Saving Sheldon Jackson

How Alaskan advocacy gives the Sheldon Jackson Museum a fighting chance in the face of imminent peril

By Karen Trop


Composite Image. Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum. State Proposes to SELL Sheldon Jackson Museum and Collection. Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum, 29 Mar. 2019,

IN EARLY MARCH 2019, word spread across the state of Alaska that newly incumbent Governor Michael Dunleavy was trying to sell the state-run Sheldon Jackson Museum (SJM).[1] Governor Dunleavy was elected on a campaign platform that promised to increase the value of the permanent fund dividend (a once-per-year check cut to all eligible Alaskans from the state’s oil revenue coffers) from an average of $1,600 to an amount close to $6,000.[2] Once in office this promise materialized in the form of severe and unprecedented budget cuts across all aspects of the FY2020 state budget. In response to Dunleavy’s directive to reduce spending, the House Finance Subcommittee for the Department of Education and Early Development announced the state’s plan to “sell or transfer” the SJM[3], one of Sitka’s premier tourist destinations with a collection of 5,900 artifacts representing all of the native groups in Alaska.[4]

The public swiftly responded to the news. Over the next few weeks key Alaskan political figures, Alaska residents, professional organizations and advocacy groups came out in organized opposition to the museum’s sale. Within days of the news breaking, Senator Bert Stedman went on record to call the  plan “crazy.”[5]

Simultaneously, the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum (a non-profit fundraising network for SJM) posted their own call to action. The Friends encouraged supporters to spread the news, including that “if you are associated with an organization you might consider having a supporting article in your newsletter.”[6] The Friends’ impassioned plea for supporters to email the Division Director, State Libraries, Archives and Museums, as well as Chief Curator, Alaska State Museums, their support is as follows:

Let them know you wish them to do everything in their power to save the Sheldon Jackson Museum from this pillage. Give them your experiences at the Museum and if you’ve had family and friends from out of town, let them know that too. If your kids have experienced programs or had the chance to use the hands-on materials let them know. The Sheldon Jackson Museum is an EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION![7]

Later that week, Museums Alaska (a professional organization for Alaskan museums and professionals) published an “Advocacy Alert” informing readers of the SJM’s threatened status. In similar form, the post also encouraged readers to share social media posts in support of SJM while tagging their elected officials’ social media handles. Other resources provided were a template letter of support for SJM and a call for interested parties to participate in the organization’s Advocacy Task Force.[8]

Screenshot. Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum. “‘PLEASE SHARE…”.”, March 27, 2019.

The Board of Directors of Museums Alaska also sent a letter of support directly to Gov. Dunleavy’s office. The letter argued, among many aspects, that the SJM operates as “an economic driver and beloved community asset.” The letter strongly discouraged selling the museum’s collection on the hypothesis that the sale “would require a great deal of time, money, legal assistance, consultation with tribes, and possibly even court proceedings.”[9]

In the following weeks, local news outlets continued their coverage on SJM’s uncertain future. KCAW Radio published an opinion article written by Friends of SJM board member Rosemary Carlton, titled “A passionate opponent of closing the doors on Alaska’s history.”[10] Carlton’s opinion that “this invaluable collection should remain in Alaska and forever have its doors open” would reverberate through public testimony.[11] As reported by Robert Woolsey, KCAW, sixty-two Sitka residents voiced displeasure with the state’s budget cuts on the whole at the Town Hall meeting of March 24. Frederick Olsen, Jr. spoke directly against the proposal to sell the museum, saying:

I guess one of the last straws for me with this budget proposal was when he started talking about selling off museums. When you start to talk about this — or even take it seriously — you’re really feeding into this colony [sic] mindset. And you see the embedded conflicts of interest where on the one side you see oil payoffs, and on the left side, society.[12]

Though the advocacy efforts of Alaskans has made it clear to the Dunleavy administration that selling the Sheldon Jackson Museum will not and cannot be an easy fix, the museum still faces an uneasy future. However, perhaps not as unstable as Gov. Dunleavy’s administration itself. As of September 5, 2019, over 49,000 signatures have been collected in support of recalling the governor, well over the required amount required to file the application.[13]  As Alaskans continue to face uncertain times, many now stand united in support of protecting Alaska’s cultural heritage.





[1] Matthew Shuckerow, Press Secretary to Governor Dunleavy, clarified that the budget “does not call for the sale of the museum or its assets. However, in light of a $1.6 billion deficit, it does call for the removal of state funding for museum operations beginning July 1, 2019.” Either way, the operation of the museum has been put at risk. From Enrique Pérez de la Rosa, “Sheldon Jackson Museum Supporters, Staff in Dark over Possible Sale of Collection.” KCAW Radio, April 15, 2019.

[2] Robyn Sundlee, “Alaska’s Universal Basic Income Problem,” Vox, 5 Sept. 2019,

[3] United States, House Finance Subcommittee for Department of Education & Early Development (DEED). “Budget Overview: Alaska State Libraries, Archives and Museums,” 2019, pp. 14.

[4] Museums Alaska Board of Directors, “Letter in Support of the Sheldon Jackson Museum,” Received by Governor Michael Dunleavy, 19 Mar. 2019, Juneau, Alaska. Accessed October 14, 2019.

[5] Enrique Pérez de la Rosa, “State Plans to Sell Sheldon Jackson Museum in Cost-Cutting Efforts,” KCAW Radio, 14 Mar. 2019,

[6] Friends of Sheldon Jackson, “State Proposes to SELL Sheldon Jackson Museum and Collection.” Friends of Sheldon Jackson. 29 Mar. 2019,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Museums Alaska, “Advocacy Alert: Sheldon Jackson Museum.” Museums Alaska, 14 Mar. 2019,

[9] The letter in its entirety is worth reading. From Museums Alaska Board of Directors, “Letter in Support of the Sheldon Jackson Museum,”

[10] Katherine Rose, “Legislators Prep for Finance Town Hall in Sitka,” KCAW Radio, 26 Mar. 2019,

[11] Rosemary Carlton, “A Passionate Opponent of Closing the Doors on Alaska’s History,” KCAW Radio, 23 Mar. 2019,

[12] Olsen’s use of the word “colony” is likely a reference to Alaska’s long history of colonization.

From Robert Woolsey, “We Can’t Do This’: Sitkans Oppose Gov. Dunleavy’s Budget Plans,” KCAW Radio, 29 Mar. 2019,

[13] Alex DeMarban and James Brooks, Recall Dunleavy Campaign Turns in 49,000 Signatures Collected in 5 Weeks, Anchorage Daily News, September 6, 2019,