During our trip to Anchorage last week, we spent an afternoon exploring the Anchorage Museum, a modern, glass and chrome structure in the heart of downtown Anchorage. We had the rare treat of having both of Alex’s grandmas along to see what the museum had to offer, along with Alex and myself. It was a wonderful place for kids and adults alike, with a collection of exhibits on history, science, and art. It was like MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Tech Museum all rolled into one. This is one place I highly recommend for visitors to Anchorage.
The museum opened in 1968, and expanded through the 1990’s with an infusion of oil revenues. The current incarnation is a sleek, modern building with an impressive array of technology exhibits geared at science education, a terrific collection of Native Alaskan artifacts, a planetarium, upscale fine dining at the Muse Restaurant, and some interesting traveling exhibits as well. The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center just opened recently, and is something that should be required viewing for anyone interested in Native Alaskan culture.
Alex particularly enjoyed the Imaginarium Discovery Center, a hands-on science exhibit on the first floor that introduces kids to physics, biology, and technology. While mostly geared toward school-age children, there is a special section for kids ranging from infants to age 5. It’s often hard to find things in museums for very young children, so I thought this was a terrific way to introduce kids to science at the earliest ages.
We started out looking at a Rube Goldberg-like contraption of balls, chutes, and wheels that was mesmerizing. The walls are adorned with inspirational words and quotes from scientists, like Albert Einstein’s quote: “Nothing happens until something moves.”
Unfortunately, Frank the physicist was not with us to give his expert opinion on the displays, but I have a feeling he would have loved it as much as we did.
Both Grandmas and Alex particularly enjoyed the Imaginarium’s giant bubble making machines. In one, you step inside and pull a rope to raise a large hula-hoop until you are completely encased in a cylindrical bubble. Grandma Chris got a big kick out of it and joined in by putting herself in a bubble. It’s a little hard to see in this picture.
Grandma Jeanie got into the act with the hand-held bubble makers. Who knew that something as simple as soap and water could be so much fun?
There were several teenage docents wearing tan vests, helping kids with various experiments and stations. I liked the fact that there were kids helping kids. Most of them looked about thirteen or fourteen, and they seemed to be having as much fun as the visitors. When I asked about the small hands-on starfish display in it, the young man I spoke to was quite knowledgeable and engaging. He knew the names of all the different starfish, where they were from, and some interesting facts about each.
After spending an hour or so exploring the Imaginarium, we headed upstairs to the Native Alaskan Exhibit in the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. Over 600 items from the Smithsonian’s collection of Alaska Native artifacts are currently on display, and are available for hands-on study and identification by tribal elders of the Native Alaskan tribes. It is a remarkable display, that showcases each of the five native Alaskan groups. At first I thought it was a little dark in the room, but Chris pointed out that the lighting was actually quite beautiful. It seemed to reflect the twilight that envelops the arctic so much of the year, and made the displays seem more vivid in a way.
I was moved by a quote on the wall from Paul Ongtooguk, an Inupiaq, from a work called “Their Silence about Us”: “I began to see through the veil of silence about our history and culture. I learned, in places other than school, that we were a courageous and ingenious people who had made a rich life under sometimes inhospitable conditions.”
That was quite apparent in this fantastic exhibit of the richness of native Alaskan cultures.
In another section, we enjoyed a display of very artistic crafts in an exhibit called “Inspired, Inventive, Irreverent,” which included quilts, ceramics, and other lovely objects from the permanent collection. I liked the colorful ceramic pieces that looked like formations of vegetables.
In another section, we viewed a Juried Art exhibit featuring local artists in a variety of media. One video piece featured a melting image of Sarah Palin’s face melting into other images of Alaska. Chris and I both loved a vivid painting called “Syncopation” by Jean Lester, an artist from Ester, Alaska. It reminded me of the explosion of poppies and other wildflowers on the Stanford campus this spring, brought on by the el nino rains we had over the winter.
On the fourth floor, we zipped through a collection of large modern sculptures set against floor-to-ceiling windows with gorgeous views of the mountains. It was a jarring juxtaposition of the natural vs. man-made, a contradiction that seems so apparent in the Alaskan cities and towns we visited on the trip. My friend Susanne told me that in Alaska, you should “focus on the natural, not the man-made” to see the enormous appeal of the state for its inhabitants. Even so, there were some beautiful man-made art pieces on display in the museum.
No museum visit would be complete without a trip through the gift shop, which did not disappoint. The gift shop offered some very fine native crafts and jewelry and a good selection of art books. I bought a small giclee print of a water color of Denali painted by a local artist to take home as a souvenir of our trip to Alaska. I plan to hang it in my office to remind me of the wonders we experienced on our trip.
The Anchorage Museum is open daily from 9-6 in the summer (May-September), with shorter hours during the winter months. The entry cost is $10 for adults, $7 for kids 3-12; 2 and under are free; special discounts for seniors, military and students with ID.
Syncopation (detail), by Jean Lester, Alaskan Artist & Historian*