'I've lost eight pounds in the past two weeks," said James Pepper Henry, as he was loping up the four stories of stairs in the unfinished addition to the Anchorage Museum. Pepper Henry, director and CEO of the museum, has been in near-constant motion for the past several months as work on the facility's expansion program rolls toward completion.
Building the new wing has been a long, uphill climb. It started 10 years ago with a spectacular bequest from the late Elmer Rasmuson. On the occasion of his 90th birthday, the banker and former mayor of Anchorage left $50 million to upgrade the museum with which he and his wife, Mary Louise, had been associated since its inception. The years that followed saw struggles over design, funding, staffing, management and a white-knuckle vote on a bond issue to make it possible.
But the climb is almost over. On Saturday the public will get its first look at the radically enlarged, remodeled and re-envisioned Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.
Here's what they'll see.
The main entrance has switched from the doors off Seventh Avenue to a plaza or "promenade" on the west side of the building. The surface of the plaza is heated to remain ice-free in the winter. Standing on it you look up at the "fritted facade" made of unique, double-pane, full-length windows in which clear glass alternates with metallic silver strips that reflect the cityscape in front of it.
Visitors step into a bright yellow foyer with information and admissions desks. To the left is the gift shop, notably bigger than the old shop. It has a larger section of books and items for children.
To the right is the Bob and Evangeline Atwood Alaska Resource Center, with more than 12,000 documents and 500,000 historical photos. This library and archive was tucked away on the second floor of the old museum, where few knew it even existed. The hope is that this more prominent location will make people aware of the trove of data available for research and inspection.
Just past the information desk, on the left, is Muse, the name of the cafe. Still operated by the Marx Brothers' folks, it now features a full kitchen, which means they can offer some menu upgrades, like duck spring rolls and venison brochettes. There will be longer hours of operation, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. The restaurant, decorated in a heavy red color scheme, holds booths, tables and counter stools for about 100 diners. There's more room available on an adjacent patio in good weather.
An eye-catching floating staircase rises through the center of the addition. Lighting is subdued here. Dark concrete floors and grey metal ceilings throughout the building mute the presence of the structure to direct attention toward the displays.
It's a hallmark of British design architect David Chipperfield's work is that it appears deceptively simple, said Daphne Brown.
Brown is the architect and project manager with Kumin Associates, the local company charged, along with Alcan General contractors, with making Chipperfield's vision take physical form. Strict right angles, smooth surfaces and straight lines dominate.
The second floor will house two sections dedicated to Alaska's Native people.
The ConocoPhillips Gallery (not to be confused with the ConocoPhillips Gallery at Alaska Pacific University) will showcase contemporary art by Native Alaskans. Works from the museum's collection will rotate in and out of this space.
A larger area will host some 600 objects on long-term loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian.
What Pepper Henry described as "an unprecedented, one-of-a-kind agreement with the Smithsonian" will allow the museum to show the loaned pieces for seven years, after which he hopes to renew the agreement on an indefinite basis.
The glass cabinets in this section will open easily, with doors on each side, making it possible for elders and scholars to examine the artifacts closely. An archaeological lab will be adjacent to the display.
But not yet. The Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center and the ConocoPhillips Gallery won't open until next year.
The "Flexible Gallery" will be used to display traveling shows. On Saturday the star attraction will be "Gold," on loan from the American Museum of Natural History. Three hundred precious objects, from ancient coins to space age astronaut helmets, have been picked to dazzle viewers.
Perhaps the best reason to show up for the festivities on Saturday is that admission will be free on that day, including admission to "Gold." After that, as is generally the case with high-end traveling exhibits, there will be an additional cost -- $12 -- to get in.
Before the expansion it would have been unthinkable for such a show to come to Alaska, Pepper Henry said. The museum couldn't meet the requirements of lenders or insurance companies. "Now for the first time we have the state of the art lighting, climate control and security that allows us to host these kinds of exhibits."
"Gold" is paired with "Pay Dirt! Alaska's Golden Landscapes," a locally assembled exhibit of photos and artifacts focusing on Alaska's gold rushes.
In coming months, the gallery will host shows like "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination" -- an interactive exhibit featuring props from the movies -- and a selection of more than 50 paintings by pop art's founding father, Andy Warhol. The prospect of these and similar events has Pepper Henry almost as excited as the "Gold" show.
"This expansion allows us to bring the best of what the world has to offer right here to Anchorage," he said.
At the top of the stairs (and the giant elevator intended for both people and freight) is the Chugach Gallery -- so-named because it's east-facing windows scoop up a sensational view of the mountains. When the cupola above the existing atrium is removed and replaced by a standard skylight, the view will get even bigger.
Pepper Henry sees this space as a prime venue not only for small shows and solo exhibits, but for very special private events, weddings, receptions and so forth.
For the grand re-opening, the photo exhibit on display recounts the construction of the building itself.
One top floor feature addresses a problem with the old cupola -- the light fixtures were difficult to reach when they needed to be changed. Along the uppermost ceiling you can see trollies on which platforms can be hooked to roll light-changers to dim bulbs quickly and safely.
STAYING AS IS
The Atrium in the previously existing building, with its staircase and water feature, will remain. The Alaska Gallery, showing gems from the museum's permanent collection -- like the giant Sydney Laurence painting of Denali -- is undergoing extensive remodeling, but will remain in the same spot.
The theater, likewise, remains where it is. Two plays about Alaska history will rotate there through the summer. The historical displays on the second level will also maintain their present position, at least for the time being.
STILL TO COME
This summer, the space between the west face of the building and C Street will be planted with hundreds of birch trees and landscaped into a "commons" area, suitable for outdoor art events and music programs.
Later this year, Antony Gormley's 20-foot tall cubist sculpture of a squatting man, titled "House," will be erected. The sculpture is part of a new bus stop shelter.
Next spring the artifacts loaned from the Smithsonian will go to the second floor of the new addition.
Also next year, the Imaginarium will formally relocate to the eastern side of the old building, now undergoing reconstruction and a new addition to accommodate a planetarium.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
Museum expansion project facts
Cost: $106 million
Space: 80,000 square feet, bringing the total at the museum to about 200,000 square feet.
New summer hours:
• 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily
• 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. Thursdays
New address: 625 C St.
New phone number: 929-9200
• Adults 18 to 64 – $8
• Seniors and military – $7
• Children 17 and younger – $2 (suggested donation)
• Museum members – free
Additional ticket for "Gold":
• General — $12
• Museum members — $7
• Children 3-17 — $5
By MIKE DUNHAM
Alaska Dispatch Publishing