Barnstorming the Arctic Flight Exhibit
Today we’re visiting the Anchorage Museum’s newest exhibit: “Arctic Flight.”
The first thing you see when entering the exhibit is a cherry red 1928 Stearman. And your first question might be, “How did they get an airplane to the third floor of the museum?”
“That was our biggest logistical challenge for sure. We rigged cables from the ceiling of our stairwell and brought it up three floors into this space, and then put the airplane back together here on the third floor,” says Julie Decker, the co-curator of the exhibit. She chose this plane as the centerpiece because of its history.
“It was used to deliver serum throughout Alaska, it was used to land on glaciers, it was used in an attempted rescue when Ben Eielson’s airplane went down. So it has a fantastic Alaskan story, but it’s also just a really hearty airplane,” says Decker.
A lot of the knowledge we’re hearing today came at a price. One of the exhibits Decker shows me is a plane wing that is practically disintegrated.
“These planes weren’t meant to fly in the arctic; it really tested man and machine. So there are a lot of successes but there were also a lot of mishaps, and so still today you can find salvaged wreckage throughout northern Alaska,” says Decker.
But the exhibit also offers a lighter perspective on Alaskan aviation, including some old movie posters from the Cold War era.
“We picked up on the idea that a lot of the very bad B films from that era featured this idea of the arctic being close to Russia and played off this idea of love and spies and war. There all real movies, that one has John Wayne. I watched part of all of them but couldn’t’ make it through the whole thing. Not even the John Wayne one,” Decker says.
Next, Decker walks us to a massive vinyl mural of pilot quotes. There are 100 of them, each representing one year of Alaska aviation. To Decker, these people are part hero, part celebrity.
“In the 40s there was a poll taken about who the most famous pilots in the US were, and it was people like Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, and Joe Crosson, an Alaskan that made that list of a handful of pilots so these people became household names not just in Alaskan but across the country. People were
really captured by these rugged cowboys of a sort that flew in this remote place,” says Decker.
And what would cowboys be without their sense of adventure? With airplanes instead of horses, the possibilities were endless. And in many ways, they still are.
“It’s still about getting to this frontier landscape and where people aren’t. The airplane is this tool for services small villages, but also this symbol of freedom for pilots in Alaska,” says Decker.
One of the final displays of the exhibit is an audio feature that plays various noises from different aircraft. One of the sounds is of a Stearman, the same plane from the beginning of the tour. As we finish up, Decker reflects on the history we’ve just walked through.
“As curators you want a grand statement; so what does all this mean? And we realized that at the end after 100 years everything is really still the same. We’re still a remote place where we don’t have roads, we still need the airplane to connect us and pilots are still an integral part of life,” says Decker.
The Anchorage Museum’s “Arctic Flight” shows through mid-August.
Click to listen to the full audio story: