The first concrete building in Alaska, this octagonal building was constructed in 1895 to house the collections of the Alaskan Natural History and Ethnology Society. Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson was fascinated by Native artifacts, even as he was persuading Natives to abandon their traditional ways, and he was an avid collector. With a group of like-minded people in Sitka, he formed the society in 1887. Jackson had the first museum building constructed in 1888, a simple wood-framed building painted to resemble a Tlingit plank house.
John J. Smith, an architect from Boston, designed the replacement building. Concrete was chosen as the construction material for its fireproof qualities, important for a museum. Smith also recommended, however, that concrete—a material that was inexpensive because most of its ingredients were locally available—be used for Native houses as well. The octagonal plan, 67 feet in diameter, provided for a spacious interior with easy circulation. The original design called for a Georgian Revival doorway, but it was constructed
Artifacts, many collected by Sheldon Jackson between 1888 and 1898 and most predating 1930, represent all of the Native cultures of Alaska. They are arranged in original display cases, which include stacks of drawers as well as the usual glass-topped cases.
Sheldon Jackson College operated the museum until the state acquired it in 1983. In 1984–1985, restoration of the building included the installation of a new, steel-framed roof above the original wood-framed one. An addition to the rear of the building provides an entrance and space for offices. Painted a dark brown color to conform to the buildings on the adjacent Sheldon Jackson College campus, the museum retains a woodsy appearance, despite its material and unusual shape. Still exhibiting Jackson's Native artifacts, the museum is an intriguing illustration of the antiquarian impulse.