September 2023

Bowdoin College and The Arctic:
Over A Century of Exploration, Study, and Art

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

The connection between Bowdoin College, the small, prestigious, liberal arts institution founded in 1794 in Brunswick, Maine, and the exploration of the Arctic has been a close one for more than 150 years. The fascination with polar exploration began in the 1860s when Bowdoin students and faculty first began traveling north to study Arctic cultures and environment, and the associations intensified in the early 20th century with Admiral Robert Peary's famous expeditions that culminated in his reaching the North Pole in 1908-1909. 

Peary was a Bowdoin College graduate, class of 1877, and his work inspired generations of scholars that came after him, most notably Donald Macmillan (Bowdoin class of 1898), who carried out almost thirty expeditions from 1908-1954 and who, together with his wife Miriam, brought back artifacts that became the foundation of Bowdoin's Peary -MacMillan Arctic Museum.  To this day, Bowdoin College maintains a significant program of Arctic studies,  the emphasis now having shifted from pure exploration to the thorny issues of climate crisis, relationships between native peoples and the changing landscape, and the future of the region in geo-political and socio-economic terms.

The Perry McMillan Artic Museum was originally housed in Hubbard Hall until the spring of 2023, when a new state-of-the art Center for Arctic Studies was built for the College through the generosity of John and Lile Gibbons.  The 16,426 square foot building, which is located on the College's Polar Loop, is in the heart of the College and downtown Brunswick, and is a stunning architectural addition to the campus and the town. Its three stories behind an imposing gray façade house exhibit spaces, archeology, research, and teaching labs, a classroom, and offices for museum staff. Designed by the Minneapolis Firm of HGA, the construction is environmentally sustainable, cross laminated mass timber (the first commercially scaled project in Maine to do so) which reduces the structure's carbon footprint by 75%, and the all-electric building systems add to the environmentally friendly impact.  The building's exterior aesthetic is a black geometric shape that forms a sharp outline slicing downward toward the north, while the interior is a dazzling contrast of pure white walls, and pale blonde large pine planking, beams, and timber. Its inspiration is said to have been taken from an iceberg in the shifting Arctic light.


The galleries are housed on the second and third floors and currently are displaying three exhibitions from the museum's considerable collection of Arctic artifacts. Collections and Recollections: Objects and the Stories They Tell is a concise retrospective of the growth of the Artic Museum's collections over the years and  a tribute to the many donors from Peary and MacMillan, themselves, to countless others who have helped build the inventory. Among the many sculptures are numerous Inuit carvings of animals – the creatures with which the native peoples were interdependent in their daily lives like a gray stone, sleek Musk Ox by David Rueben Piktukun.  Or there is a small tapestry by Elizabeth Quinanagnaq Angrnagangrniq, with rows of brightly colored figures and birds. Other striking objects include the Hubbard Sledge – used by Peary in his expedition, as well as hand sewn clothing, boots, and furs, and a photo donated by Peary, himself, of dogs pulling a sledge with a sail.


The second-floor gallery features a display, At Home in the Arctic, and another of contemporary Inuit photographers. The images of "home" are  both literal and figurative. There are tender stone carvings of mother and child, brightly colored lithographs like Family of Eight by Tim Pitsiulak. Elaborately beaded clothing and ritual masks complete the picture of domestic crafts.


The contemporary photographers chosen for the third exhibition include Brian Adams  with his stirring black and white images of Alaskan Native villages, Jenny Irene Miller  exploring "where the tundra meets the ocean," Jennie Williams's black and white images of daily life and diverse subjects, Minik Bidstrip, studying the relationship between the Inuit and colonizing Norse peoples in Greenland, and Niore Iqalukjuak probing contemporary issues of food insecurity and the interrelationship between humans and wildlife and the land.

Wrapped all around the upper reaches of the gallery are taxidemied Artic wildlife - polar bear, caribou - all suspended above the atrium and backlit dramatically so they appear to be almost alive - powerful guardians of the space and its spirits.

The Peary-Macmillan Center for Arctic Studies is a remarkable addition to an academic community that is already distinguished for its scholarship, educational standards, commitment to the planet and the community, and its fostering of the arts through a liberal arts/humanities education.  The interest in the Arctic has a long history at Bowdoin College.  Preserving that history is important, but transforming it into a legacy that will nourish minds and lives and peoples for a sustainable, peaceful, productive future is a truly impressive accomplishment.

Photos courtesy of the Peary-MacMillan Center

The Peary-MacMillan Center for Arctic Studies is open Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5 pm & Sunday 1-5pm, free to the public, at 10 Polar Loop, on the Bowdoin College campus, Brunswick, ME  207207-725-3416


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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2023 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
 ©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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