Journey – Adventure – Odyssey

gulf01Museums do scale very well. We expect a world in a room, an adventure in a box. We go into museums so that we can then look outward. One journey becomes many. In the gallery, we look down at the model of a ship and imagine the impossibly broad ocean stretching out past the way we walked in from the admissions desk, out past our parked cars, farther, past the outskirts of the city.

Fairbanks. Interior Alaskans know about big landscapes and bigger skies. Here is the perfect place to begin a voyage of discovery aboard a brand new research ship, Sikuliaq. It makes no difference the ocean is hundreds of miles away; the Sikuliaq has  decades of adventure ahead, the crew — tens of thousands of ocean miles. Here, at the outset of that journey, the museum will take you across all those miles and through all those years — in the space of an hour, in a room a thousand foot square.


Museums are worlds in miniature, and the UA Museum of the North is a model of the circumpolar north. The best models are those we can get right inside of, something where the walls are part physical and part an abstraction of something much larger, stretching right to the edges of the imagination.

My favorite “models” are old, ruined castles, those tucked away in valleys where so few people visit, you are almost guaranteed to visit alone. These castles are bare bones with nary a standing wall, but they are still complex things, stabilized and sometimes partially reconstructed – where the lines between the object and the landscape are a knit of stone and grass. Here we can stand and imagine the walls as they would have been, the wind as it would have been as the drone of cars on a distant motorway fades to nothing. The sunburned placards on their weathered iron disappear. The protective railings and the wooden ways that make us safe are wished aside. We can walk and breathe and touch. An exhibition should be like that — a collection of protected fragments, not just objects to stare at, but things to imagine — half walls and windows on times and places it is difficult or impossible to visit. The Sikuliaq is like that — a construct of welded modules and instruments and machines and the best of ideas that will take researchers — and us — to those remotest parts of the Earth, those places that exist at the borders of our imaginations. Because what happens there, matters.

Arctic Odyssey exhibition design (looking east).
Arctic Odyssey exhibition design (looking north).

Arctic Odyssey will be the spirit of adventure, the spirit of a machine we experience from inside and out, a physical and a virtual transport. It will be models we experience as much as look at, models that tell stories — in a small gallery, in a museum. These models will take us places. They will tell stories of the sea and make a living space for stories that have yet to be told.

I have not been to sea since 1995, and while it has been more than 18 years, I have a long series of durable memories from three weeks between Seward and Yakutat, aboard the Alpha Helix, the University of Alaska’s prior research vessel.

Pushing ice aside at the bow of Alpha Helix, 1995.
Lowering a CTD cast from the Alpha Helix, 1995.

I remember the morning reveille of ice drumming against the bow, the comforts of the treadmill in the library, the speed at which the Dramamine stores ran dry, the bone-chilling cold of the wind coming across the broken glacier ice in a bay on the Gulf of Alaska. We were a cork in a glass of iced tea, dipping our spoon in, reaching deep to stir the sediment on the bottom — reaching over the starboard rail to grasp a CTD and rosette cage so it could not thunk against he hull before the winch lowered it deep into the fjord.

I remember the wild, rolling sunsets, and the way the world became peaceful again as soon as we drove out of the Gulf and into a bay. I remember the dimly lit CTD control room and the beige desktop computer with which we could queue emails to send back home in a once-a-day burst.

Some technologies have made those days a bygone age, and the remnants of that are exactly the stuff of museums. Other things have not changed in 20 years, and still, going to sea is a big deal. A ship is capable but isolated, advanced but independent. It fends for itself and its crew. It conveys explorers through both calm waters and the most unforgiving environments on the planet. Beyond everything else, the ship is a window on the water. Arctic Odyssey will be a window on the ship.

Arctic Odyssey interactive element design.

traceElements_persp               sonar_persp

Museums do scale very well. All exhibitions seek to touch themes greater than themselves. Arctic Odyssey encompasses a 261ft research vessel, the science of oceanography, and all the world’s oceans. That’s a lot for a room. We will have to imagine the water, I suspect, mostly, but that’s what we do in museums. We enter a framework and then imagine a wider world.


To make that journey, another one must come before – the best of adventures, the odyssey of getting an exhibit made. Those at the museum, the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the Alaska Sealife Center have been revising ideas and making plans for some time now, and yet — there are so many unknowns coming at us in the next eight months. Because really, the Sikuliaq is only just at the start of its journey, but the Odyssey as first imagined is a story of homecoming, and the trials and challenges and wonders of getting there. It took Odysseus 10 years to get home, and on the way, Cyclops, Sirens, Charybdis, … Circe. Advenure is is out there among the odd lands of exhibit design and fabrication. Stay tuned for stories of this odyssey as we bring the exhibit and this new ship home — a prelude, to the making of an even greater story.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)


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