Smoky Guttman has been assembling his museum of nostalgia for 20 years. Though it is still a work in progress, he hopes to open it to the public some day.
I have been in Haines Junction many times and wondered what his enigmatic building was about.
Though off the Alaska Highway, the large building isn’t hard to find; it’s located across the street from the Haines Junction Convention Centre.
It is a large one and a half-storey windowless structure with picket-like siding mounted on the pale blue exterior. The words “Museum of Nostalgia” stand out in large dark blue script across the front. Large double sliding doors announce what will some day be the main entrance.
While my wife Kathy and I were in the Junction recently, Smoky invited us to visit. He greeted us at the side door to his museum and ushered us inside.
Outside it was hot, the hottest it’s been all summer, and the sun beat down from cloudless blue skies. When we stepped inside, it was like stepping into another world. First of all, it was cool.
The lighting was subdued and it took some time for our eyes to adjust. When they had, we could look up and down various aisles and see a variety of displays and an array of strange and quirky items.
I knew right away that this wasn’t going to be like a typical museum visit. For one thing, our host was as much a part of the museum as the collection he has assembled to place inside.
Smoky is a man of seemingly boundless activity. Well into his eighth decade, he is surrounded by an aura of constant energy.
When I think of museums, I usually expect to see large exhibits displayed on walls, panels and exhibit cases. The economical choice of artifacts is generally supported by graphics and text that tell the story and identify meaning in the objects on display.
In contrast, the Museum of Nostalgia is a jumbled assortment of tools, bottles (including a Wynola bottle from Saskatchewan), licence plates, old boat motors and chain saws. Smoky showed me the skull of a horse found on the Dalton Trail.
One wall is covered with musical instruments, mostly stringed, and adorned with old record albums, including a copy of the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
Beside the musical wall is a small diorama that depicts a concert being performed by Elvis Presley. Smoky has adapted a specially shaped piece of driftwood by creating a series of small steps, upon which an audience of small figurines are seated, enjoying the show. It’s nearly a full house for the performance, but like many of the exhibits in the Museum of Nostalgia, there is room for further growth and development.
The building is divided into a number of specific exhibits on various themes. There are also miniature dioramas portraying the history of the Yukon: the Klondike Gold Rush; climbing the Chilkoot Pass; a Klondike gold mine; a native encampment, and a highway lodge like those on the Alaska Highway that have become an endangered species.
Other displays tell stories, from his perspective, of historic themes, primarily of the Yukon.
All were conceived and built by Smoky.
The collection is a peculiar and intriguing assemblage of old objects collected, borrowed and bought from many different sources. Some of the items are family heirlooms that came from his parents, his childhood, and his own career.
He showed me a small container of wild boar hair from Russia that came to Canada with his grandfather a hundred years ago and explained how it could be used with an awl for stitching.
Included are many items that were saved from destruction at the dump, while other things were donated. He explains that when he travels about in the off-season, he is constantly on the lookout for things that could go into his museum. He passionately pursues old books that in one way or another enhance his presentation.
As we accompanied our guide and curator through the various exhibits, we learned much about him.
Smoky explained how many of the items on display relate to his own personal experiences: grandparents who came from Russia via Germany, growing up in Manitoba, experiencing prejudice during the Second World War
He got his first job as a park ranger in 1951 in St. Ignace, in Ontario. It lasted five years. He worked in Banff and Jasper National Parks, and first came to work in the Yukon in 1965. He weaves his career tightly into his narrative, and it was hard to keep track, but I realize that he has seen many parts of this country, and done many interesting things.
He has been offered money at various times to assist in the development of his museum, but he has refused, feeling that there would be strings attached. He chooses instead to make this his own personal creation.
Sometimes, he would stop and tell us how an object was acquired, from whom, for how much, and when. Smoky is a walking encyclopedia of information about the objects in his collection.
It is a testimony to his personal skill that he has adapted his museum from the old Haines Junction fire hall. He has furnished much of the facility from things that others have chosen to throw away.
Though his eyesight isn’t as good as it once was, nor are his hands as steady as they once were, he painstakingly creates his own models and dioramas.
He showed us a hundred small model soldiers that are being prepared for display. Gone are the rifles and military paraphernalia. In their place, he is fashioning tiny backpacks with bedrolls and the other things that northerners need to combat the elements.
His exhibits have been fashioned with the same capacity for adaptation. Old display cases have been modified to suit his creative purposes. His own craftsmanship is evident in the hand-carved figures he has made from local trees. Most intriguing to me was a nearly finished carving of a porcupine, compete with toothpick quills.
In the Museum of Nostalgia, it is hard to separate the creator from his creation. His passion and pride for what he has accomplished are obvious, and the exhibits wouldn’t come alive without his captivating narrative.
As we accompanied him up one aisle and down the next, he stopped and illuminated one object after another with a handheld flashlight. My head started to reel with all of the stories, and details that were being imparted, and I realized that this museum is appropriately named.
We signed the guest book after a three hour tour. As I shook his hand and thanked him for the tour, I knew I had met a truly unique Yukon individual. I also knew that my definition of what museums are had shifted a little farther north.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based