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Palmer Museum digitally archives hundreds of historical photos in newest project

Richard Estelle preserving old photos at his computer at the Palmer Museum of History and Art...
Richard Estelle preserving old photos at his computer at the Palmer Museum of History and Art for the Matanuska Historical Photo Project.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Jan. 21, 2021 at 5:50 AM AKST
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PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - Throughout much of the pandemic, the Palmer Museum of History and Art has been closed. However, staff have remained inside working away at the Matanuska Historical Photo Project, an online archive of hundreds of photo’s from the region that tell the story of the Valley.

Currently, there are around 600 photos in the digital collection, made complete with touch-ups when necessary, additional information and metadata. Executive Director Sam Dinges said they’ve got about 11,000 more to scan in the basement.

Dinges said it’s not a pandemic project. However, since the museum is closed to the public because of COVID-19, they’ve had a lot more time to work on it recently.

“Since about 2017, we’ve been focusing a lot on collecting these pictures on getting people to know that, ‘hey you can bring your photos to us. This is a safe repository for them,’” he said. “And then over the last year, we’ve been taking those photos, we’ve been attaching information and metadata to them, and we’ve been sharing them up on the website.”

Down in the basement, surrounded by shelves full of photo albums and other pieces of the past, Richard Estelle has been spending his time putting them online. Estelle said he loves his job and all the things he learns from it.

There’s a lot of really cool pictures in the collection. There’s many of the original colony established in the 30s that turned into the community that’s there now, including the farmhouses, vehicles, buildings, people and tools used to build everything.

They come from all over the area. Estelle said oftentimes people will find an old shoebox filled with old pictures and bring them to the museum asking if they want them. Sometimes they get lucky and there will be information written on the back like who, when or what it’s a picture of.

“Each picture has got a story, you know? Each one is a story if we can find the information behind that picture, and that’s what we try to do,” Estelle said.

He uses a high-resolution scanner to do the work. Since the pictures can be so old, some of them are harder to make out than others. For those, Estelle may make a few minor touch-ups like straightening a horizon line or slightly manipulating the colors to make aspects of the photo more visible.

“But if it’s a good picture to begin with, I don’t touch it,” Estelle said.

As he continues to preserve the history of the valley, Estelle said he truly hopes that this work will allow people to learn from history rather than be doomed to repeat it.

“It’s pretty easy, I think, to make decisions about here and now that cause problems because you don’t understand how you got here,” he said.

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