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Anchorage Museum Presents Unraveling the History of Basketry Exhibition

New research informs Alaska Native basket exhibition

In the 1990s, several baskets were discovered near Sitka that scientists carbon dated to nearly 5,000 years ago. The spruce and hemlock baskets were prepared and woven using many of the same techniques still practiced today. These baskets are powerful reminders of how long this skill has been passed down in Alaska from mother to daughter, elder to apprentice.

The “Unraveling the History of Basketry” exhibition, on view through Dec. 31, showcases about 80 of the 1,000 baskets in the Anchorage Museum’s collection. Many of these baskets arrived at the museum with little or no documentation. In 2010, the museum invited scholars and Alaska Native basketmakers to study two groupings of Alaska Native baskets — Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian baskets from the southeast and Yup’ik baskets from the west.
The resulting exhibition features baskets dating from the 1880s to today, highlighting the beauty and practicality of the objects, but also the patience, skill and creativity of the women who made them. The new knowledge gained during last year’s study lies at the core of this exhibition.

“Unraveling the History of Basketry” outlines the history, methods and regional styles of basket making, as well as the changing role of basketry as Alaska’s tourism trade began in earnest. Following the introduction of pots and pottery in the late 1800s, weavers’ focus shifted to baskets for trade or for sale as souvenirs.

Many of the older baskets on display are utility baskets designed for specific tasks, such as collecting berries. “For me, a work basket has its own beauty,” said Janice Criswell, a Tlingit/Haida teacher and basketmaker consulted in last year’s study. “There is something really delightful about a basket that has been truly used and probably loved.”

Today most basketry is woven as an art form. This exhibition includes many contemporary baskets made by renowned weavers, artists who want their ancestors’ cultural traditions to survive for thousands of years to come.
This exhibition was supported in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Project researchers included Peter Corey, former curator, Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka; Janice Criswell, Tlingit/Haida basketmaker; Annie Don, Yup’ik basketmaker; Steve Henrikson, curator, Alaska State Museum, Juneau; Molly Lee, former curator, Museum of the North, Fairbanks; and Walter Van Horn, project curator, Anchorage Museum.

The Anchorage Museum is the largest museum in Alaska and one of the top 10 most visited attractions in the state. The museum’s mission is to share and connect Alaska with the world through art, history and science. General admission is $12 adult, $9 senior/student/military, $7 ages 3 to 12, free ages 2 and younger. Learn more online at

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