Anchorage Museum and a Plastic Ocean

Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, now on display at the Anchorage Museum.

Trash large and small makes up the Anchorage Museum’s newest exhibit, but not just any sort of trash. “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” opens tonight as a global storyboard of oceanic debris, with a lesson attached.

Art, science, and passion all combined to bring Gyre: The Plastic Ocean to reality at the Anchorage Museum.

In the summer of 2013, an international expedition launched to explore the swirling vortex of plastic junk around the northern pacific ocean, known as a “gyre”. Fostering a common goal of education through science, art, history, and stewardship, this multi-layered team, including Anchorage Museum Director Julie Decker, began a project with far-reaching impacts.

Simple in structure but incredibly complex, the Anchorage Museum exhibition reflects the very nature of plastic as we non-scientists know it; from water bottles to fishing line, plastic infiltrates our lives for safety, convenience, and coolness. It’s so common we don’t even think about how, or why, demand for plastic products is higher than ever before, and yet the environmental reach extends far beyond our line of sight.

NOAA scientist Peter Murphy points out different rates of plastic breakdown at the Anchorage Museum.

Explanations with visual imagry assist in understanding at Gyre: The Plastic Ocean.

It’s important to learn. A primary goal of Gyre: Plastic Ocean is education. I wasn’t aware there existed five gyres tornadoing their way around the planet’s oceans, I only know of one that appears as a lightening rod to breaking news of radioactive floats and flotsam of many different colors from a country far, far away. Step through the entrance of this third floor exhibit and maps tell a different story: North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian.

It’s important to engage. Young people, especially those in elementary, middle, and high school will find enough interesting facts to amaze their friends, and perhaps take action. Did you know, by the way, 1,973 miles of ocean debris was removed in Alaska? That’s 2,453,240 pounds of junk hauled off southewestern Alaska beaches, shorelines, and waterways. When you visit, pick up an Activity Guide at the exhibit entrance and work through the spaces with children. The challenges, riddles, and questions are interesting, thought-provoking, and inspire “doing” rather than “telling”.

It’s important to act. The longer I walked through the exhibit, the more I became conscious of my own personal plasticity. Writing with a plastic pen, carrying a partially plastic purse, drinking out of a plastic (but reusable, I will note) water bottle, peering through a plastic camera – all these things individually stood out, and I felt their presence. Could I have purchased a different item? Reused an old one? I thought back to my cluttered kitchen drawer holding a treasure chest of colorful bottles, lids, and containers. Why did I buy so many, and what could I do with them, now?

I walked through part of the exhibit with Peter Murphy, a NOAA scientist and master at articulating the relationship and stewardship of plastic and people. Alaska is tough, he said, since so much shoreline is desperately difficult for the average citizen to reach. Wild waves, long boat rides, and a lack of road systems don’t lend themselves to the average beach clean-up in the Last Frontier.

How, then, I asked him, can we encourage kids to step up and become stewards of shorelines that are so, so far away and often inaccessible in Alaska?

Murphy’s response was gloriously simple: “Make a difference where you are.”

Vivid paintings like this one capture the reality of ocean debris at Gyre: The Plastic Ocean exhibit at Anchorage Museum.

Ah, the essence of Gyre and kids. Break it down and make it happen.

1. Litter at home makes trash at sea, so pick up your stuff and throw it away properly here, so it doesn’t end up out there. Start a local clean-up event at a nearby stream, lake, river, or beach (Kenai Peninsula, I’m looking at you!). Try the Anchorage Waterways Council or Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies for ideas.

2. Reuse what you have. Thank goodness I can keep reusing those containers at home, instead of loading AK Kid up with plastic baggies of chips, sandwiches, and the like. That works. Start small.

3. Be conscious of what you purchase. Could I buy a bunch of apples at the store and put them in a reusable bag instead of a plastic produce bag? Perhaps AK Kid could carry a paper sack for lunch instead of a plastic lunchbox? Here’s a fun thing – ask kids to lay out their lunch across their table at school, and ask everyone to think of strategies to make less of a plastic impact. You might be surprised.

But then, you might not. Our kids are smart, aren’t they? Sometimes they just need a little encouragement from exhibits like this one.

Floats of different sizes create a wall display at Gyre: The Plastic Ocean at the Anchorage Museum.


Gyre: The Plastic Ocean runs February 7 through September 6, 2014. Tonight is special – look for presentations and meet-greet sessions between 7-9 p.m.  The exhibit is FREE with regular museum admission. Find rates HERE. 

Many extra activities are also scheduled on a regular basis, including a planetarium show, toddler time, activity workshops, and lectures. A complete schedule is found HERE.

The exhibit is best for kids Kindergarten and older; there are plenty of opportunities for non-readers to look at jars filled with all sorts of mysterious, plastic things, and readers will like the amazing facts. I spent about an hour walking through Gyre, but my guess is younger kids will become bored rather quickly without some guidance. Do utilize the Activity Guide.

Weekends will be crowded; try an after-school visit to maximize viewing time.

As a sticker handed to me by one of the artists read,“Plastic: It’s all washed up.” 


Sled dogs constructed from marine debris were a huge hit at Gyre: The Plastic Ocean.





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