Anchorage Museum opens revamped Imaginarium, Arctic studies centers

May 22, 2010 

Imagine if Chuck E. Cheese replaced the video games and pizza with hands-on, kid-sized science experiments, jelly fish and a thorny snapping turtle named Chomper.

Now picture a mini-Smithsonian museum with 600 artifacts of Alaska's past. Cool, dark hallways lined with copper Tlingit masks and Inupiaq battle armor -- most shown to the general public for the first time.

Mix in a new planetarium and you have the revamped Anchorage Museum, which capped more than 10 years and nearly $110 million in upgrades and expansions with a kind of grand opening Saturday.

On the first floor, Deb Cooper held the shoulders of her 3-year-old, John, as the boy balanced on a stool, peering into a water tank bubbling with sea anemones and starfish. After walking into the Imaginarium, with its giant soap bubbles, tsunami tank and miniature alligators, Cooper traded her day pass for a family membership.

"This is going to be an every rainy day thing now," she said.

The Imaginarium -- transplanted with nearly all new gadgets and exhibits from its old home on Fifth Avenue, according to museum director James Pepper Henry -- churned and buzzed with kids on opening day.

A moon rock the size of a cookie, on loan from NASA, marks one entry way in a brushed steel display case. Red lights line the dark hallway to the planetarium like a holdover from the recent Star Wars exhibit.

"We have one of only two aurora borealis simulators in the world, in a science exhibit," said Pepper Henry, who expects all the new additions to double the amount of time the average visitor spends at the museum.

The Alaska-themed science experiments offer sobering lessons for anyone who lives near the shore. At one corner, a rumbling contraption shows what an earthquake can do to homes on Bootlegger's Cove as baseball-sized houses disappear into the sand. Yards away, a girl watched as her friend pulled a rope to release a tiny landslide into another water tank built to mimic a small-town shore. Waves rippled along the wall, spilling over more ill-fated little homes.

"Those poor little people," the girl said.

In another corner, the puppy-sized snapping turtle and Al and Allie -- a pair of year-old alligators shared separate tanks.

The museum sometimes takes the critters on the road for show-and-tell in villages, though the snapping turtle stays at home. There's a reason he's called Chomper, Pepper Henry said.

Elsewhere, Jeffrey Danz watched a short clip on Alaska's sky in the planetarium with his daughter Hayden, 2. Along with the new features, the museum is changing its ticket prices for kids.

Children under 12 used to be free. Now kids from 3 to 12 will be $7. (The Imaginarium, in its former location, cost $5 for children.)

Danz said he's OK with the cost. You could easily spend four hours here and get a day out of it, he said. "I could see a class, a 5th-, 6th-grade science class coming here and having a ball."

Upstairs, away from the hot air balloon and the infra-red camera exhibit, visitors walked the new Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. A seal skin gun case. A high-kick ball. A mountain sheep parka lined with wolf and wolverine fur.

"Look at the spear," a man said "They wrapped it with brass."

His digital camera chirped as he snapped a photo.

Victoria Hykes Steere scanned a wall of Alaska Native masks nearby. The copper Tlingit mask, the scalp lined with human hair, stared through the glass with eyes made from Chinese temple coins.

"It's amazing," Hykes Steere said. She'd already spent two hours here with her 14-year-old son, who paints the Sugpiaq masks that his father makes.

"We spent a lot of time in front of the jelly fish," she said.

Some of the exhibits trigger memories. Hykes Steere had snow goggles as a child, she said, similar the ones hanging in a nearby case.

Her grandfather made them when she was 5 years old. First he gave her an ivory pair. Like these, Hykes Steere said, pointing to an Inupiaq-style pair behind the glass. When she lost those, he made her more goggles from wood.

"I felt demoted," she said.

The items are on loan to the Anchorage museum for at least seven years. Some were gathered in Alaska more than 100 years ago and have rarely been seen since, said Aron Crowell, director for the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center's Alaska Office.

"About 90 percent of the pieces that you can see in the gallery have not been exhibited before ... they are coming straight out of storage at the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the American Indian," Crowell said.


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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