On November 17, the Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum received a letter welcoming us as their first Alaskan member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC). ICSC is a nonprofit association of memorials, museums, non-governmental organizations, and historic sites that:

  • interpret history through site;
  • engage the public in programs that stimulate dialogue on pressing social issues;
  • share opportunities for public involvement and positive action on the issues raised at the site; and
  • promote justice and universal cultures of human rights.

As a member of the Coalition, the Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum and museum staff have access to Sites of Conscience trainings, workshops, and grants to foster understanding and engagement in the community and ideas for best practices in helping connect the past struggles to today’s movements for human rights. Specifically, ICSC, will offer guidance on exhibit planning, public programming, and on engaging in the difficult dialogues with the community to inform planning and process.

Joining the Coalition is especially important at a time when museums’ histories and collections are being examined in a new light. Museums with Native American artifacts and objects from non-dominant cultures must decide how to address issues of decolonization, history, truth, and reconciliation. Museum collections are usually faced with awkward questions about how much of the collection is here because of looting, plundering and theft. This museum gets its share of those questions. There are other sensitive issues like displaying shamanic or mortuary artifacts. Or how to address Dr. Sheldon Jackson’s own paradoxical history of wanting to preserve artifacts yet bringing Christianity (and its judgement of Natives), western education and a different lifeway that segregated the civilized Christian Natives from the heathen. Or the effect the boarding schools had on Alaska Native cultures.

The Alaska State Museums, including the Sheldon Jackson Museum, has a 5-year strategic plan that was passed in 2020. The plan includes several goals and objectives that mesh with the kind of assistance Sites of Conscience provides. One goal is to have our museums more accessible and inclusive. Another is to upgrade the physical gallery display itself, with labels that are respectful of the cultural groups and that are not ethnocentric. For example, we have been eliminating the word “Eskimo” from our displays and using the actual name, “Yup’ik, or “Inupiaq.” Visitors should be able to view this world class collection without guilt or resentment, and without ignoring history.

From Sites of Conscience: “Not only do Sites of Conscience provide safe spaces to remember and preserve even the most traumatic memories, but they enable their visitors to make connections between the past and related contemporary human rights issues.” The coalition has 300 members in 65 countries, assisting through grants, networking, training, transitional justice mechanisms and advocacy. Their website is https://sitesofconscience.org

Museum curator Jackie Fernandez-Hamberg is elated to finally see the museum and board take this important step. She first learned of ICSC in 2018 at a Museums Alaska Conference when hearing a keynote address. The timing of joining is right and to be able to see this through fruition, especially during Native American Heritage Month, is cause for celebration. It is so exciting to be able to expand upon the story of resilience that we tell at the Sheldon Jackson Museum.