Anchorage Museum expansion adds context to the Alaska experience

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A rendering of the Rasmuson Wing expansion of the Anchorage Museum.
A rendering of the Rasmuson Wing expansion of the Anchorage Museum.
Renee Brincks
Renee Brincks

In a destination with the rich history, culture and biodiversity of Alaska, how does a museum best tell so many distinct stories?

I posed that question to Anchorage Museum executive director and CEO Julie Decker, as her facility prepares to unveil a $24 million expansion in September.

"What gets conveyed to outside audiences often is black and white," she said, "but we know that Alaska is a very complex place, with complex political and environmental issues and a great diversity of people."

The museum plays an important role in sharing those varied viewpoints, Decker added.

"We do that through art, history, culture and science," she said. "It's really a broad way of looking at our place and people. It's also about connecting the North to other parts of the globe, and making sure it is the people of the North who are telling their own story."

The Anchorage Museum will showcase the North from a fresh perspective through its new Rasmuson Wing and the Art of the North galleries, Alaska exhibition and expanded Discovery Center science elements opening on Sept. 15.

In addition to increasing the facility's dedicated collection space by 25,000 square feet, the project creates versatile event venues, revamps the atrium and adjacent cafe, adds a patron's lounge and updates the A Street patio. Four new galleries will move hundreds of pieces from storage to permanent public view, as well.

The new Alaska exhibition explores 11 themes related to life in the state, using films, soundscapes, sculptures and other immersive tools that add historical context to contemporary issues. Art of the North highlights work by a range of Indigenous artists, 19th and 20th century landscape painters and contemporary headliners.

Decker sees the museum's art and artifacts as a starting point for important conversations.

"This is a place to preserve objects and present exhibitions, but we're also talking about human impact, our relationships to each other and the land, how we live today and how we'll live tomorrow," she said.

Three temporary exhibits debuting over the museum's grand opening weekend put their own spin on such issues. Ephemeral State by Lead Pencil Studio (through Jan. 14, 2018) looks at Alaska's water in its liquid, solid and gas states. Photographer John Mireles' Neighbors (through April 8, 2018) explores identity and relationships through portraits of Anchorage residents. Alaska artist Ray Troll and Smithsonian paleontologist Kirk Johnson traveled more than 10,000 miles of North American shoreline to create Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline (through September 2018), which spotlights fossils and their stories.

With new venues for short-term retrospectives and events, plus expanded permanent exhibition space, museum administrators feel well equipped to fulfill their vision of connecting people, expanding perspectives and encouraging global dialogue about the North and its distinct environment.

"For the first time, we will truly be engaged in every part of our mission," Decker said. "That's pretty exciting for us."

For more on the Anchorage Museum expansion, exhibits and events, visit www.anchoragemuseum.org.

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