'Mug Up sheds light on life inside canneries


Chris Basinger / Petersburg Pilot

This display features a recreated slime line where workers armed with knives would expertly clean and butcher salmon by hand.

Amongst the sounds of churning conveyor belts, rolling carts, and running rivers, a high pitched steam whistle blares, cutting through the noise-its time for mug up.

Coffee drips and silverware clatters with plates as tired workers gather for a moment of respite.

With eyes closed, hearing the symphony of industrial noise one might think they had walked inside an operating Alaskan cannery, but upon opening they would instead find a faithful recreation of cannery life inside the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

The museum has a new exhibit on display from April 1 through October 8 that recreates the inside of a cannery, showcasing all the machinery and equipment which tell the untold stories of those who worked in them.

Walking through it, people can taste a slice of life inside a cannery while learning about the history of this great Alaskan industry.

Just as the exhibit unifies many aspects of canneries from fishing and the canning process to labels and marketing, its title "Mug Up" served as a time for everyone to gather over snacks and temporarily escape from their work.

"As it was described to me, what those mug up breaks were was everybody coming together and all these different trades and different people from all over the place getting together and there being that camaraderie on the docks for those three 15-minute breaks that they had every day through the run of the canneries," Jackie Manning, the curator of exhibitions at the museum, said.

The idea for an exhibit began at an Alaska Historical Society and Museums Alaska conference in Cordova seven years ago where Katie Ringsmuth, the exhibits eventual curator and a history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Bob King, an Alaska fisheries historian, and Anjuli Grantham, the museums curator of statewide services, had gathered.

They were there launching the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative with the Alaska Historical Society in memory of Patricia Roppel who was a historian and author who specialized in Southeast, Alaska.

"We were just recognizing how, you know, the history of fisheries is so big in Alaska but there werent a whole lot of great collections related to the history. There were only two canneries listed on the national register," Grantham said.

"Those in the fishing industry have been so consumed with...working and making...looking at the future, that they hadnt done a whole lot to preserve the past. And so we created this whole initiative so that we can start to talk about the importance of the history, plant seeds so that projects can grow that would help to get some archival collections in museums, improve the preservation of some of these sites, just trying to, in general, promote the idea that fisheries history matters to Alaska and we need to do more to preserve it."

While at the conference, LaRece Egli, who is now the curator of the NN Cannery History Project, announced that the Diamond NN Cannery in South Naknek near Bristol Bay, owned by Trident Seafoods, was closing its doors.

Ringsmuth, whose father was the superintendent of the Diamond NN Cannery and was raised by the hustle and bustle of cannery life, along with the melting pot of historians at the conference immediately jumped into action on how the cannery could be preserved.

"In that moment at that conference, they were like, we have to do something. This place is so significant to Alaska history, representative of just like this industry in general," Grantham said.

Through their years of work and in collaboration with Trident Seafoods, they managed to get the now 132-year-old cannery listed on the National Register of Historic Places, document oral histories, and create a new collection as part of the exhibit.

"Its just done a lot to kind of raise the profile and the understanding of how fisheries history is so closely connected to Alaska identity," Grantham said.

From the docks to the slime line to the superintendents office, museum-goers can walk through a recreated cannery showcasing the entire canning process and learn about the technology that spurred developments in canned salmon production.

Much of the emphasis of the exhibit is on the experiences of both those who worked to process fish and those with other duties such as mending nets, doing laundry, and cooking in the mess hall as well as life in the bunkhouse.

According to Grantham, it was through fishing and the canneries that many people came to Alaska.

"Each of these canneries is a microcosm for understanding the development and the history of Alaska but then also through the lens of immigration, the broader story of national immigration," Grantham said.

The effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Spanish-American War, and women entering the workforce on the make-up of the cannery workforce are all reflected in the exhibit.

It also highlights the opportunities for women, Alaska Natives, and transient workers from Europe, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and many other places all over the world.

"These stories matter, these people matter. You dont have to have some glamorous job, you dont have to be the superintendent for your story to be meaningful and a part of Alaska history," Grantham said

The majority of the items on display are from the NN Cannery though some items came from the museums collection and other canneries.

Large pieces including the mug up truck, canning line, and superintendents desk were shipped to Juneau from Naknek in a container with help from Trident while many of the smaller items came through the mail.

As people walk through the museum they can also hear the sounds of the cannery bringing the stationary objects to life.

The "soundscape" was composed by Matthew Burtner, professor of music in composition and computer technologies at the University of Virginia who grew up in Naknek.

It is something the museum has never done before but came about as Ringsmuth was talking to him about the exhibit.

They developed the idea for the soundscape to give people who had never worked at a cannery a better sense of what it was like.

"[Burtner] was very thoughtful of each space being a different sound so we have something like 25 speakers and multiple players," Manning said.

The sounds of his original musical score and field recordings from the cannery immerse viewers in the experience from the sounds of rushing water and loading crates in the gallery to machinery in the fish processing room.

Outside the cannery rooms, the gallery is lined with a collection of salmon labels donated to the Alaska State Library and the Museum by Karen Hofstad.

The displays tell the history of how the art of canned salmon labels changed and evolved over time, how those designs were marketed to target certain groups, and advertisements which shared creative recipes for canned salmon.

Also nearby is the flag of the Alaska Packers Association, an organization formed in 1893 which brought together 27 cannery companies to dominate the industry.

The exhibit also features two continuously playing documentaries that share first-hand accounts of life within the cannery.

Chris Basinger / Petersburg Pilot

The cart used to deliver coffee and snacks at the Diamond NN Cannery during mug up breaks.

"The Cannery Caretakers," the longer of the two, produced by Ringsmuth and filmed by Jensen Hall Creative shows interviews with former Diamond NN Cannery workers and those who live in South Naknek and depended on the cannery operation, highlighting the communitys relationship with the salmon of Bristol Bay and the cannery and the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Trident Seafoods also flew longtime cannery caretakers Carvel Zimin and his wife Shirley Zimin, who are featured in the documentary, down for the opening night of the exhibit which they described as a "family reunion."

The other film, "The Rock: Superintendent Norman Rockness" produced by Anna Hoover tells the story of her grandfather and APA superintendent of the Diamond NN Cannery Norm Rockness.

More information on the project can be found on the NN Cannery History Projects website as well as the museums website along with videos of the exhibits lecture series.


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