Sitka museums

Museums in Sitka, Alaska

Mount Edgecumbe
  Mount Edgecumbe. This now-dormant volcano features prominently in Tlingit history and culture.

 Two virtually adjacent museums are well worth a visit for anyone travelling the Gulf of Alaska: the Sheldon Jackson Museum and the Sitka National Historic Park. Both are within easy walking distance of each other and the two jetties where cruise ship visitors land in Sitka. Both museums have an interesting range of exhibits that illustrate Sitka’s fascinating and important local history.

Tlingit Indians

The local Tlingit Indians, as they call themselves, take pride in a very ancient and rich heritage. Their amazingly detailed and consistent verbal history correlates strongly with a number of archeologically verifiable markers, including a massive eruption of the nearby now-dormant volcano, Mount Edgecumbe, some 8000 years ago. The eruption covered the Sitka area with ash as much as seven metres deep but this catastrophe coincided with a retreating ice cap and the amazingly fertile land quickly recovered.

In turn, this encouraged a northward migration of the people who became known as the Tlingits. They evolved into the two moieties that persist today: the Eagles and the Ravens. Plentiful fish, game and other resources shaped a rich and diverse culture that is recorded in epic songs and poems, as well as artefacts that include beautifully carved totem poles.

Traders, seamen, warriors

The Tlingits became sophisticated traders, expert seamen and fearsome warriors. They constructed substantial wooden buildings within fortified villages, carved huge totem poles and conducted complex ceremonies, including their fascinating potlatch. (See Tlingit: Their art and culture.)

In the 1700s, the Tlingits traded furs with Spanish, British, Russian and American ships for items such as manufactured goods, iron, flour, tea, blankets, tools, firearms and ammunition. Situated on Baranof Island, Sitka used to be the headquarters of the Russian fur trading enterprises in America. It now houses 8600-odd permanent residents and is notable because it was here in 1802 that the local Kiks.ádi clan of the Tlingit people lost patience with Russians brutally colonising their land and enslaving their people. After all, the Tlingit were slave owners, not slaves.

Armed chiefly by British (e.g. Hudson Bay Company) and other French, Spanish and American traders, warrior chieftain Katlian, wielding a blacksmith’s hammer and wearing a Raven helmet, led a raid that destroyed the main Russian Sitka fort. His braves massacred nearly all of the Russian fur traders and their despised Aleut slaves.

Yuri LysyanskyNeva
LCDR Yuri Lysyansky (left) commanding the Russian sloop Neva (seen here in Australian waters) helped to put down the Tlingit uprising.

Anticipating a Russian counterattack, the Tlingits rebuilt the fort. They did not have long to wait. The Russians returned in 1804 with a fleet that included 550 kayaks filled with 600-odd Aleuts. The Chief Manager of the Russian American Company, Alexandr Baranov, was soon seriously wounded, but under the command of Lysyansky, after six days’ intensive fighting, including bombardment at two cables (183 metres) by the Russian sloop Neva (ex-HMS Thames) and three smaller ships, the Russians forced the Kiks.ádi out of their homeland of 2,000 years. Smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza and other introduced diseases soon decimated the wandering Tlingits.


Exploiting their Aleut slaves, the Russian-American Company became the most profitable fur trader in the world until over-harvesting led to a sea otter and fur seal population decline in the mid-1800s. Additionally, fashions changed and profits fell.

The United States purchased Alaska from a cash-strapped Russia for a bargain $7.2 million in 1867. Sitka remained the seat of territorial government until it yielded this title in 1906 to Juneau with its hordes of gold-seeking Yukon-bound “stampeders”.

Christian missionaries of one denomination or another came in waves after 1804, ostensibly seeking the salvation of the local Tlingits’ souls, whether the Tlingits wanted their souls saved or not. One particularly vigorous Presbyterian, the Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson, backed by powerful Washington friends, became Alaska’s first General Agent for Education. Tragically, he attempted to erase indigenous culture and replace it with his version of Protestantism, causing incalculable confusion and harm to many Tlingits and other North-Western Indians. On the other hand, between 1888 and 1889, Jackson collected more than 5000 Indian culture artefacts, many of which might have been lost. A large number of these may be seen in the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka, which Jackson opened in 1889.

Pacific War

Resigned to become nothing much more than just another small sleepy fishing village, Sitka suddenly found itself host to 20,000 military personnel in WW II. The USN established a large Naval Air Station nearby and the Army set up coastal fortifications, including one of the earliest American radar stations, on a nearby mountain top. Oddly, although the foundations remain, no photograph of this particular 180-mile range radar station is known to exist.

Jackson Museum
The Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka.

Sitka quietly resumed its somnolent state after WW II with its permanent population dropping rapidly to less than 10,000. Tourism returned slowly to about 5000 visitors a year but in recent years it has recorded a dramatic upswing. Sitka might see 5000 and more tourists disembarking every summer’s day from the here-today-gone-tomorrow huge cruise ships that swing at anchor out in the bay.

A lightweight but durable and eminently seaworthy original sealskin kayak.

Perhaps the most prized object in the Sheldon Jackson Museum is Katlian’s Raven helmet, worn in the 1802 uprising. Other items include delicately carved masks, baskets and intricately woven cloth. There are also a number of old sealskin kayaks and weapons on display.

Summer visiting hours are 0900 to 1700 daily, but the Sheldon Jackson Museum closes on holidays. Admission is US$4 per person and further details may be found at

Sitka National Historic ParkThe Sitka National Historic Park dates from 1902, when the collection began. It is very close to being the best site in the world, after the UniverTotem Polesity of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, to see original and reproduced totem poles (left). More than 30 of these huge monsters, both under cover and out in the open, record the history of the local people, their families and important historical events.

The park also houses the site of the original Russian fort of 1799, now little more than a grassy mound. On the soft pine-needle trail through the tall trees bald eagles, squirrels and other wildlife abound. The trail passes many totem poles, each with its own discrete plaque explaining its historical relevance.

In conjunction with the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Centre, the park’s visitor centre displays an interesting collection of historical artefacts and photographs. It also offers a 12-minute video that describes some of the more important historical events that shaped the area.

The Visitor Centre is open daily, May through September, and there is a small charge for those who do not have a Golden Age Passport issued by the National Parks Service. For further details see the website:

Virginia Air and Space

Virginia Air and Space Museum

The Virginia Air and Space Centre is just one of the dozens of thriving military and civilian historical museums dotted along the coast between Washington, DC, and Savannah. It is also one of the best. Located at 600 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton, VA, it draws on a wealth of local area history going back to the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk in 1903 and the 1916 Curtiss Flying School in nearby Newport News.

Visitor interaction

The museum itself is more of an interactive learning process. There are plenty of aircraft and spacecraft exhibits, but a prominent focus is on visitor participation. This might range from piloting a simulator and simulating a balloon ascent to learning flight deck marshalling signals.

Nearby Hampton Roads was also the site of the (in)famous BGEN Billy Mitchell trials that “proved” that warships could be sunk by aerial bombing. In one narrow sense Mitchell was right. A ship could be sunk by aerial bombing, but as WW II clearly demonstrated, land-based aircraft had a poor record in finding and sinking any kind of ship. Mitchell’s land-based level bomber theory was frequently ineffective, as HMAS Australia confirmed when bombed by “friendly” B17s in the Coral Sea in May 1942. Naval aircraft, on the other hand, with their specialist crews and weapons, had a better record, as USN crews demonstrated in the Battle of Midway a month or so later. Nowadays modern weapons, such as infra-red homing weapons and laser-guided ordnance, at last give support to part of Mitchell’s position.

The ex-German 22,600 tons battleship Ostfriesland hulk under attack by USAAF bombers,
21 July 1921, just a few miles from the present site of the Virginia Air and Space Center.

Although the ship was not fighting back, it had no damage control resources, it was dead in the water and its sinking was due more to near misses than direct hits, the USAAF BGEN Mitchell parlayed the demonstration into a big USAAF propaganda victory.

Hampton Roads was also the site for Eugene Ely’s first launch from a ship, the USS Birmingham on 14 November 1914. After such a promising start, the RN rapidly overtook USN aircraft carrier development during WW I. It was not until 1922 that the first USN carrier was commissioned, the converted collier USS Langley, again in nearby Norfolk. Since then, as the museum displays remind us, many notable aircraft carriers have been built in the local area, including the Nimitz class nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan.

A huge sectioned model of this ship is displayed in the museum, together with an intriguing sliding LCD screen that displays selected internal aspects of the ship. Visitors just slide the screen to an area of interest and the internal workings of the area are displayed.

Aircraft and spacecraft research

As well as warship building, the area is also famous for testing and developing aircraft and spacecraft. Langley Field, the USAF’s oldest aircraft testing ground, dates from 1916 and spacecraft research laboratories are also nearby. The world’s first full-scale wind tunnel laboratory was commissioned at Langley Field Laboratory under NACA’s (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) auspices in May 1931.

Apollo 12
The recovered Apollo 12 Moon Mission space craft capsule is displayed in the museum.

In 1958 NACA became NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and this led to the most expensive and ambitious wind tunnel ever built, the National Transonic Facility, which was commissioned in 1982. One museum exhibit is an interesting ex-NASA F-18 with a clumsy-looking vectored thrust attachment bolted on. This particular aircraft investigated high angle of attack flight control and engine performance parameters in combat situations.

F-18 test
A decidedly odd-looking NASA F-18 Hornet, with vectored thrust paraphernalia bolted on astern.

The museum is open daily from about 1000 to 1700 (Sundays 1200 to 1700). Entry fees are US$13.75 ($12.75 seniors) for the museum plus an IMAX movie. Check for further details.

Central Army, Moscow

Central Army Museum, Moscow

 The Central Museum of the Armed Forces is spectacular and quite different from the Armoury found in the Moscow Kremlin. Out at 129110 Moscow, 2, Ulitsa Sovyetskoy Armii; about 15 or 20 minutes north in a taxi (or Metro plus trolleybus) from central Moscow, it is strongly recommended for at least a half day’s visit. Take trolleybus 69 from the Novoslobodskaya Metro station, or trolleybuses 13 or 69 from the Tsvetnoy Bulvar Metro station.

Museum facade
The Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow might have a plain vanilla facade but that belies the
wealth of colourful treasures inside and especially the pay-dirt around the back.

Army and Navy history

Established in 1919, but reorganised in the 1960s, the museum outlines the history of the Russian and Soviet Army and Navy since the 13th century. Entry costs 70 Roubles ($3.80 Aus in October 2008) and it may be visited between 1000 to 1700 Wednesdays to Sundays. (Confirm at

There are better displays of medieval body armour and weapons in a couple of small salons in the more centrally located Kremlin Armoury, but the Central Museum’s brochure says they have more than 800,000 items in their collection, including hundreds of interesting weapons and weapon systems of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Kremlin armoury, on the other hand, has no significant modern weapons display.

T-34/85 tank guards the museum’s entrance.

 About 84,000 T-34 tanks were manufactured by the Russians. The T-34/85 model, particularly, with its much improved gun and four-man crew, was a most unpleasant surprise to German forces in 1943. German crews re-christened their anti-tank weapons “doorknockers.” All they did, they claimed, was to alert the T-34s that they were under fire as they simultaneously disclosed their own position.

Flanking the museum’s wide entrance is a WW II-era T-34 tank on one side and a 57 mm gun on the other. Off to the left is powerful-looking rocket. Inside, in a glass case, is the much-faded but historic red flag that was raised over the Reichstag in May 1945. In another salon relating to the Cold War resides a bundle of twisted metal, the remains of the Gary Powers covert photo-reconnaissance Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady shot down by a SAM-2 (S-75 Dvina) 1 May 1960 while conducting a CIA-sponsored reconnaissance mission over Sverdlovsk.

U-2 wreckage
Part of the wreckage of the Gary Powers Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady shot down in 1960.

Biggest surprise

But it is outside, around the back, that elicits the biggest jaw-drop. Row upon row of aircraft, tanks, artillery, missiles and other weapons all demand close inspection. The navy and air force are integral parts of many of the groups and there is even what looks like a well-worn fast motor boat with tank turrets mounted fore and aft. Another area has an interesting row of what looks like ex-destroyer turrets, complete with guns.

Fast Motor BoatSu27K
The outside display is awesome. A well-used fast motorboat (left) has what looks like tank gun turrets mounted
fore and aft. Across the aisle is a jumble of aircraft ranging from a much-weathered but amazing
Sukhoi SU27K Flanker Fleet Defence Fighter to jet trainers and helicopters of all persuasions.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the captions in the display, both inside and out, are written in the Russian language with the Cyrillic alphabet. Those of us not familiar with these hieroglyphics will find a Russian-speaking companion desirable, but certainly not essential. If you are lucky, or plan ahead, the museum might even supply an English-speaking guide at nominal cost. Winter storage? It is a pity that although all the tanks and guns look rugged enough to weather storm after storm for many years, the more delicate weapons that are also exhibited outside, like nearly all of the missiles, helicopters and aircraft, must have a survival problem if they are left exposed to the elements.

As the French found out in 1812 and the Germans confirmed in 1943, it snows with a vengeance in Moscow. If you really want to see the more delicate historic weapons in their relatively pristine state, maybe an early visit is preferable to one put off for a year or two.

Trolleybus etiquette

As an aside, if you are ever trapped inside the “red zone”, between the entrance door and the turnstile of a Moscow trolleybus, a handful of notes and coins won’t work. With no magic card that locals swipe to release the turnstile, even female bus drivers might launch a tirade of vitriolic abuse, but make no attempt whatsoever to take the proffered money. You can tell it’s abuse because the driver repeats the same Russian phrases over and over, getting louder and louder and redder and redder in the face as she gestures derisively at the door. Evidently it’s a heinous crime to stand in the red zone while the bus is in motion.

Trolleybus turnstile
The trolleybus turnstile and yellow ticket-swipe box.

Solution? Just follow the words and mime of fellow passengers. Hop the turnstile into the body of the bus. As one laughing passenger explained, in broken English, that it’s forbidden to ride in the red zone, but “OK jump turnstile, ever-body does”. The driver just smiled, shut up and drove on when I jumped the turnstile. (It’s rather high, be careful of the crown jewels.) The good-natured passengers in the overcrowded bus cheered and applauded. One attractive matron even stood up and laughingly offered me her seat. Perhaps she thought I might have damaged some vital equipment. The logical and legal alternative, of course, is to plan ahead and buy a ticket from a trolleybus booth.

Trolleybusses aside, when you are next in Moscow, do not hesitate to plan a visit to the Russian Central Armed Forces Museum.

Sea Fury, Aust. War Memorial

Sea Fury: Australian War Memorial

sea fury 109
The RAN Hawker Sea Fury Mk11, airframe number VW232, side number 109, on display in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, has an interesting history. Although painted in 805 Squadron Korean War colours and sporting repairs consistent with possible ground fire, other evidence points to it never having served in Korea. (Australian War Memorial photo)

As part of its “Air Power in the Pacific 1941-53” display, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) restored an RAN Sea Fury to the AWM typically “better than new” condition. The paint scheme is a faithful representation of an 805 Squadron aircraft that served in the Korean War. The fuselage also sports repairs of what looks like a couple of holes similar to those caused by small calibre ground fire, damage common to nearly all of Sydney’s Korean Sea Furies. Unfortunately, from an authenticity viewpoint, the aircraft lacks an armour plate under the engine oil cooler. Additionally, two mission markers, now virtually hidden under the new paint, are not of a pattern used by RAN aircraft in Korea.

The armour plate under the oil cooler was an important modification applied to all Korean War Sea Furies. The air-cooled Bristol Centaurus Mk 18 engine was very powerful (2,500 hp) and normally reliable, but it had a sleeve valve design and it was particularly sensitive to oil pressure problems. A drop of five to ten psi from a normal operating oil pressure of 95 psi was enough to risk seizure or engine fire within 30 seconds or so. The armour plate gave limited protection to the big oil cooler in the port wing root from small arms ground fire and self-inflicted rocket/bomb shrapnel and ricochet damage.

817 Squadron Fireflies

This was in contrast to the Rolls Royce Griffon Mk 74s of the Fairey Fireflies of 817 Squadron which, together with 808 (Sea Fury) Squadron, made up the Sydney Carrier Air Group. The Griffons brought their aircraft home time and time again despite massive battle and other damage. It was a very reliable engine, liquid cooled and with conventional valves. In one instance in Korea, due to the supply of some dodgy camshafts, a connecting rod sheared and actually penetrated the crankcase and engine cowling shortly after launch. The engine lost all oil pressure immediately, but the remaining operating cylinders and brilliant airmanship brought the aircraft and its very shaken crew back to a hairy but safe deck landing before it quit.

The Sea Fury normally carried eight ballistic three-inch rocket projectiles in Korea, each with a 60-lb Semi Armour Piercing (SAP) warhead. It also had a very effective set of four 20-mm cannon shooting ball, SAP and incendiary ammunition and it normally carried two 45-gallon drop tanks for extra range and endurance. For one or two special missions the drop tanks might be replaced by bombs. Each sortie typically consisted of a strike against a pre-briefed primary target, such as reported troop concentrations or stores, followed by armed reconnaissance hunting for targets of opportunity along roads, railways, rivers and canals. Other sorties included direct support of Australian and Allied troops in front line trenches, as well as Naval Gunfire Support, where pilots spotted fall of shot and directed main armament shoots from battleships, cruisers, destroyers and frigates against targets ashore.

The enemy was expert at camouflage and always difficult to see. They were there, however, as witnessed by the frequent small arms ground fire damage inflicted upon our aircraft and the secondary explosions that frequently rocked targets after our attacks. The Fireflies concentrated on bombing rail and road bridges and tunnels. They became so adept with their ASW-shallow dive attacks that bridge spans at both the primary and secondary targets might be dropped during the one strike by six aircraft. Unfortunately, the enemy were equally adept at building, rebuilding and camouflaging temporary bridges.

Naval Officer Club members and 805 Squadron Korean War Sea Fury pilots Ian Macdonald (left) and Fred Lane inspect the War Memorial’s Sea Fury. (Photo Dean McNicoll, C
anberra Times 18 April 2000 p2)

However, it is the authenticity of VW232 that is a question. As well as the oil cooler armour plate discrepancy, there are faint outlines of a pair of odd-looking mission marker bomb and rocket icons under the paint just forward of the cockpit, port side. Similar-looking icons were painted on Korean Furies, but they were nearly all rockets, they were a cleaner design, stencilled in batches of five, and nearly every surviving aircraft had dozens of them. It is possible that the aft fuselage section, with a probably valid airframe number stencilled on, was mated at some stage to a different wing and forward section.

It is also possible that both the airframe and engine were salvaged SAM-E aids used to train young navy aircraft mechanics.

Unfortunately, when mounting the Sea Fury exhibit in the Australian War Museum, it was found that someone had not taken the arrester hook into account. Alas, the solution was not to alter the floor plan by a couple of inches, but to saw off part of the hook. The poor aircraft, Korean heritage or not, stands forever emasculated.

National Museum, Canberra

National Museum, Canberra

The National Museum’s architecture is outstanding.
It was with some trepidation that this reviewer recently joined the half million or so annual visitors to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, but it was an experience not to be forgotten. Opened in 2001, the museum’s breathtaking architecture, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, is equalled only by its outstanding exhibits and the eagerness of its support staff.

National Museum, exterior
It’s easy to see how the ultramodern architecture upsets some traditionalists.

 The exterior’s stark surprising angles and curves are matched by shockingly vivid colours. Once habituated to the roller-coaster skateboard theme, the building grows on all but the most conservative. The courtyards become friendly and there is a new experience at every turn.

The interior is equally well designed. The roomy entrance hall serves a variety of purposes as it leads to a unique rotating three-stage Circa theatre that presents an excellent ten-minute introduction to the carefully crafted exhibits.

ANM Interior
The internal design is equally striking.

Not surprisingly, Aboriginal, rural and migrant themes take precedence over Australia’s scientific, academic and industrial achievements, but this imbalance is soon forgotten as display after display informs and entertains. Children are not forgotten. There are many cubbyholes for the children to explore as their elders take in the more sophisticated exhibits.

The museum also sponsors a number of outreach and educational programs.

Plan to spend at least half a day there. The leg-weary have plenty of seats inside. There is also ample free car parking and no museum entry charge. For details, go to the website