Peary-MacMillan museum in Brunswick celebrates half century of Arctic history

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BRUNSWICK — The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College turned 50 years old June 9.

Museum Director Susan Kaplan said staff are still finalizing commemorative events to be scheduled throughout the year, but the museum found time to celebrate the milestone last week with games and refreshments at its home in Hubbard Hall.

“The way we’ve conceived of the whole celebration is looking forward and glancing back,” Kaplan, who also leads the college’s Arctic Studies program, said.

Regular museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and 2-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

The museum is named for Maine Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary and Donald B. MacMillan, two Bowdoin College alums who are said to be the first Westerners to reach the North Pole.

Competing explorers at the time disputed the novelty of Peary and McMillan’s successful 1908 voyage; according to Kaplan, it was a year where many countries were vying to reach the Pole and discover its unknown resources.

“No one knew what was there,” she said.

“The big push (at the turn of the century) to get to the North Pole was nationalist pride for many countries, but it had an economic basis as well,” Kaplan explained, describing a “race” for the pole, where many thought they’d find droves of whales that could be harvested for oil.

MacMillan continued traveling to the Arctic in the decades after 1908, with many of the trips dedicated to research.

He often took Bowdoin students with him, and, over time, amassed more than 745 items – including a taxidermied polar bear still encased in the college’s athletic center – that he stored in a crowded room in the Bowdoin Searles Science Building.

The items laid the foundation for the museum, which opened in 1967 with MacMillian, then 90, and Peary’s daughter Marie in attendance.

While the museum honors the legacy of western exploration, Kaplan said the museum is interdisciplinary.

“You really can’t understand anything that’s going on in the Arctic if you don’t understand both the environmental and cultural context of what’s going on,” she said.

To that end, many of the exhibits strive to “bring in the indigenous perspective as much as we can,” she emphasized, which is part of the museum’s effort to reject a notion of the Arctic founded on an abstract idea shaped by Western ideas of conquest.

The consequences of climate change – where ice melt has expanded waterways used by shipping vessels – have made the contemporary Arctic a hotbed of activity and dispute, Kaplan said, and the museum is turning 50 at a time when the Arctic is once again the subject of vying global interests.

The warm waters of newly available sea passages appeal to economic powers looking to transport good across the ocean, such as China. Kaplan said some northern waterways have seen the number of shipping vessels increase from 60 to 400 annually.

In this sense, Kaplan said she jokes with her students that “nothing has changed in terms of the Western perspective of the Arctic. People have gone to the Arctic looking for resources.”

But Kaplan said she strives to underscore the effect this trend has on the native and indigenous populations that call the Arctic home.

“Trans-ocean traffic is bypassing all those communities, but the communities are essentially assuming the risk,” Kaplan explained, citing the hypothetical of what could happen if, for example, a cruise ship requires rescue services from a native onshore community that may have a smaller population than the ship.

These topics, as well as the history belonging to the museum’s namesakes, are set to be the themes of the upcoming anniversary events.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Dana Williams, left, and Xin Jiang, Bowdoin College students who are also staffing the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum this summer, oversee a game station June 9 at an event to mark the museum’s 50th anniversary.

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College turned 50 years old June 9.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.