Valdez's first museum was established in 1901 by prospector, Joseph Bourke, who put together a small exhibit of curios that was displayed in various Valdez buildings until 1964. These objects are part of the Valdez Museum's core collection. Throughout the years, many individuals and volunteers acquired artifacts and documents that helped build the museum's collection.
In 1964, the Alaska Earthquake struck and resulted in the condemnation of the Old Town site. The community was relocated to its present site. Numerous concerned residents took the initiative to save and relocate the museum collections as well.
In 1967, a centennial grant from the State of Alaska (centennial of purchase by the U.S. from Russia) funded the construction of the "centennial building" at 217 Egan Drive. Half of this building was used as a museum in the summer. A federal bicentennial grant, received in 1976, funded renovation of the centennial building to make it more appropriate for museum purposes. That same year, the Valdez Heritage Board formed, hired a curator, and opened the Valdez Museum. Initially, the Museum functioned as a City of Valdez department with an advisory board providing input on operations. The Friends of the Valdez Museum formed in the late 1970s to support the museum. They ran a membership program, raised money, hosted receptions and events at the museum, and opened the museum store. The Phyllis Irish Memorial Fund was established in 1985 to fund special projects. The Museum's first policies, adopted in 1986, defined the Museum's purpose, region, programs, collections and methods.
The Egan Commons was added to the centennial building and the permanent exhibits underwent a major remodel in 1989. The first admission fees were established at the museum in 1990 and the proceeds were deposited into the museum's new endowment fund. Grants from state, federal, and private sources were received for projects, equipment purchases, and collection acquisitions in the 1980s and 1990s. The "Archives Alive" program, operated by a local Valdez resident, was acquired by the City of Valdez and incorporated as a museum operation during this period.
In 1997, the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive Association, Inc. (VMHA), a private non-profit corporation, formed. Its purpose was to contract with the City to manage and operate the Museum with the goals of decreasing dependence on City funding, increasing the Museum's ability to care for and manage the community's heritage materials, and to continue to serve the community of Valdez. The VMHA Board of Directors governs the corporation and is accountable to the voting membership, made up of the members of the City Council. The membership, in turn, represents the residents of Valdez. The collection remains the property of the City.
In 1998, a full-time curator and a part-time museum educator were hired. The Museum Annex opened in the summer of 1999 to display the Old Town Model. Today, museum programs are carried out in approximately 12,700 square feet. A non-voting associate membership program that was merged with the Friends of the Museum in 1999 consists of 300 individuals and businesses.
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