I am sitting on bleachers in the Aurora Borealis gallery of the reimagined Anchorage Museum’s Discovery Center, looking at the ceiling where colored lights form spectral patterns, only to change before you’ve fully comprehended the hues. As a painter, I love color and try to add some ‘clash’ to all my compositions; I’m excited to be here. These primaries challenge the eye as the last group, intersects with the next. Beautifully designed wall diagrams explain ‘Aurora Colors’. A plaque reads, “Atoms and molecules of gas in the Earth’s atmosphere glow in different colors caused by collisions and energy transfers with solar wind particles. Colors result from the types of gas and altitude and speed of these collisions.” Several cruise ship vacationers slump down next to me. They have one day in Anchorage before heading North and really want to see sled dogs. They ask me where is the best place to watch Arctic ice melting, as they have heard Alaska is the ‘go-to’ for Climate Change. I muse over ‘Camelot’ — ‘Tra La it’s May’.
Feeling giddy after absorbing all this color, I head to the aquatic area. Chomper, a snapping turtle and Museum mascot, is keeping his head above water as he lounges in a pool (He may be the only Alaskan with his head above water). In an adjacent tank is a lucky King Crab who will never see lemon-butter. In front of the ‘dynamic duo’ is an ‘L’ shaped open-face aquarium that mimics Northwest tide pools. Many Alaskans may not have time or inclination to experience real ocean activity, so the Museum brings the ‘briny deep’ to the city.
Back story: it’s the early eighties and I am in the basement of my Hillside home, a post-World War II ‘homesteader-prove-up’ shack. I’m talking on a white wall phone, yes with a dial, to the civic-minded Shari Holmes about her latest project, a science center for Anchorage children. Fast forward to Mother’s Day 2019, and I’m emailing the late Shari’s daughter, Lindsey, who writes, “We spent summers in Kachemak Bay and I spent a lot of time playing in tide pools. She (Shari) witnessed the magic and wonder when my Anchorage friends would visit us and experience the tide pools for the first time, and wanted to share that experience with more children.” Thanks to Shari and other sagacious moms who fundraised in the Pipeline era’s corporate generosity, Imaginarium became a reality in a vacant Fifth Avenue storefront. Rebranded Discovery in 2008, it was absorbed into the Rasmuson Center of Seventh Avenue Museums.
In the Museum’s faux tide pools I watched multi-colored starfish bask in acid free waters without fear of predatory fish or crabs. These tanks are a reminder that, while genuine oceans should be crystal clear, they are in peril of disappearing because of pollutants, and lack of managerial foresight.
Like all interactive science arenas, Discovery has manipulatives which are in constant need of refurbishing. Exhibition Director Ryan Kenny, and Education Manager Erin Marbarger stressed the updated Discovery is meant to connect with other themes permeating the Museum, and not appear to be an avoided add-on. Case in point: artist Gina Hollomon’s expressionistic sculptures of animals native to Alaska can be seen halfway through these science galleries. Hollomon’s deep gouges into clay become recreated animals, giving her ceramic fauna alive tendencies. Hollomon’s work walks an ambiguous tightrope as to whether they are art, or scientific specimens, and therefore become a major bridge to other Museum aesthetics outside this center.
Discovery has maintained some of its staple exhibitions: self-surrounding in a large soap bubble, rotating a large gyroscope, realizing air currents and vacuums lifting airplanes. However, the new focus is on the geological ‘facts-of- life’ about how We Alaskans straddle both the North American Plate and Pacific Plate that periodically ‘subduct.’ A diorama simplifies complicated phenomena and explains the creation of the Anchorage bowl which is a big-salad of silty clay and sandstone, surrounded by mountains that were once rocky masses, pushed up through fault lines by horrendous stresses. Several stations show the power of both the ’64 and the ’18 earthquakes. Examples: a plastic container resembling a cake dome is filled with sand. Two houses the size of oranges sit on top said sand. By pushing buttons a visitor can vibrate the display so houses tip and sink. Unlike in a real earthquake, structures can be pulled to the surface by strings. Another display features two flat squares. Museum-goers can create a structure on the plates using pre-cut wood similar to parts from a Jenga game. Choosing the exponential power of a faux earthquake from a computer menu, they can watch how buildings collapse differently. These demonstrations explain why some people in an earthquake only tip over a wine glass while others experience crumbled foundations, as witnessed in Anchorage on November 30, 2018.
Sometimes an evolving mountain will blow its top and throw-up rocks, gases and magma. While Hawaii’s Kilauea volcanic eruptions are colorful spectacles penciled-in on tourist’s bucket-list, Alaskan volcanos spew out ash ranging in color from charcoal dust to Hershey’s cocoa –all very inconvenient and messy, even if not in ‘Technicolor’. An eruption in the early nineties stranded Christmas-break college students, like my daughter Jenn, in Seattle for over three days, as planes to Alaska were grounded. There were no cell phones or texting, so parents kept their pricey long distance phone service open for days—Alaska has come a long way.
Discovery’s newest exhibit is a mechanical Mt. Redoubt. By touching tessellated buttons deep into this faux volcano, visitors can simulate the pressure buildup along with the final eruption. Although still in the staging process, smoke and steam are scheduled to appear. The genuine Redoubt located in Lake Clark National Park erupted in 2009, shutting down all air traffic as silicone spilled out, very corrosive to jet engines. Over decades in Anchorage, I’ve witnessed beach sand raining outside my kitchen door and brown dust sprinkled on a snow covered Park Strip. Harkening back to Kant’s Sublime, those who want to see volcanic eruptions can safely peruse breathtaking photography on a Discovery Center wall.
Discovery is not just a child’s playground. During my sleuthing afternoon, I observed more adults than kids frequenting this space. Staff is available to answer questions and, for example, help you plan an indoor hydro-ponic garden. Many locals routinely visit the Co-Lab which resembles a chemistry classroom allowing children and adults to hands-on dig deeper into science. Examples: visitors may want to know more about the currents of a roaring river. Inquiries may have begun by manipulating the ‘Spin Table’ which shows how, “moving objects push against the table and the spinning table pushes back.” Or maybe someone was fascinated with the formation of ice crystals after reading, “each snowflake takes unique form because slight environmental and temperature differences affect ice crystal growth patterns differently.” The curious can head to Co-Lab to develop a project or just gather fun facts. I found reading about earthquakes very comforting: “The intensity of seismic waves felt at any given location depends on a variety of factors, including the magnitude of the earthquake, distance from the epicenter, and the makeup of the ground and soil….Liquefaction is especially likely in areas where the ground is soft, loose clay, like that of the Cook Inlet.” Acquiring knowledge will hopefully help others allay buried fears leftover from the November 30 Earthquake.
With apologies to ‘Oklahoma’, June will soon be ‘Bustin’ Out all Over’ and it’s a great time to bring family, friends, or just yourself to the Museum, combining learning with enjoyment. The Sleuth encourages visitors to experience the Discovery Center and then walk through other Museum sections and feel the intended Sci-Art connections. For example: in the Art of the North galleries, Sydney Laurence’s ‘Mt. McKinley’, a huge Romantic oil painting, depicts ‘Denali’ in all its atmospheric glory above two horizontal bands of middle and low terrain. Laurence’s interpretations of gorgeous landscape only got there because millennia of eruptions built the mountain, thus leaching minerals into lowlands, allowing for vegetation, and a carved out river channel in the foreground. While Laurence took liberties to embellish with tubed paints, his keen observations were helped by changes in light patterns explained at Discovery’s ‘Seasons and Sun, Astronomical Accident’ as, “Solar energy powers our weather and climate, our ocean currents, and life on Earth.” Oh, and don’t forget Museum’s Tuesday Lunch on the Lawn (June 5-August 27), before exploring The Discovery Center (check Co-Lab times).