Alaska’s 150th anniversary: Juneau lab preserves historical documents | Juneau Empire

Everyone has enemies.

Cats have dogs. Mice have cats. Dust mites have vacuum cleaners.

Seth Irwin has Scotch Tape.

For the past few weeks —and for a few more — Irwin is preserving and protecting some of Alaska’s most precious documents.

“Tape is my nemesis,” he said. “I spend a lot of time taking tape off of things. Painting conservators work with Monets; paper conservators deal with tape, and staples and rust … all the things office workers might put on documents.”

Irwin might not be dealing with precious paintings, but the paper conservator from Massachusetts has something critically important in his hands: Alaska’s irreplaceable history.

Take the object that was on his workbench at the State Library, Archives and Museum last week as an example. It was a 150-year-old map of Sitka, drawn not long after the Alaska Purchase was finalized in 1867.

Everyone knows the Purchase — its anniversary is a state holiday — but few people know what happened after Alaska was transferred. Americans and Russians needed to determine exactly what in Alaska was private property and what was public. In other words, this map dotted with colored and numbered lot lines determined exactly what the United States bought.

As Alaska celebrates the sesquicentennial of the Purchase, this map will be a key item in a museum exhibition later this year, explained objects conservator Ellen Carrlee.

It will appear alongside other documents and items from the critical year of 1867, but getting the map ready for display hasn’t been easy.

As he showed the map, Irwin placed a small glass beaker onto the workbench next to it. Filling the beaker was four to six feet of aged, fragmented cellophane tape.

“This was probably a full week of eight hours, 40 hours total,” he said, pointing to the beaker.

Anyone who’s ever removed a price sticker knows how hard it is to remove tape. Now, imagine trying to remove it from an irreplaceable 150-year-old piece of…

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