Take Texas, double its size, and you still don’t have quite as much land as there is in Alaska. That’s why it can be wise to stop at two Fairbanks attractions that cover a lot of ground in a few thousand square feet of exhibit space.
Otto, an 8-foot-9-inch taxidermy brown bear is the official greeter in the Gallery of Alaska at the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North.
“He is probably the most photographed bear in the state,” said Lloyd Huskey, the museum’s director of marketing and advancement. “People are just glad he isn’t in attack mode.”
The Alaska gallery fills in gaps for those who want to know more about the expansive 49th state.
“The gallery is a microcosm,” said Huskey. “If you can’t see the whole state, you can get a good feeling for what is in the state. It is also a good primer on what to look for as you tour the state — the flora, the fauna, the art, the culture.”
A few years ago the museum added a wing so it could display more of its 1.4 million items. Architecturally, it is unlike anything in the city, where practicality and cost have made boxy buildings predominant.
“The museum is rather iconic,” said Huskey. “We would like to think we are the Golden Gate Bridge or the Space Needle of Fairbanks.
“The lines and the structure have been compared to two whales or icebergs — obviously it is open to interpretation,” said Huskey.
A roomy lobby and views of the Alaska Range make the museum a likely candidate for gatherings, which are welcomed, with the exception of summertime, when the museum’s extended hours [because of the long days] leave little time for after-hours events.
Those who visit in the summer learn more about Alaska winters and the aurora borealis through movies that the museum shows.
“Fairbanks has a couple of surprises, like us and the fairly new Antique Auto Museum, two world-class museums in a place that you would not expect them to be,” said Huskey.
The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, part of Wedgewood Resort, has earned a number of accolades since it opened two years ago, including MSN.com’s ranking as a top 10 U.S. auto museum.
Showing how the auto influenced the lives of Alaskans is the mission of the 30,000-square-foot showplace. About 60 of the collection’s 75 vehicles are displayed, among them the first car built by an Alaskan, a rudimentary contraption built in 1905 of barroom chairs, buggy wheels, a marine engine and pieces of wood and tin. Five of the cars in the collection are one-of-a-kind.
Through fashion and photography, the museum shows how cars changed the lives of Alaskans in the post-Gold Rush era.
“We have 70 antique photos on the wall,” said Diane Shoemaker, sales director for Fountainhead Hotels. “My favorite shows a team of horses pulling a car out of a huge mud hole.”
Mannequins dressed in fashionable styles of the day stand next to many cars. “By this summer we will have more than 100 vintage clothing displays with the cars. When the owner was planning the museum, the women from a local antique-auto club in Fairbanks said it would be nice to have a vintage clothing display. Their reasoning was so that the women who came to the museum would have something to look at,” said Shoemaker.
The clothing is more than a fashion statement, however. The displays show how styles adapted to the changing automobile.
“You understand why women had the big hats with the mesh,” Shoemaker said. “They pulled the mesh down in front of their faces because there were no windshields and there were bugs.”
The museum is often used for events, and although it is open only one day a week in the winter, it is available throughout the winter for special events. There is room for up to 600 guests.
To remember their visit, guests can don vintage outfits and hop into a 1911 Everitt for a souvenir photo. The car is part of a special exhibit about the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, which opened access to Fairbanks and Alaska’s interior.
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