The Anchorage Museum combines the power of nature with art, culture, and determination.
A trip to Anchorage, Alaska, is really about the great outdoors. The scenic beauty surrounds you from the moment you step off the plane. Sorry, but no one ever gazed on Anchorage and remarked, “What a beautiful city!” But, hardly a soul looks around Anchorage and doesn’t say out loud or to themselves, “What a beautiful setting!”
The mountains that ring the city seem painted on the horizon. The spreading Cook Inlet, Knik and Turnagain arms (fjords) provide an azur carpet welcoming mere mortals to bigger-than-life experiences. As if to herald that there is not enough time to enjoy all of the outdoor pleasures of Alaska, the sun stays up all but a few moments each day.
That being said, there is one indoor experience that every visitor to Alaska should explore — the Anchorage Museum. This stunning building and its even more impressive collection of Alaska artifacts and art provides a spiritual and historic canvas upon which to better understand the human side of this amazing state of nature.
Of course, the museum has the obligatory “hands-on” exhibitions for children that we celebrate in virtually every museum in every city in the country. However, the real stars of this collection are the fascinating glimpses into the Native American cultures of Alaska, the western-world’s history in the state and the dramatic art that has emerged from Alaska’s overwhelming natural panorama.
This museum should be an almost obligatory stop for any visitor to Alaska.
Start with a walk through the Imaginarium, where children can have a hands-on experience. Visitors with kids may not make it past this room filled with everything from a chance to touch a starfish to a globe that shows the weather around the planet.
Then walk upstairs for the grand view of Alaska’s history and the Native American culture. These exhibitions are breathtaking from a museum curator’s point of view and tell a compelling story for even the casual tourist searching for more understanding about what makes Alaska tick.
The Alaska History Gallery takes visitors from the first influences of western civilization brought by the Russian and British explorers and traders to the oil spill disaster of the Valdez and the building of the Alaska pipeline.
This Smithsonian Institute’s native American displays are simply amazing, with clothing, artwork, implements, jewelry, weapons, armor and masks from each of the different major ethnic groups of native tribes that lived in Alaska. The difference between the art and lifestyle of the coastal tribes and those from the interior is amazing, as is the variety seen between those from the south and those from the far north. Each had their own way of living and different needs in terms of hunting and organization of tribal life.
As one who dabbles in landscape art, the canvases of the great outdoors of Alaska are wondrous. The vision of everything from the majesty of Mount McKinley to the soft pastels of an Alaskan sunset, and from the energy of whale hunting to the images of steamships that drove the wilderness commerce, provide a look into the nuances of man and his relationship with nature that still is so much a part of everyday life here in Alaska.
Sydney Lawrence, who came to Alaska in search of gold and never discovered worldly riches, left priceless paintings that fill a gallery with both the power of towering peaks and the beauty of the simplest meadow and spindly tree. His love for this region and his ability to capture the majesty of nature is worth a period of contemplation in the Art of the North Gallery.
This Anchorage Museum experience will prepare any Alaska traveler with an underpinning of what cultural forces were brought to Alaska by settlers and natives that mixed with nature’s powers to create this unique state.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.