Tag Archives: hammers

Farewell…for now

Emily and I are taking off to Juneau this evening, and our flight leaves on Monday morning at 6:05 AM. It feels like we’ve been here for forever and for not much time at all–but summers always feel like that.

I’ve been warned by several people that the reverse culture shock that kicks in once you hit the Lower 48 (I’ve given up on being worried about sounding like a poser and have just adopted some of the local lingo) can be rough. The owner of the coffee shop next door, who has lived in Haines for 22 years, said that being here is like living in suspended animation. I believe it. I feel like I’m in the process of stepping out of the slow motion part of a movie.

While I’m looking forward to being back in DC–chiefly for friends and familiarity–it’s sad to leave the beautiful scenery here, the slower pace of life, the openness, the fresh air, and the wonderful/quirky people I’ve met. I don’t especially look forward to living off North Capitol Street again and hearing sirens go by several times each night, or having to deal with actual rush hour, or not being able to see a mountain every which way I turn. There are no traffic lights in Haines. Not only is it a small town, it’s remote. The Haines Borough extends all the way up to the Canadian border, and beyond that, there’s nothing for 150 miles. There’s a road through town, but you have to circle around and go through Canada, unless you get on a ferry or fly up from Juneau.

I’m glad I took the leap and tried something different this summer. This was my fourth and first successful attempt to come to Alaska, and I’m fairly sure it won’t be the last one.

As for the Hammer Museum? They just found out that there will be two to three large cruise ships per week docking here next year, which will double to triple the attendance at the museum. This means they can afford to actually hire someone, and they don’t have to rely on interns to run the place. Dave and Carol have put in 13 years of volunteer work, and they’re tired. I can’t blame them, and I admire everything they’ve accomplished here. It’s not many people who can say they’ve opened a museum for their own collections, and all in all, it’s a pretty neat success story. While yes, there are major frustrations involved with working on a $20,000 budget and having zero paid staff, they’ve pulled off something extraordinary.

The biggest testament to the museum’s success are, of course, the visitors. The comments from the guest books speak for themselves.

“Brings back memories.”

“From Wisconsin–home of the Mustard Museum. We enjoyed the Hammer Museum immensely. What a collection!”

“Truly amazing. Wonderful history!”

“Very interesting museum. I really had no idea how many different uses there are or have been in the past, for the humble HAMMER! A most useful tool for mans tasks.”


“Great. Not just a ‘boys and their toys’ museum. Great to see the medical hammers plus so much more.”

“Loved it. Top ten museum of all time! Hammer time.”

“Amazing and unique!”

“Fascinating! Thank you for preserving these pieces of history.”

In addition to the written comments, we’ve talked to almost all 3,600 visitors who’ve wandered through here this summer, and they’re genuinely impressed/delighted/befuddled. They want to share stories with us, and because we’ve spent a lot of time researching the collections, we share stories with them. Call me a hopeless romantic, but to me, this is what museums are all about. Surprising people, engaging with them, teaching them something new, making them laugh, making them think, and bringing up old memories. So while I received some questioning comments from the GW internship coordinator about coming here, I’m glad I came here.


Sexism at the Museum

Drink Hammers

IMG_0089 Drink Hammers and Glass Hammers

Thirteen years ago, when the Hammer Museum was getting its start, Carol, who is Dave’s wife, wanted to attract women and children into the museum. So she started up her own collection of hammers. While Dave focused mostly on workhorse hammers, like our 36 pound claw hammer, the maritime hammers, or the railroad hammers, Carol focused on novelty hammers. There’s a large collection of drink hammers in the museum (used at nightclubs to call for applause for the band) as well as a display of glass hammers. There’s also a couple of hammers that were used to break the clay shell off of Beggar’s Chicken (a recipe that calls for baking chicken in 11 pounds of clay).


Her idea worked–while a fair number of visitors are elderly men who previously worked as carpenters, blacksmiths and other hammer-wielding professions, a number of women and children make positive comments about the range of the collection. Everyone makes a connection with at least one hammer.

I have to say though, the fact that we have novelty hammers in order to appeal to women bothers me. I wanted to work at this museum because I like hammers–and not in the theoretical sense–I actually like using them! Aside from that, I would never want a curator of any museum to tell me, “Well, here’s the part of our collection that we think women will like…” It’s a similar reaction when I see floral-patterned hammers at the hardware store, or pink bicycling gear, for that matter.

But I suppose it’s the job of any museum professional to make sure that their institution can appeal to folks of all ages, genders, races, orientations, etc., and to present history in an honest but compelling way.

And sometimes, visitors unwittingly remind me why it’s so important for museums to do this. Yesterday, Emily and I (who are, I would like to point out, the only paid staff at the museum, and we’re two females) were sitting behind the counter when an older woman from Southern Virginia walked up to us and said, sotto voce, in a not un-judgmental tone, “This really seems like more of a man’s thing to me.” Rather than laugh and agree with her so I didn’t have to make further conversation and justify my life decisions to a stranger, I walked her to the front room and talked to her for 10 minutes about all of the hammers that apply to women.

For example! Our Hammer of the Week this week was put out by a company that made “Ball-Bearing Bicycle” shoes, so they manufactured a hammer made of ball bearings to advertise their shoes. The shoes for women were especially uncomfortable-looking, and it was recommended that women wear these shoes while hiking the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail (which they had to do over 40 times in order to bring all of their stuff North for the Gold Rush). Which is just a reminder that women in that era got to hike in heels and dresses–pretty cool, right?

I don’t think I changed this woman’s mind about anything, because she mostly just nodded and then made some disparaging comment about how unimpressive this museum was going to look on my resume (“Well at least you have a job…”). But I felt better.

Two-handled hammers

Not just for women!

We also have a two-handled hammer in our collection, and Emily overheard some man comment that it was a hammer designed for a woman to hammer straighter. And then the other day, a kid (about 10 years old) asked me and Emily where our boss was. She said, “Well what makes you think we couldn’t be the bosses?” The kid got really quiet for a second, and his dad said, “Jimmy, are you being a chauvinist?” To which Jimmy responded, “What’s that?” But yes, Jimmy was implying that he wasn’t expecting a Hammer Museum to be staffed by two women.

It’s true that I might be a little overly sensitive to this sort of thing. What I view as blatant sexism is often (maybe) more innocently intended, and I do need to bear this mind before I jump down people’s throats. Especially when those people are museum visitors.

Of course, a majority of our visitors understand what we’re trying to do here, and I have met some truly awesome individuals. In fact, one woman from Fairbanks was telling me how her mother taught her how to use a hammer as a concealed weapon.

But the occasional sexist comment is a nice, though sometimes annoying, reminder of why I choose to work in this profession. While I don’t expect people to leave a hammer museum with their entire worldview changed, it’s fun to challenge assumptions and persuade people to consider another perspective. And this current runs both ways–I learn quite a bit from visitors, too!

A Day in the Life at the Hammer Museum: A photo essay

So many tourists on Wednesdays...

So many tourists on Wednesdays…our way of tracking visitors. Very accurate.

Laugh it up.

Laugh it up. (Donations nearly doubled after we put these signs up.)

Sheep sorrel from the front yard

Sheep sorrel from the front yard

Fruit and nut bun from Rusty's Compass!

Fruit and nut bun from The Rusty Compass, the coffee shop next door.

Too much receipt tape

Too much receipt tape

Too much museum

Too much museum

Patented claw hammers (new exhibit)

Patented claw hammers (new exhibit)

Another "high tech" hammer display

Another new “high tech” hammer display

Emily has fun with the camera

Emily has fun with the camera

We opened the blinds to see this outside.

We opened the blinds to see this outside. Alaska, man.

Hammer Museum paper fortune teller

Hammer Museum paper fortune teller

Stage 1

Stage 1–Many different ways to spell “peen.”

Stage 2

Stage 2


Stage 3

Stage 3


Budgets and Boats

Before I get to the actual content of this post, I want to share the dinner I just made…

ImageThis is what happens when you accidentally cook 3/4 of a bag of dried beans the night before (that’s a lot of beans), then get back to your rental place and realize that you only have that, slightly stale (homemade) bread, a fridge full of expired condiments (belonging to the house’s owner–most expired between 2008 and 2010), and cheese. Baked beans on toast, ladies and gentlemen, and it took me about 15 minutes to throw together. I guess the British are onto something.

Groceries are expensive here in Alaska–they’re not lying about that. Milk is something like $6.50 a gallon, and ice cream that’s not the cheap-o store brand mostly made out of emulsifiers is darned pricey. Cheese is also a precious commodity, but I think I’d be dead without it, so I can justify the expense. Emily and I have had fun throwing together dinners on the cheap, though last night, we were so exhausted that we just went to Al’s Salmon Shack and got us some fish and chips (…it just occurred to me that that’s also a British thing. Hm.)


Delicious, delicious grease in a basket.

Al’s Salmon Shack, by the by, is a food truck. They serve halibut, salmon, and rockfish, all deep fried, accompanied either with fries or served on a bun with coleslaw. It’s one of the cheapest dinners that you’ll find in town, although a basket of fish and chips will run you anywhere from $10 (salmon) to $14.50 (halibut). They do have bzillions of condiments available with their fish, however, so they get a pass from me. Last night, the girl running the shack told us about growing up in Alaska. She’s home from school in Anchorage and is gearing up for a hunting trip with her father. When I asked her what they would be hunting, we got into a discussion about game meat. Moose, apparently, is perfectly edible and tastes a lot like beef. Caribou is also good. Bear, however, is super gamey and tastes awful, particularly grizzlies, who eat a lot of fish.  You learn something new every day. I don’t get the impressions that vegetarians do too well here…good thing I eat fish!

OK, so onto the actual point of this post…why were Emily and I so exhausted last night? Well, it was Wednesday, and it was the first cruise ship day of the season. Haines gets one ship per week, and it happens every week on Wednesday.  It’s a big day in town, as you might imagine.  By numbers: Normally the Hammer Museum is open from 10 to 5, but we opened at 8:15 yesterday and closed at 6.  Yesterday, we had 92 visitors. Today, we had 9. On Tuesday, we had 4.

Dave, the museum’s founder, is also a longshoreman, so he spent the day running to and from the boat. He had to be up at 4 AM in order to dock the ship (they use his boat to tie up the lines and bring the ship in), and throughout the day, he and his crew had to adjust the gangplank because the cruise ship raises and lowers with the tide.  The crew then has to wait around for the ship to leave, which can be anywhere between 8 and 10 PM, so it’s a long day for Dave.  Emily and I are still learning the ropes (figuratively), so he also gave all seven tours yesterday while we watched, gave mini side tours, kept track of attendance, and sold merchandise and tickets. Carol stayed until about 6 to give the last tour because they always insist that we leave at 5. Along with being awesome, they are also incredibly nice.


Dave gives a tour

The museum has been open for 13 seasons now, so Dave and Carol have been the life blood of the Hammer Museum for a long time. When they first opened in 2002 and Dave had another job, Carol staffed it by herself 7 days a week, 4 years in a row.  Dave originally started the museum with his own collection–he was intrigued by the stories and history contained within each hammer he collected, so he made it his mission to preserve and share the history of the hammer. The museum is roughly categorized by industry, and most of them are from bygone days (cobbler, barrel-maker, horseshoer, cobblestone paver, etc.).  Emily and I have discovered that most visitors who come through enjoy the experience more if Dave is there to give a tour (and he gives a colorful, wonderful tour), which just goes to show how connected he is to the place.

The level of devotion Dave and Carol have to this place is almost endless. They’ve gone to conferences and undergone a lot of museum-specific training, turned the museum into a non-profit in 2004, and they have gotten grants for professionals to write collections management and business plans.  Their overall goal right now is to get the museum to a place where it will continue to exist should he or Carol “get hit by a bus” (his words, not mine). That’s a tough goal when the institution has been built around and by them, when they’re only open for a few months each year, when they rotate out interns every summer, and when the budget is quite small.


The museum has a lot of neat donated objects, like these mannequins from the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

All the right pieces are in place, however. Their board is made up of caring and devoted people, grants exist, and the documentation that they do have is pretty thorough–though there are thousands of hammers that need to be catalogued, and a higher level of year-to-year continuity (through a permanent paid staff member) is really needed.

So Emily and I have our work cut out for us. Right now, we’re working on improving some of the exhibits in the museum–mainly writing, improving, and re-printing labels.  Honestly, it’s difficult to figure out what sort of lasting impact we’re going to have since we’re only there for a few short months.  At least starting next week, we’ll be able to give the tours to the cruise ship passengers to give Dave and Carol a little bit of a break.  We’d also like to come up with some sort of interactive where visitors can watch videos of Dave telling stories and/or demonstrating some of the hammers, but we’ve yet to run that by him…

Either way, this is a completely different ball of wax from interning at the Museum of Natural History. The neat thing about small museums is that you get to see how all parts of the museum fit (or don’t fit) together, and you get to wear a lot of different hats.  The Hammer Museum really is a treasure, and I’m happy that I get to be here this summer.  By the way, please check out the website.


You can see the hammer patent wall here.


This was found underneath the building.


Dave put this together (along with other nifty artwork around the museum)


First cruise ship I’ve ever seen. They’re huge.

Haines, Planes and Automobiles

Pardon the profanity, but based on my extremely limited experience so far, I think the state nickname for Alaska could be “Alaska: We’re Not Making This Shit Up”. We landed in Juneau on Friday at 2:30 PM, and flying in was a jaw-dropping experience. Even before the descent, you could see mile upon mile of tall, snowy mountains, ocean, and small islands that look like they were once tall, snowy mountains but got swallowed up by the water. The Mendenhall Glacier (thanks, Anna, for remembering the name for me!) was visible from the plane.


Our first hiking adventure! (It was like 3 endless miles just to get to the trail head.)

As I was sitting on the flight from Seattle to Juneau, a cheerful-looking girl with a violin and curly blond
hair walked onto the plane. We both recognized each other from the Internet at the same time, and we smiled and waved in passing. It was in fact Emily, my fellow intern. She’s a recent college graduate and history major from Lewis and Clark College, and after spending the afternoon with her yesterday, I can tell it’s going to be a fun summer.

2014-05-16 16.42.22Once you land at the Juneau airport (which is the second tiniest I have ever been to—the one in Moncton, New Brunswick is smaller, but not by much), you’re greeted by stuffed bears in display case, as a reminder that yes, they do have bears here. During dinner with the museum founder (Dave) and his wife (Carol) on our first night, they casually mentioned that there was bear repellant at the museum should we decide to take it with us while hiking. My mother had posed a very good question regarding bear repellant earlier this week—if you have to be close enough to the bear to shoot it in the face with bear repellant, aren’t you probably already a goner? I asked Dave, and he admitted that he’s never had occasion to use it, but he does carry a shotgun with him everywhere he goes. (To which I responded, “Wait…seriously?” He was serious.)

Dave and Carol are probably the most caImagepable people I’ve ever met. Dave whips together contraptions made out of hammers and junk he collects, works as a longshoreman and hauls in cruise ships, and Carol grows every vegetable on the planet. Both of them, it
sounds like, can fix just about anything. They lived without electricity or running water for 15 years, so they know how to carve together a living from scarce resources. Emily and I both felt kind of sheepish when they asked us if we knew how to use Facebook. Because yes, of course we can, but that doesn’t really seem like something to brag about in comparison. They put together the Hammer Museum with their own collection, and they fixed the building up themselves (I’m going to footnote the museum here—it is spectacular and deserves its own post. I’ll give you a picture for now).

But back to the scenery for a moment…we took a Cessna with Wings of Alaska up to Haines from Juneau, and it was kind of like riding in a big kite. You could feel the wings balancing, and you could definitely feel when the wind started to shift. Apparently (as I was informed upon landing), we got the “big” plane—it was an 8-seater as opposed to a 4-seater, and the 4-seaters are even bumpier. It was a beautiful day for flying, and as we casually flew by soaring mountains, you could see small waterfalls of melting snow on the mountainsides.
A man on board, who is a native of Alaska, used to work as an engineer on boats in the area. After sailing all around the world, he told us, he can say that the worst weather on the planet is right in the area we were flying over (the Lynn Canal is the name for that stretch of water). Apparently in the winter, wind gusts of up to 100 mph and temperatures well below 0 make for a terrifying ride. “You’d never know a wave could get so big,” he said, and at a certain point, it’s so cold that turning around is not an option, so you just have to sail forward and hope for the best. “But we never killed a passenger,” he added, “though we did run over one fishing boat.” That, he told us with a grin, is why he was taking the plane.

The “commuter planes” here are kind of like giant flying trucks. They deliver people, but also food. I saw some take-out containers in the cargo area, so I’m not sure if you can order food from Juneau and have it delivered by plane…? This seems unlikely, but I’ll have to verify. So rather than going straight to Haines, we stopped to drop people and cargo off in Skagway. Skagway is 12 miles away from Haines via boat or plane, and it’s 350 miles away by car. Dave mentioned that we’ll get to visit in the next couple of weeks, and I’m looking forward to it (NB: When you hop off the plane in Skagway, everything smells like fish.) A woman who had been on my flight from Phoenix wound up on the same plane with us, and she’ll be working retail there for the summer. She told us that the town gets 900,000 cruise visitors a year and that 900 people permanently live there. What I briefly saw of Skagway gels pretty well with what I’ve heard about it (“It’s quirky,” the boat engineer told us), and I look forward to seeing it.

Haines from the air

A nice view of Haines from the plane. See the cruise ship dock?

I should also add that I originally wrote this post 4:30 AM because I woke up with the sun at about 3:45 AM. When I fell asleep around 9:45, the sun had disappeared, but the sky was still pretty light. I looked it up, and apparently Barrow, AK, gets all sunlight all summer and no sunlight all winter, so I count myself lucky to be on the southern end of the state. The winters here are also tempered by the presence of the ocean, so it’s rare in Juneau for the temperature to dip below 0 (at least according to what I’ve read).

I’ve got more to write about, but I’ll save it for later!  We start work tomorrow (with training and a board meeting), and the museum is set to open on Wednesday, when the first cruise ship docks.

Pollen toes

That’s pollen surrounding my toes.

First non-bird wildlife seen so far.

First non-bird wildlife seen so far.

Possibly taken from Kelgaya Point? Along the Battery Point Trail.

Possibly taken from Kelgaya Point? Along the Battery Point Trail.

Hundreds of barnacles fairly high up on the rocks--I think the tides are crazy here.

Hundreds of barnacles fairly high up on the rocks–I think the tides are crazy here.

Battery Point Trail

Looking out on the Chilkoot Inlet from Battery Point Trail

Trees from the ground

Some trees. Some sunlight. A beautiful day in the woods.

Raven squawk

Thar be ravens here (and they are LOUD.)

For Canada, go that way.

For Canada, go that way.

Gettin’ Hammered

After spending the last 7-and-a-half years in Washington, D.C., I’m making my way across the country to Haines, Alaska to intern at the Hammer Museum for the summer.  I have never been to Alaska, but I’ve wanted to go for a long time, and to be honest, I really like hand tools.  I guess spending most days with a sledgehammer at my last job gave me a new-found appreciation for a device that’s designed simply to hit things.  There’s a lot of beauty in simplicity.

I should also add that I’m working towards my MA in Museum Studies at the George Washington University (GW for those of us who like our acronyms), so this blog is not only a personal account of this journey, but something I need to complete for credit.  But I like to write, so it’s a win-win.

So. Here we go.

Currently, I work at a used bookstore processing book donations, so it was fitting when I ran across a copy of this book today.  It’s an account of life in Haines told from the woman who writes the obituaries for the town’s local Chilkat Valley News. I’m only 30 pages into it, but it’s already got me excited.  As someone with a passing interest in anthropology, I love people’s stories, and it seems like people in rural Alaska have particularly amazing ones–I received my internship packet today, and reading through the biographies of the folks who run the Hammer Museum made my life look bleak by comparison.  For example, Dave, the museum’s founder, is a longshoreman (I had to ask what that was during my interview, as I grew up in the land-locked suburbs of Phoenix and the not land-locked but certainly not fisherman-driven suburbs of Philadelphia) and won his original land in Haines in a state land lottery in the 1970s. His own collection is what started the museum, and he purchased and refurbished an old building to house the objects.  Another man has over 40 years of experience as a plumber and electrician. One guy was a kayak guide, and one owns his own tour company.

Haines sounds like a completely different world from Washington, DC, and while YES, the Smithsonian is a great resource (said everyone to me ever), I’ve had three Smithsonian intern/volunteerships, so  it’ll be informative to see the world of museums from a different angle.  The Hammer Museum gets about 3,700 visitors a year–note that that’s about 1,200 more people than actually live in the town, and most of them are cruise visitors. The museum’s collection sits inside a 1,120 square-foot house, and it’s staffed by all volunteers and two summer interns.  It sounds like the interns run the whole show during the busy season, so I’ll certainly be getting a first-hand look at the daily operations of a small museum.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Haines is a cruise port, and that it looks like this?  Sure, it’s not all about the looks, but I can’t lie, it helped my decision quite a bit.

My flight takes off on May 12th, and after spending a few days in Phoenix to adjust to a closer time zone and assure my parents that I haven’t gone completely crazy, I’ll be flying up to Juneau and taking a ferry from there.  T minus one month and counting!


See? I’m not totally new to this hammering thing. Taken at the Ren Faire in 2011.