“City Limits” explores development of Anchorage

New Anchorage Museum exhibit opened on Friday.
New Anchorage Museum exhibit opened on Friday.

As part of Anchorage’s Centennial Celebration, the Anchorage Museum is hosting a new exhibit called “City Limits.” It’s a brief walk through Anchorage’s past that helps visitors understand how the city developed.

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Curator Carolyn Kozak walks past Dena’ina artifacts and an empty white tent into the echo-y museum gallery. Surrounding her are bits of Anchorage’s history –photos of the first railroad spike, a teal kitchen from the 1950s, the uniform of a pipeline worker.

Kozak says the exhibit tells the story of how Anchorage’s landscape and diversity came to be. When non-native settlers first arrived, they chopped down trees and built a work camp focused on the railroad. Kozak says the first Railroad Commissioner Frederick Mears soon realized that they needed to care for their environment before proceeding with development.

“The water was close to becoming contaminated so he changed his first order of business from railroad construction to surveying a new town site and getting people to higher, safer ground.”

That’s why downtown is a perfect grid, and the rest of the city is not.

The exhibit's opening gallery during installation.
The exhibit’s opening gallery during installation.

“The city limits were really only a small part of the town. Beyond that it was unregulated. They didn’t have municipal services. There wasn’t any running water. If you wanted a road out there you had to build it yourself. So it sort of explains the midtown sprawl in a way, and I think Spenard Road is a good example.”

Kozak says the exhibit is about more than the physical development of the city, it’s about the community as well. She walks into the center gallery and faces a giant map highlighting more than a hundred countries — they’re the places where Anchorage residents are originally from. Colorful graphs show how Anchorage’s diversity compares with other big cities.

“I’m hoping that this gallery will help dispel some myths that our visitors have about Anchorage and Alaska more broadly and also some permanent residents as well. I think people think of the state as being very homogeneous at times, especially visitors from the Outside, but in reality Alaska is the fifth most diverse state in the United States.”

The exhibit's central gallery during installation.
The exhibit’s central gallery during installation.

Kozak says the exhibit also celebrates the city’s more colorful past with t-shirts from famous strip clubs and bars, a historic photo showing barrels of liquor being destroyed during Prohibition, and a cartoon of an animal chorus line the 1970s singing the old tourism theme song, “Wild! Wild about Anchorage…”

The City Limits exhibit runs through October 11.