The massive Dallas Cowboys stadium that can hold 100,000 people, has a retractable roof and two 60-yard-long television screens took less time to build.
At $62 million — $28 million of that city’s taxpayer money through two bond issues and $14.6 million in federal funding — it’s half-again as expensive as Connie Hudson’s soccer/swimming/water park complex dream. And it’s already been declared an abject failure by many citizens tired of the delayed openings and burned out by Mobile’s build-it-and-they-will-come approach to tourism.
Despite all of that, GulfQuest is about to open.
Properly known as (deep breath) GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, GQ will throw open its doors to the public Sept. 26 and for the first time the taxpayers will see what they’re getting for their money. What they’ll find — in my opinion — is a damn nice museum.
Last week I got the opportunity to tour a GulfQuest that still has its dress unzipped in the back, hasn’t picked out its shoes yet and still needs a little more mascara. But you can tell once those last few things fall into place, GQ is going to look foxy, even if on the outside it has a slightly “Battlestar Galactica” feel.
I’d been in once before when things were far less complete and even then it was clear GulfQuest was going to be visually impressive.
With close to 100 different exhibits, there’s a lot to do. GQ staffers say it would take someone more than six hours to interact with each exhibit in the museum. Not all of them were ready when I toured, but the majority were functional and pretty cool.
Yes, there are exhibits that focus on the shipping industry in particular, but the view widens to encompass many other aspects of the Gulf as a whole, not just its usefulness as a way to haul things overseas in order to make money. The orientation movie offers a mesmerizing look at each state touching the Gulf and if you don’t end up craving a road trip in a convertible, with a blonde, along the water from the tip of Texas to the end of Florida by the end of it, you’re not paying attention. (That may be more of a personal reaction, now that I think about it.)
The museum’s center is dominated by full-sized containers housing most of the exhibits and honoring development of containerization right here in Mobile. It’s not a heart-stopper, but once the containers are surrounded by water the kids will probably love dropping coins or younger siblings over the railing.
Once you’ve climbed the ramp to “Deck 1A,” there are exhibits scattered everywhere. Some may be a bit more intriguing than others — say, charting a course versus learning to use a sextant. Other than giving little boys and immature men a chance to giggle at the word sextant, I’m giving the edge to course charting.
There are exhibits that allow you pick up basic knowledge about sailing with the wind at different angles, participate in keeping a steam engine going and teach all about propulsion. You can sail remote-control boats, use tiny cranes to load and unload cargo from mini cargo ships or even learn how to tie all those funky knots sailors like to use, even though we all know the granny knot works just fine.
One thing GulfQuest does well is getting away from just being about the shipping industry and the Gulf, and going a little off the beaten path. There are exhibits about shipwrecks and the routes famous explorers took, as well as the routes infamous hurricanes took. One of the most interesting exhibits is a “hologram” of the ghost of a woman who brought the “Pelican Girls” over from France in the early 1700s to marry settlers. And a film about Mobile during World War II is outstanding.
As I walked through GulfQuest I was impressed by the amount of thought that’s clearly gone into every nook and cranny. It’s easier to see some of the reasons it took so long — some. And from an educational standpoint I would say it’s an obvious home run. School kids, who will be brought in from around the region, I’m told, can’t help but pick up valuable information on several levels.
But — and there’s always a but — I also can’t help but being haunted by the idea GQ may be a little too educational for its own good. Sure, it has some fun exhibits, but it’s hard to imagine getting much time with the more popular ones. Staffers are already aware they’ll need to police how much time people are getting at certain exhibits, and on the flip side I have a difficult time imagining several being more than a one-time attraction.
Traveling exhibits like one on Titanic scheduled for next year could keep larger crowds coming in, but in the long run I’m just not sure whether GulfQuest will be the kind of attraction local residents will go to again and again. Then again, having lived in Washington, D.C., even the Smithsonian museums wore me out after awhile.
Overall, though, there are certainly a lot of positives and I do think GulfQuest has a long-term opportunity to be successful, even if maybe it doesn’t become the first place Mobilians want to go on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The chances greatly increase if the scuttlebut about a cruise ship coming back next door ever turns out to be true.
GulfQuest looks to be thoughtfully put together and something of which most residents will be proud. It will probably be an instant hot spot for after-hours events, and since its small restaurant serves beer, it becomes Mobile’s only place to have a cold one along the riverfront and watch the ships roll by. I’m not saying the city needed a $62 million bar, but it’s a nice touch.
The cameras are rolling, GulfQuest. Get ready for your close-up.