With Alaska’s maritime heritage at risk of being lost, program seeks to preserve it

Alaska Maritime Heritage Preservation Program is open to funding projects by museums, others

By Teigan Akagi, Alaska Beacon - August 1, 2023
The Alaska flag flies from the bow of a boat in one of Ketchikan, Alaska’s small-boat harbors on Monday, July 24, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

With more coastline than all of the other states combined, Alaska has quite the maritime history. And for historians and museum leaders, it’s a challenge to preserve that history. A new federally funded grant program may make their jobs easier, by funding efforts to both preserve artifacts and educate the public.

Come Tuesday, the Alaska Maritime Heritage Preservation Program will be open to applicants for $327,500 aimed at helping retain and support maritime preservation and education projects. That’s the amount the National Park Service awarded to Alaska’s state government to distribute in grants to local programs.

With its 47,300 miles of coastline, the state of Alaska has an intricate relationship with the maritime world, making it a strong candidate for the national grant, according to Katie Ringsmuth, who serves as both the Alaska state historian and deputy state historic preservation officer.

 State Historian Katie Ringsmuth stands in her office with photos of Alaska maritime history. (Photo by Teigan Akagi/Alaska Beacon)

“We really are the maritime north. We’re not just a state coastline. We connect the circumpolar north and the Pacific world. We have the power to tell that story for the rest of the country,” Ringsmuth said. “That would be why I think we made a good argument. The rest of the country needs us in helping them establish that history, that really important history.”

The State Historic Preservation Office formed a partnership with Alaska State Library, Archives and Museums, which allowed the state to increase the funding from the national grant. According to Ringsmuth, there are two grants to which those interested can apply: one focused on Alaska maritime heritage education and the other on Alaska maritime heritage preservation.

The education grant provides money to those who will share information with the public about maritime history or skills, whether that be through participatory programs, improving maritime exhibit spaces, teaching traditional maritime skills or other techniques.

On the other hand, the historic preservation grant gives money to projects that are documenting archeological history, research, the repair and rehabilitation of important maritime resources, and more.

The grants will provide money to Alaska-residing nonprofits, individuals, academic institutions, tribes, and others.

Museums work at preservation

Museums around the state are considering applying for the funding.

“It’s a great program–one of the few funding programs aimed specifically at preserving maritime history,” said Toby Sullivan, executive director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum.

He noted that Alaska’s long coastline makes it stand out when compared with other states.

 The Thelma C, a 1960s seine fishing boat restored by the Kodiak Maritime Museum, is seen on display in July 2021 in Kodiak. (Photo by James Brooks) 

“There’s a lot of history associated with that coastline and the oceans offshore from it, from the journeys of the Indigenous people who arrived in Alaska by sea thousands of years ago, to the early European exploration of coastal Alaska, to the modern fishing industry,” Sullivan said. “Preserving and understanding that history helps us to understand who we are in the present moment and gives us the perspective to see our possible place in the world of the future.”

The Kodiak Maritime Museum is just one of the many potential applicants for the program. The museum records oral histories, conducts historical research, surveys historically important waterfront sites and does other things to preserve maritime history, Sullivan said.

When it comes to what the museum plans on citing for its grant applications, Sullivan said that the museum has two projects in mind.

“First, finding a permanent building for the museum, which is the museum’s primary strategic goal, and helping to fund any refurbishment necessary to house the museum in that building. The second funding choice is to do a systematic historic survey and inventory of maritime history sites on Kodiak‘s waterfront,” Sullivan said.

Another potential applicant is the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society. Society Executive Director Keith Nyitray said of the opportunity: “It’s amazing!”

He said there are many different pieces of history that need preservation.

“I think it’s a shame when historic knowledge is lost, and providing that opportunity for younger people to learn about the history and skills and keep them moving forward is really important,” Nyitray said. “And it’s not just about how to fish, but it’s how it was done and why it was done, and those skills transcend time, but those skills are being lost.”

SMHS has done much to preserve Alaska’s maritime history. From boat-building and knot-tying classes to pub talks where historical themes and events are discussed, it’s all done without the walls of a museum. In fact, one of the SMHS’s biggest goals is to restore a boathouse to serve as their museum’s home.

“We’ve just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars into restoring this thing, we may apply for a fire suppression system, a sprinkler system, because what’s the sense in restoring it and then having it all burn down?” Nyitray said.

The Maritime Heritage Preservation Program application period opens on Aug. 1 and closes on Oct. 31.

Ringsmuth said it’s a significant opportunity.

“This is a program that we really hope will help Alaskans preserve not just the places that really matter to them, but their traditions and their lifeways,” Ringsmuth said. “We’re kind of treating this as a pilot program, and success will help leverage future grants. So that is really the intent is to try to create a more sustainable program so that we can continue to support coastal communities and the comprehensive history of Alaska.”

A webinar will be held on Sept. 21 with more information about the grant. For more information, concerning Alaska’s Maritime Heritage Preservation Grant or a link to the webinar, contact State Historian Katie Ringsmuth at [email protected].

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