Tucked away in an old warehouse on Bragaw Street in northeast Anchorage sits an example of just how successful a museum can be. Not just successful, mind you, but integral to the growth of this oft-struggling neighborhood.
The Alaska Museum of Natural History is one of the best spots in town to experience Alaska’s natural environment, landscape, and peoples through a hands-on, immerse-yourself sort of format. Katch Bacheller, Executive Director, along with an increasingly active board of directors, has been evolving the Museum from a dark little existence all but hidden away from the rest of the usual tourist attractions into a fabulous example of how to attract, and keep, visitors.
Each time AK Fam steps foot into the building at 210 N. Bragaw Street, we see something new. Petrified rocks, Cave Bear skeletons, and last weekend, a beautiful photo opportunity in the form of real fur parkas stretched over child-sized forms surrounded by stuffed wolves. New skeletons of prehistoric creatures appeared overheard, and sounds of “Whoa!” and “Look at that!” came from small mouths held agape by all they could see.
Not just for looking, almost every single item in the museum’s boundary is totally touchable, something Bacheller is adamant about. “How can a museum possibly offer anything for kids if they cannot touch?” she says almost every time I run into her at the facility (which is often). Clipboards and dry erase markers send kids on scavenger hunts to find skulls, bones, and petrified plants. Tubs of freshly-made playdough occupy child-sized tables in the classroom, and a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard features dinosaurs and trees and funny sayings for kids to add their thoughts. The best part, though, and the real reason many kids can be tempted to enter the museum’s front door is the Dig Pit.
Filled with old tire chips, the pits are supplied with kid-sized shovels, pails, and a host of tiny bones, plastic critters, and plants just right for showing off a budding archeologist’s skill. We’ve played hide-tthe-dino, dig-up-the-dino, dig-to-the-floor; you name it, kids do it, and Bacheller loves every moment of discovery. “This is how kids learn. We have to let them get dirty and messy and be okay with that.”
But why does the museum remain so quiet? When we were there on a frigid Saturday afternoon, we were the only two families in the place. Most folks, I think, head downtown to the newly renovated Anchorage Museum and the Imaginarium Discovery Center. Some forget the little Museum That Could is even here, it’s so unobtrusive. Weekly programs like the popular Tinker Time (for preschoolers and/or young elementary aged homeschoolers each Wednesday from 10 a.m.-noon) do bring in a bunch of youngsters, and the nearby Mountain View Boys and Girls Club uses the museum for many projects, but ultimately, the Museum of Natural History remains a bit of a mystery to the rest of Anchorage, and the tourists.
Visiting Anchorage this summer? Don’t miss it. Make the facility part of your history and culture tour of the city, beginning at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in east Anchorage, then double back to the Museum of Natural History and finish up at the new Anchorage Museum downtown.
Live in Anchorage? What are you waiting for? The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $5/adults and $3/kids, $15 for families/groups, or buy a pass and go whenever you want. Birthday parties are also a hit at the Museum, fyi. Scout troops and other groups can even spend the night inside the facility in this creative twist on a slumber party. Cool!