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New Building Gives New Life to Bowdoin's Arctic Museum

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, housed in Hubbard Hall at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, was an eerie place. As you entered the Gothic, 120-year-old building, a full-size growling polar bear greeted you, soon followed by a rotund walrus and very large musk ox. Dozens of cases and displays showcased a broad array of artifacts from Arctic explorations by Maine’s Admiral Robert Peary and explorer Donald MacMillan, both graduates of the college. The building evoked a time long past despite the museum’s status as one of the country’s premier Arctic museums.

MacMillan's vessel, Bowdoin, locked in ice for the winter.

But no more. In June, Bowdoin’s new John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies is opening. Its modern design also draws upon modern construction materials — mass timber. Mass timber is a mix of glue-laminated timber columns and beams and cross-laminated timber panels which can be configured in distinctive shapes. It is lighter than steel or concrete and has a lighter carbon footprint than other construction methods.

Bowdoin College opened the Arctic Museum in 1967. Donald MacMillan contributed film, photographs and Inuit items to the earlier collection of artifacts from Admiral Peary’s Arctic journeys. MacMillan sailed to the Arctic thirty times during his long life. His skill as a mariner, in an area largely unexplored and definitely uncharted, was without parallel at the time. From all accounts, he brimmed with curiosity. He traveled over 300,000 miles throughout the Arctic, making charts, conducting scientific research, studying the native people of Labrador and Greenland, and compiled a dictionary of the Inuktikut language. MacMillan raised the funds for construction of the Arctic exploration vessel Bowdoin in 1921, which he captained for many years .

Polar bear moving into his new quarters. Photos courtesy of Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.

In the 1980s the college established the Arctic Studies Center with support from the Russell and Janet Doubleday Endowment. In subsequent years the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum’s holdings expanded to include Alaskan and Canadian contemporary Inuit art while its programs broadened to address both historic and contemporary Arctic issues.

After being closed for several years, the museum and its collections moved into the new building this spring. To transport the life-sized stuffed animals was a complex task, requiring a window to be removed from Hubbard Hall and a professional rigging crew to hoist the specimens out of the building. After more than fifty years on display, the animals were then put in a freezer for several weeks to kill any hitchhiking insects, such as wool moths, which might be nibbling on their skins or fur.

In addition to new space to house the museum, the16,426-square-foot building includes archeology research and teaching labs, a classroom, an exhibit production workshop, and museum staff offices. For the staff, however, two things make the new building a definite plus: a huge elevator and its climate-controlled environment. Consistent humidity and temperature, which Hubbard Hall lacked, is crucial to maintaining delicate objects. In the new building the museum can mount displays, keep objects in storage or use them in classrooms without worry.

The Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies opens with three inaugural exhibits in June. The second floor will feature an ongoing, semipermanent exhibition called “At Home in the North.” The third floor gallery will house “Collections and Recollections” and “Iñuit Qiñigaani: Contemporary Inuit Photography,” a photograph show of the Arctic taken by five Inuit photographers from Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.

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