nation. Some people are invested in our staying that way and they are doing whatever they can to ward that off. But it’s coming. Tipping points are that way, they tip at some point whether you’re ready or not.

I consider that I’m worrier. I worry about my own future. My husband died three years ago, then my dad died shortly after that, and my mom died as well. Good deaths are rare. I’m 47, and there’s the realization that I’ll be elderly and sick one day and I don’t want to be a burden on my son.

Observing my son is one way I keep tabs on change.

He’s 13 and getting close to manhood. This whole dystopia thing is huge with him and his friends; they think they’re screwed. He and his pals play video games all the time. If you don’t know about video games, you’re just not part of the conversation. You’re out of it. There’s an outbreak of suicides among the young in Juneau. It’s apparently a copycat kind of behavior. I know from interacting with my son that middle school is brutal. They’re becoming aware of the forces of good and evil, and they’re trying things on each other, and sometimes they’re mean. But not in his small circle of close friends, they’re very tight.

Their favorite pastime is virtual, and they’re not even together in the same place. They’re building [virtual] cities online, going on quests, Minecraft – there are teams and you have this bed. Bedwars – do you try to fortify your own bed, or do you try to destroy … they each have their avatar. They invent a farm to keep alive. You can build pistons and electrical farms … there are Youtubers, they’ll get ideas …. My kid is building things on Legos, the truth is they have incredible patience figuring things out. They’ll be hard at work on their computers, but they’ll have a separate means of communication via their smartphones.

How might we get young people to become more interested in history? My son and I have been watching a series on Amazon Prime called “Victorian Farm Series” where two archeologists use straw to press cider and they try to raise livestock, they try to live in that world for a year. They need to make candles. Hygiene, how do they fish, make barrels. I watched a couple of episodes with my son. He likes history. But he doesn’t read books. I read to him stories as kid. He does read comics and graphic novels. He’s interested in the artwork, not in the text. And yet, he’s interested in expressing himself in written format. When he’s in school, he likes sci-fi romance. Mage & Demon Queen is surprisingly about romance.

His friend told him three girls asked him out. My son is not ready for all this but it’s just a matter of time.