Update on the Museum

Last month the museum hosted its first annual membership meeting in a while. Below are the introductory remarks by board president Eric Johansen.


Beginning in 1977 a group of aviators and enthusiasts decided to work for the preservation of Alaska’s aeronautical history by trying to have Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, declared as a historical site. By late 1982, this non-profit organization, known as the  Interior and Arctic Alaska Aeronautical Foundation, was registered with the State of Alaska.

In 1984 the IAAAF was offered the use of the Gold Dome, here in Pioneer Park, by the city of Fairbanks. After several years of setbacks due to building code deficiencies, the Pioneer Air Museum finally opened in 1992 and continues to this day.

In the early years of the museum’s existence the focus was on filling a large empty building with memorabilia and artifacts of interest to those with an interest in aviation then, now, and in the future. In the twenty plus years I have been associated with the museum both as a member and as a board member is has become abundantly clear the museum is a work in progress.

I would like now to read the Mission Statement for the museum which is fairly concise, consisting of a single sentence: The mission of the Pioneer Air Museum is to collect, protect, and preserve objects that represent the history of the interior and of arctic Alaskan aviation through the acquisition, restoration, interpretation, and display of historically significant objects for educational purposes.

Museums exist to preserve and tell stories, of necessity they always have constraints placed on them, two important ones being real estate and funding. A Mission Statement is a vital statement of why the museum exists, what story is it trying to tell.

In the early years of the museum the focus was more on filling this large empty space and less on whether or not the acquisition met the intent stated in the mission statement. Everything in the museum was and is definitely tied to aviation. For a great many artifacts there was at best a very tenuous connection or no connection to the mission statement.

When I became involved with the museum it was run by Randy Acord and Corky Corcoran. They were succeeded by Pete Haggland who, after a museum reorganization  about 12 years ago asked me to run for a seat on the board. No one running for the board at the time had an opposing candidate for voters to choose between.

Along about that time the director of Museums Alaska was in Fairbanks to meet with folks at the Museum of the North and agreed to meet with Pete Haggland here at the museum and assess the collection and provide us with a blueprint toward becoming an accredited museum. An obvious question, which was asked of the director, was why would we even care about becoming an accredited museum? His response was that it opens us up to apply for a much wider range of grants for the funding of the museum and its many projects such as restoration or educational outreach or environmental quality.

In a nutshell, we needed focus on our mission statement, to catalog our entire collection, and have at least two permanent paid employees along with meeting certain minimum standards for environmental controls, pest control, security, etc.

Over the years the board has met with the Foraker Group and others to try and develop a blueprint for moving forward. One of the documents to come out of those efforts has been a strategic plan. I would like now to briefly go over our latest strategic plan, written in 2018 and titled Strategic Plan 2018 – 2022.

We identified 7 goals which we needed to work toward which were: To ensure continued leadership, To foster our membership and volunteer programs, To increase our community engagement, To attain an adequate building/facility for needs, To meet collection management standards of best practice, To design, update, and implement museum exhibits, and lastly, To create a sustainable revenue stream. Each of these goals is accompanied by a list of strategies for accomplishing the goal.

Over the past 4 years of working with this plan we have made admirable progress in some areas and fallen short in others.

One of the areas we have made great progress in is the deaccessioning of artifacts in the museum which have little or no relevance to our mission statement. In the past two years we have either returned to the original donor or sold the Osprey homebuilt aircraft, the ultralight hanging up near the ceiling, the Mitchell wing hanging up near the ceiling, and the Rotorway helicopter. We have also verified the militaries willingness to remove the Huey at our request. They have informed us they only require a weeks advance notice. Still on the list to go are the plastic airplane models in the large showcases behind me, the Carlo Welding hovercraft, the remaining homebuilt hanging up near the ceiling, and the Ryan trainer to name just a few.

One of the big problems we faced was a building filled beyond capacity while at the same time having historically significant aircraft, meeting the requirements of the mission statement, and no room to place them on display. One example would be Sam White’s Stinson, the fuselage of which is sitting over there. Another example would be a Swallow aircraft purchased new out of the factory by Bud Seltenreich in McCarthy in 1932, for which we have the original bill of sale. Our most recent acquisition is Wein Airlines original ski press for manufacturing skis for aircraft.

One of the Strategic Plan goals on which we have fallen very short was goal number 2, To foster our membership and volunteer programs. For the last 10 years the museum has stagnated in regard to membership and volunteer programs. It was basically Pete’s museum and the board existed mostly to do what needed doing around the museum and it was open to visitors in the summer time. Inside the museum nothing was changing. Four years ago as part of our newly developed Strategic Plan each board member walked around the museum with clipboard in hand and made a list of what we thought did not meet the requirements of the Mission Statement. Almost everything on the list was vetoed for departure by the argument that: “It was popular with the children”.

The roof was developing more and more leaks, Over 20 years of asking the Borough for restrooms for the building got us nowhere, the cataloging was proceeding at a snails pace, not because of lack of expertise but because it was only happening over 3 months during the summer each year. I found myself desperately searching for a way to gracefully resign from the board. Then to add to my tale of woe, I was made board president which I deeply resented. I am still here today thanks to a short email I received  two months after assuming the mantle of president from Richard Wein asking if I would like to meet with him to discuss the future of the museum. The answer of course was Hell Yes. We met and my desire to exit the board immediately began to wane as I began to see a future for the museum.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Pete Haggland was the right person for the job during his tenure at the museum and one of the real significant contributions he made was to walk around the museum with Leslie McCartney some years back while she recorded him on video describing the various exhibits and the history behind them. It finally became time for Pete to step away from the museum and for the board to embark on a new chapter in the ongoing history of this museum.

This building was originally built as an ice skating rink in celebration of Alaska’s centennial in 1967. The changing rooms and restrooms were out behind the dome. They were no longer in use when I became a member and were torn down shortly thereafter. This building currently suffers from a large number of defects, the most serious of which is numerous leaks in the roof. We currently spend a lot of time and effort protecting the collection and artifacts from w
ater. The borough’s solution has been to turn all building maintenance, utilities, and operating costs over to tenants in the park. For us this means either coming up with a way to solve the water problem, find a way to fund the building of restrooms, rodent and vermin-proof the building, and installing proper climate controls, along with paying the ongoing electricity and heating bills or find a new home.

This building is around 12,000 square feet. I think we can all safely assume it is not likely we can just find a vacant building of similar square footage just sitting around at a price we can afford. As Richard Wein pointed out to me some time ago, nothing can happen without community involvement and desire.

As part of the continuing evolution of this museum we need to grow our membership and develop our volunteer programs. It is wonderful to see all of you here today since without you the best we can hope for is to limp along as we have for quite a few years already. I and the rest of the board share a vision that this museum can be so much more than it currently is but getting there will be a community effort.

Moving forward is kind of like fitting a jigsaw puzzle together. One example would be to ask the question: If we were to move to a new building, what size would it have to be? Currently no one can answer that question. If instead we now work on winnowing down the collection so it only houses historically significant artifacts that directly relate to the mission statement that will be a question we will be able to answer in the future.

Another thing we can take as a given is that we will be in this building for some years to come and in that time we can work to develop our displays and work to ensure that the displays tell a coherent story. One of my personal pet peeves is all the displays constructed of common lumber and burlap. One engine back there is displayed on a shag carpet covered pallet. This museum houses quite a number of absolute real treasures and properly displayed, along with their stories, will result in the visitor leaving the museum quite moved by what they have just seen.

When I became a member of the museum 20 or so years ago there was a  monthly meeting which consisted of a reading of account balances and anything else of relevance to the operation of the museum, a Round Robin where each member in attendance could speak about anything they wanted to speak about, and this was followed by coffee and cookies and a one hour movie shown on a television set. Half or more of the membership would leave before the movie was shown either due to having already seen it or because they were old and couldn’t hear it.

After Pete took over 10 or 12 years ago we stopped having monthly meetings as I recall but he would line up guest speakers on occasion which were incredibly popular and this area would be filled with people who turned out to listen to the presentation.

It is hard to imagine people being willing to turn out today for the original format and a full time job for someone trying to line up a steady stream of guest speakers for the latter format. One of the ideas we have bandied about at board meetings is instead of having monthly membership meetings one evening a month having a monthly Saturday volunteer day instead. It could involve lunch and a short 10 or 15 minute business meeting if that was what the volunteers desired. We also need volunteers to step up and help with social media and our online presence and our currently non-existent newsletter.

Involving museum members in the future of this museum should include opportunities for service on the Board of Directors and on various subcommittees in addition to just volunteering and putting forth new ideas on how things can be done. The goal I think we can all agree on is having a world class aviation museum right here in Fairbanks. It will only become a reality with a lot of hard work by a membership dedicated to helping make it happen.

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