Navigate / search

Something to ‘Sea’ in Mobile!

MOBILE_Museum
Photos by Mark Stephenson

Museum highlights Gulf Coast nautical history and heritage

By John Felsher

Heading north on the Mobile Ship Channel, one might spot what looks like a large ship docked at the old cruise terminal – only this “ship” sits on land and contains another “ship” inside of it.

More than a museum, the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico opened at 155 South Water St. in Mobile in September 2015. Built to look like a ship docked on the Mobile River, the facility highlights the vibrant sea life, culture, maritime history and industry along the entire Gulf of Mexico.

MOBILE_Elderly couple

“The Board of Trustees determined that the museum would have a much larger draw if it was a regional museum rather than just focus on Mobile,” says Tony Zodrow, GulfQuest executive director. “That prompted the board to expand the mission to encompass the entire Gulf of Mexico, not just the United States part. Our mission is to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds to understand and appreciate the Gulf Coast’s rich maritime heritage through exhibits, programs and activities. There’s nothing like this anywhere in the Gulf Region.”

The city of Mobile put up $28 million of the $43 million needed just to build the unique 120,000-square-foot structure, with the rest coming from federal grants to the city. The architecture itself incorporates a maritime image. Hemmed in by the river and railroad, the designers flared the building outward as it rises, just like a ship, to create more space. Even the fire escapes resemble lifeboats.

With the building complete, the museum staff packed it with $20 million worth of interactive exhibits in 90 themes that run the gamut of topics such as nature, exploration and settlement, shipping and shipbuilding and energy exploration, among others. Visitors can explore exhibits on five decks resembling a life-size container ship and three levels inside containers. Each exhibit, with more planned for the future, might contain several hundred parts, offering such varied “hands on” interactive experiences as navigating a ship with a sextant, exploring the depths or loading cargo containers with a crane.

“We’re more than a museum,” says Diana Brewer, GulfQuest director of marketing and public relations. “We’re really an education center. Our exhibits are multi-sensory with a lot of technology. People often learn by doing. When people hear ‘interactive,’ they automatically think ‘children’s museum.’ We’re kid friendly, but we are not a children’s museum. It’s almost like a ‘land of make believe’ for adults.”

MOBILE_Planet

Each interactive exhibit tries to re-create the real experience as completely as possible without actually doing it. For example, in the “bridge,” or pilothouse, of the building, mariners of all ages can drive a tugboat pushing barges, a speedy U.S. Coast Guard patrol vessel or other ships on the Mobile River in the “Take the Helm” exhibit. Just like in a real channel pilot simulator, the helmsman must navigate through traffic, day or night in all kinds of weather. People familiar with the actual river would spot many landmarks in the simulator screens, such as the building housing GulfQuest.

Although children can “pilot” a vessel at the helm simulator, the museum also offers some interactive exhibits just for the little ones. Children can learn while they play. Anna Nameniuk, a school nurse from Mobile, brought her children, ages 11 and 12, to GulfQuest.

“We loved the first-floor exhibits because it has lots of hands-on experiments for the kids to try,” Nameniuk says. “They really enjoyed it. I had them try some of the things having to do with navigating by the stars. We lay in the yard at home and look at the stars at night. We also loved the movie. It was very informational.”

Even “Treasures,” the museum gift shop, reminds people of the sea. For a class project, senior Auburn University industrial design students divided into teams. Each team designed part of Treasures. The museum staff used the students’ designs, complete with a floor resembling an ocean bottom littered with pirate treasure and seashells. Large wooden “ship ribs” hold merchandise shelves.

“We wanted to design a compelling store that people would want to go in and explore,” Zodrow says. “The students designed the store to look and feel like a sunken Spanish galleon. The contractors built it exactly as the students designed it.”

People can enter the gift shop or dine in the Galley, the riverfront restaurant at museum, without paying the admission fee. With a spectacular view of the Mobile River, GulfQuest also hosts weddings, corporate functions and other special events.

Maureen and Frank Bianchi of Detroit, Mich., enjoyed the view on the deck one day. Frank, a retired research engineer, and Maureen, a retired kindergarten teacher, spend their winters in Orange Beach.

“The museum was awesome,” Frank says. “I came because I’m interested in submarines and they have an excellent display on the Hunley, the Confederate submarine that was the first in history to sink a warship. I didn’t realize that Mobile had such a boat-building industry.”

“I think it’s great,” Maureen adds. “The museum exceeded my expectations. I especially liked the interactive displays.”

Don’t leave without watching the multi-media presentation in the GulfQuest Theater. The video documents the nature, maritime history and culture of the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay from its earliest days to the present. The museum opens seven days a week. People can buy various levels of memberships so they can visit frequently. ¢

Admission is $18 for adults, $16 for ages 13-17, $14 for ages 5-12 and $16 for seniors and active military. Children under 5 are free. Groups qualify for discounted prices. For more information, call 251-436-8901 or see www.gulfquest.org.

Vintage Motorcycles

Barber Museum is home to the world’s largest collection

By David Haynes

Eclectic design and attention to the finest of details help the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum stand in a class by itself.
Eclectic design and attention to the finest of details help the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum stand in a class by itself.

|To view more pictures click here|

|Click here to view a video interview with Mr. Barber|

If you want to experience Leonardo De Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in person you’ll need to buy a ticket to Paris and visit the Louvre. A personal viewing to ponder the moody, swirling colors of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” requires a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But to marvel in the presence of the chrome and black steel of a rare 1951 Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle in pristine condition, Birmingham, Alabama, would be your destination of choice, where the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum houses the largest collection of vintage motorcycles in the world!

Earlier this year, the Guinness Book of World Records officially recognized the Barber collection as the world’s largest. According to Museum Director Jeff Ray, the museum currently has more than 1,340 motorcycles in its collection with approximately 700 on display at any one time in its sprawling, five-story building, with new bikes and cars added every week.

George Barber stands on the ground floor of the largest motorcycle collection in the world.
George Barber stands on the ground floor of the largest motorcycle collection in the world.

The museum employs a staff of 22 people, including five full-time and one part-time restoration technicians who continuously restore and maintain machines in the collection. Nearly all of the motorcycles on display could be running and ridden within an hour. At present the technicians have 13 major restorations under way with another 200-plus in the warehouse awaiting some type of restoration or conservation, Ray says.

But as impressive as the museum’s collection of vintage and rare motorcycles and racing cars is, it is only one component of the 830-acre Barber Motorsports Park, located near Leeds on the east side of Birmingham. Directly adjacent to the museum is a world-class 2.38-mile race track where national and international competitions are held several times a year for both motorcycles and cars. The museum is so close to the track that one entire glass wall of the 5-story museum overlooks a sweeping turn where visitors browsing in the museum can watch motorcycles and sports cars zoom past on the track below.

According to Ray, the various events hosted by the museum and track annually pump around $100 million into the local economy. Over the past 10 years this had totaled about $1.1 billion, he added. The two biggest events each year are the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in the spring and the Barber Vintage Festival in October, each of which brings about 65,000 visitors to the park.

Aside from these major events, Ray says the track is used approximately 285 days in a typical year with private or corporate events, track days, a Porsche sport driving school and other public events.

In recent years the Barber Vintage Festival has become almost an annual pilgrimage event for many in the motorcycling community from around the country and around the world. This year’s Vintage Festival – the 10th Annual – will be the weekend of Oct. 10-12. This motorcycling mecca feels like a three-ring circus of activities and rapid-fire events that offers something for everyone in the motorcycling world.

WallOfDeath

At last year’s Vintage Festival there were near continuous races featuring vintage motorcycles racing on the track as well as vintage motocross and other dirt-oriented events. Surrounding the beehive of activity on the track were vendor and manufacturers’ display areas, one of the largest and best-attended motorcycle swap meets anywhere. There was even a motordrome “Wall of Death” featuring riders on vintage bikes defying gravity as they ride sideways around the 30-foot-diameter wooden barrel. So much is going on at once there’s literally more to see than one person could take in without being in two places at once!

The museum, track and park are here primarily due to the efforts of George Barber, the longtime head of Birmingham-based Barber Dairies. He raced Porsches in the 1960s, including 63 first place finishes, and began collecting and restoring vintage sports cars in 1969 (The Barber Museum today has the largest collection of Lotus sports cars in the world).

Soon Barber’s interest turned to collecting and restoring vintage motorcycles and his collection grew until in 1994 it became the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum when it was granted a 501(c)3 not-for-profit status. A year later the museum opened to the public for the first time, being housed in an almost hidden building on Birmingham’s Southside, where it operated until moving to its present location in 2003.

“The track was built a year or so before we built the museum and it really started on its own with Porsche coming here and having their classes here,” says Barber. “They have been with us ever since and they have around 160 days of Porsche school every year, which is really fabulous.”

Over the years vehicles from the Barber collection have been featured in numerous shows, including the famed “Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim’s New York and Bilbao, Spain, locations as well as the Field Museum in Chicago. Another show at the Birmingham Museum of Art featured a special exhibition devoted entirely to motorcycles from the collection.

Barber himself will be inducted into the prestigious American Motorcyclist Association Motorcycle Hall of Fame on Oct. 17.

Today visitors to the museum can see bikes ranging from a 1902 Steffey, which was driven by a leather belt, to modern-era production consumer and racetrack machines. These include bikes from 20 different countries representing over 200 manufacturers. A day browsing through these beautifully restored machines is akin to walking through the history of motorcycling. Motorcycle enthusiasts and non-riders alike will undoubtedly find the experience rewarding and satisfying, if only for the appreciation of the craft involved in preserving these unique machines in their original state.

And the work goes on. Barber says future plans include building an autocross track, installing a walkway from the museum’s second floor to the gazebo and observation area to allow visitors to watch races, and constructing a 60,000 to 80,000 square foot addition to the museum.

For more information on Barber Motorsports Park, the museum and upcoming events visit www.barbermuseum.org.

Inside_Pano_MTS