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.
“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.”
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.