Blow by blow history at hand

Ben Hall stumbles upon intrigue and danger in an Alaskan house of hammers.

We're walking up Main Street in Haines, Alaska, surrounded by snowcapped mountains with bald eagles circling idly overhead. Then we're guided down a pathway. Ahead of us is a modest fibro house with the sign Hammer Museum, itself made out of hammers, on the roof.

A shiver runs down my spine but not because we're in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. I've been taken to some terrible museums before, including a roof tile museum in Holland and a teapot museum in the US, and obediently listened to the rehearsed monologues that go with them while shifting around on my feet looking for an exit.

This could be one of the longest and most tedious hours of my life.

Inside the "house of hammers" a man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt is talking to a younger couple and explaining how the local Tlingit people used a ceremonial hammer to scare their enemies and also wielded to sacrifice their slaves. This particular hammer head was discovered in the foundations of the museum when it was renovated. The artefact is 800 years old.

Surprisingly, this sounds interesting but I'd been fooled in little museums before. While earwigging the jeans-and-T-shirt-man, I move around and check out some of the 1500 hammers mounted on the walls. They each tell a story and most have an important place in history, including a Roman battleaxe and hammer from about 200AD, which was used as a building tool and to crack open the heads of enemies.

These exhibits are a little more dangerous, and intriguing, than tiles and teapots.

The potential for violence is all around but some objects are a little silly, such as the squirrel-shaped hammer for cracking nuts and the hippo hammer for tenderising meat. So the big question is, what drives someone to set up a hammer museum? Is this just a hobby gone mad?

"The hammer is the primary tool that built modern civilisation as it is today and it's the symbol of man's progress and his ingenuity," says Dave Pahl, the museum's founder and the man in jeans and T-shirt.

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"Every piece in here has an important role to play in history. They were used to shoe horses, shape cobblestones, secure railway ties, bind books and repair musical instruments, never mind just for building structures."

The hammer collecting started as a hobby when Pahl moved to Alaska with his wife, Carol, in 1973 to live off the land.

He built up such a collection that an official museum seemed like a logical step and it opened in 2001.

As if to confirm this is a legitimate historical museum, the Smithsonian Institute donated five of its mannequins to the Hammer Museum to help give the exhibits some life. They're dressed in costume and posed in a blacksmith's shop, at a shoemaker's bench and a sawyer's work bench.

As our small group leaves the museum, a family of four is standing out the front bickering over whether they should go in. The teenage girl wants us to back her up: "It's totally boring, right?"

We tell her it's not and mum and dad drag the girl and her brother inside to learn something.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Haines is a popular port of call on many Alaska cruises. Otherwise, visitors to Alaska can take a ferry from Juneau, or self-drive from locations including Anchorage, Fairbanks and Whitehorse. For more on transport, see haines.ak.us.

WHILE THERE

The Hammer Museum is at 108 Main St, Haines. It's open from May to September, Monday to Friday, from 10am to 5pm.

Admission is $US3 ($3.25) and children under 12 are free. Phone +1 907 766 2374, see hammermuseum.org.

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