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Two side-by-side images show a room with display cases holding clothing items and baskets. On the walls are other display cases with a number of artifacts.
The Alaska Heritage Museum, seen on left in the 2010s, has two main galleries: one featuring rotating exhibits dedicated to Alaskan heritage and another permanent gallery dedicated to the Alaska Native cultural objects. At right, a look inside the Heritage Library in the 1970s. Photos courtesy of Alaska Heritage Museum.

How Wells Fargo helps to preserve Alaskan heritage

Wells Fargo’s Alaska Heritage Museum in Anchorage has more than 6,000 Alaska Native artifacts, thanks to efforts to keep them in their place of origin.

November 16, 2018
Alyssa Bentz

Alyssa Bentz is a Wells Fargo historian.

Inside Wells Fargo’s Anchorage, Alaska, office is the Alaska Heritage Museum — home to one of the best collections of native Alaskan art and artifacts in the world. The museum includes more than 6,000 Alaska Native artifacts ranging from clothing, baskets, tools, and carvings to a Bering Sea kayak made from walrus skin. The collections reflect the diversity of Alaska’s many native cultures and the special survival skills adapted to climate and food sources in different regions.

A woman with a black cardigan and red shirt underneath sits at a table while her hands hold what looks like pieces of straw from a tan item. In front of her is a microphone.
Alutiiq and Inupiaq artist June Pardue demonstrates weaving traditional grass socks at the Wells Fargo Museum in Alaska. The bank commissioned her art and added her work to its collections.

“This museum serves Alaska’s communities very uniquely in how directly connected our objects are connected to living families of all cultures,” said Tom Bennett, manager of the museum. “Visiting school children, in fact, often point out objects made in the distant past by relatives who lived 800 miles from Anchorage. That is a connected museum, in my opinion.”

The museum started in 1968 as the National Bank of Alaska’s Heritage Library. The collection began under the direction of the bank’s president, the late Elmer Rasmuson. At the time, out-of-town collectors were purchasing rare and valuable pieces of Alaskan history and culture. Rasmuson worked with others to keep the Alaskan artifacts in their place of origin.

“One of our objectives in creating and expanding the bank’s museum has been to keep in Alaska our art and artifacts, and indeed bring many of the items back to their place of origin,” Rasmuson said. “In this, I think we have been successful and thus helped preserve the heritage of Alaska.”

Following a merger in 2000 with National Bank of Alaska, Wells Fargo has continued the museum’s mission of providing a free, public space for people to connect with the stories of Alaska’s past. In addition to native Alaskan art and artifacts, other highlights of the museum include 14-foot-long woolly mammoth tusks, a 46-ounce gold nugget found in Alaska, a 5,000-volume Alaskan research library, and paintings by acclaimed Alaskan artist Sydney Lawrence and others.

Today, trained museum professionals work closely with local tribes, museums, and community organizations to provide a space for community programs, tours, and access to cultural artifacts.

In front of a black background are three items side by side: a tan jacket with blue patches and fringe, a blue robe with a red and white design, and a white jacket with a hood and red and black designs.
A pair of light brown glasses are in front of a white background. Attached to them is a string.
A black and white image shows a box with carvings on it. The carvings look like a face on the front and with circular shapes on the four corners of the box around it.
The image has a black background, and in front of it are two hand-woven baskets, one with a lid on top and one without. The baskets are round, a cream or light tan color and have red and white stitching on them.
A wooden object, a rattle, shaped like a bird is in front of a white background. The rattle is painted with red and blue designs.
A black and white photo features Elmer Rasmuson sitting down at a desk or table, where his hands rest. He holds a stack of papers. Beside him and behind him are other stacks of papers.
An Athabaskan chief’s coat, a Chilkat robe, and a parka made of either seal or walrus intestines that were cleaned and sewn together are on display in the museum.
Snow goggles on display in the museum. Yupik and Inupiaq people made snow goggles to protect their eyes from glare from the snow and ice, keep their eyes from freezing, and increase their visual acuity.
A Haida box on display in the museum. Tlingit and Haida people, who have a long tradition as master woodworkers, live among the coastal rainforests of southeast Alaska. Their stories and legends are often told through totem carvings.
An Aleut basket on display in the museum. The Aleutian Islands are remote, wet, and windswept, and while trees are rare, grass is abundant. Thus, the Native people use grass to weave with. Aleut baskets are among the finest in the world. Grass threads have been counted at more than 1,000 per square inch.
A Shaman’s rattle on display in the museum. This was a sign of power, healing, and knowledge, though much of the full, complex meaning of the rattle remains unknown.
Elmer Rasmuson in the 1960s. In addition to serving as president of the National Bank of Alaska, he was mayor of Anchorage from 1964 to 1967, founder of the Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum, and regent of the University of Alaska.
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