two workers process fish; exhibit curated by Katherine Ringsmuth, Organized by Alaska State Museum

Diamond NN Cannery workers feeding the fillet machine. Heinbockel-Payne family collection.

MUG UP: The Language of Cannery Work

You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will…to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

— John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

Diamond NN Cannery and Bristol Bay

The canned salmon industry in Alaska has a long and storied history. Starting in 1878, salmon packers built canneries on salmon streams from Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, and the Alaska Peninsula to the shores of Bristol Bay.

This exhibit shares the story of a single cannery in a specific region in Alaska, the Diamond NN Cannery on the Naknek River in Bristol Bay. Many of the themes visible at NN—industrial development, innovation, civil rights, the formation of cannery communities-- can be applied to other Alaska salmon regions.

However, Bristol Bay is a story of its own when it comes to the health of wild salmon populations. While Bristol Bay remains a worldwide exemplar of sustainable fisheries management, elsewhere in Alaska salmon are in decline. Today Alaskans are experiencing abundance and scarcity of salmon.

The Lives of Cannery Workers

It was at the South Naknek cannery where I found my voice.

— Oscar Peñaranda, writer, historian & former cannery worker

A global workforce supplied essential labor and created a unique social milieu within the workscape of Alaska’s salmon canneries. Their collective knowledge of the physical labor, technical operation, and the salmon themselves served as the cannery’s industrial backbone.

This exhibition represents a rare bottom-up look at the salmon industry from the perspective of the cannery workers. It serves as a portal into the authentic lives of cannery people—people who are central to the story rather than existing in history’s shadows.

By listening to these forgotten voices, we hope that Alaskans better understand the historical value of the canned salmon industry and its costs.

This exhibition aims to humanize Alaska’s oft’ forgotten cannery people.

Mug Up is their story.

Image Credits

Exhibit photography by Brian Wallace

Unless otherwise noted, objects on display are from the Diamond NN Cannery and represent the work performed by the cannery superintendent, beach gang, machinists, carpenters, cooks, fishermen, laundry ladies, office staff, storekeepers, quality control, clean-up crew, spring-fall crew, slimers, and cannery workers.