The Anchorage Museum at Rasmusen Center is a must. Besides art and history, there’s a fun section full of kinetic science exhibits for kids of all ages. (There were at least as many adults as children playing with the gadgets when I was there.) It also contains a collection of cultural artifacts recently unveiled by the Smithsonian Institute, and a floor full of contemporary art. An impressive multi-media exhibit called “True North” was displayed on this floor when I visited August 7. If you go before it closes September 9, look for an enormous sign of the apocalypse and a mesmerizing video of a native dancer moving to modern electronic music.
It’s also worth reading about the museum center’s namesake, Mary Louise Rasmusen, who died July 30. Her extensive philanthrope is but one expression of a very interesting life dedicated to exploration and public service. Pay attention and you’ll often see the Rasmusen name throughout Alaska and beyond.
Another excellent Anchorage-based organization is the Alaska Humanities Forum. It’s not so much a destination (though the restored railroad warehouse makes a beautiful office) as the alma mater of many great local and statewide projects, such as an urban-rural exchange program designed for build cross-cultural understanding and relationships.
The Alaska Public Lands Information Center felt like a fortress, especially opposite the beautiful but dilapidated 4th Avenue Theatre. The latter’s art-deco sign would be awesome when lit up with neon. It is a place that just begs to be brought back to life. Old photos lining the boarded-up front are just a tease of what was and could be.
The public lands center is clearly a high-priority target for commies and terrorists. Some folks say you can see Russia from… oh, nevermind. (OK, the hoopla is probably because it’s adjacent to the federal courthouse, but still…) Homeland Security rent-a-cops required photo-ID and passage through an airport-style bag screener and metal detector for entry. My expectations for the facility surged with such fanfare, but it was basically just a maximum-security visitor’s center.
Inside were displays to spark the interest of Junior Rangers and geographers, free brochures for inquisitive moms and on-the-fly trip planners, as well as maps and books for sale. Art by local students was showcased in an exhibit sponsored by the Alaska Historical Society, and there was a free, 45-minute film looping inside a small amphitheater. I would have checked it out – even paid extra – if the movie was playing in the old theater across the street, instead.
The Alaska Zoo‘s makeshift approach seems to follow its quirky origin story. (The website says an expanded history is coming soon and my photo of a sign at the zoo may be hard to read, so here’s a summary: It takes someone with more money than sense to procure an elephant for a gag gift.)
I did appreciate signs that explained many of the animals’ stories. Most local species had suffered significant injuries or separation from parents. Exotics, like the tiger, typically came from other zoos. However, I found the bears in captivity to be depressing.
Three grizzlies crowded into a barren hillside enclosure. The one that wasn’t asleep paced a well-worn path in a corner, back and forth, turning around every five seconds. Another section held black bears, one of whom napped in a giant hammock under shady trees. That looked cool. Not so cool was the other Ursus americanus who paced incessantly, urinating on itself as it walked. I’ve heard that pacing is a sign of mental distress; surely pissing on oneself is no better.
My Anchorage hosts live on campus at Alaska Pacific University, so I took advantage of the close proximity and a sunny day to walk to the Consortium Library, which is shared with University of Alaska Anchorage. I found great books, maps and other archival materials in the library’s Alaska Collection. Among them, I was not surprised to discover that “Communities of Memory” (published by the Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska) was a product of an Alaska Humanities Forum endeavor.
A classmate from USFSP’s Florida Studies Program suggested Heather Lende’s If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, which I hunted down and then enjoyed reading a few chapters. Otherwise, I just browsed the stacks sans finding aids and picked up books with interesting titles or cover art. I added several to my reading list, including (Alaskan author and hilarious “Wait, Wait – Don’t Tell Me” panelist) Tom Bodett’s The End of the Road, John Hewitt’s The Alaska Vagabond Doctor Skookum, and Lael Morgan’s The Woman’s Guide to Boating and Cooking.
I couldn’t resist leafing through the latter, which was on a shelf with contemporary wilderness adventure manuals. I’m glad I did! The Woman’s Guide was cleverly written and chock full of useful (and unisex) information. The author speaks with the wisdom of much blue-water experience — and not just in the galley, either.
Although I’ve heard several glowing recommendations, I have yet to go to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. It’s a little ways outside of downtown and I’m mostly getting around by Anchorage’s fantastic bike trails, but perhaps I will make time to visit before I leave on September 11.
As for local food, brews, music and dive bars, those are topics for another post. (So far, I’ve been to Taproot, Darwin’s Theory, The Snow Goose, Midnight Sun Cafe, and Humpy’s.)
Have you any suggestions for culture in Anchorage? Please drop a comment in the box and I’ll try to go check it out.