First order of business: If you’re going to GulfQuest National Maritime Museum, you’d best free up a sufficient section of your agenda — the better part of a day should suffice.
You wouldn’t suspect it from the outside or the title alone, but there’s a lot more to GulfQuest than its name suggests. Cranes and cargo are a small slice of the focus in the building nestled riverside between the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center and the Alabama Cruise Terminal.
A wide vision is evident in the impressive rotunda inside the front doors and its central attraction. Below a skylight four stories overhead is a glowing relief exhibit of the Gulf of Mexico.
On its respective touch screens, visitors can highlight portions of the map and explanations of their importance. Historical shipwrecks, forts and pirate lairs light up in red. Currents, reefs, sea grass beds and the like are in green. Commercial sites glow blue.
It’s a lot of territory for one exhibit but GulfQuest is a lot of museum under one roof, combining history, science, sociology and adventure. The sum of its educational and entertaining parts is an enchanting addition to Mobile’s outsized museum presence.
Beyond the rotunda is a theater where a 16-minute film seemingly ordered straight from Tourism Central hits on familiar local cultural touchstones. Shrimpers, writers, scientists, artists and others discuss their pride of place and resilience despite threats from hurricanes, oil spills or, as musician Tab Benoit voiced it, “100 years of wetland mismanagement.”
Past the theater, visitors are confronted with a daunting multistory block of cargo containers. Mobile-based Waterman Steamship owner Malcolm McLean revolutionized shipping with implementation of the metal boxes which streamlined loading and unloading and transfer from ship to rail to truck.
Most exhibits sit in the multiple stories within those cargo containers. Engagement is utmost on the first floor, among displays that successfully mesh game-like presentation with application. Visitors discover how to use charts, sextants and compasses for plotting courses, celestial navigation, historic tools such as quadrants and cross-staffs, pistons to drive paddle-wheelers, even satellite triangulation.
There’s no shortage of science underscored. Fluid dynamics are behind the explanations of vessel shape, and a hands-on exhibit reveals what sailing vessels have in common with airplanes through implementation of Bernoulli’s principle (although they stop short of using the name).
For the etymologically curious, the walkways between floors are littered with placards explaining the nautical origins of many of our culture’s phrases and slang. It’s a brilliant way to break up a long climb for those with mobility challenges.
On the second floor there’s a bunk-room section with a number of replicated souvenirs — calendars, postcards, posters — and short films covering things like the merchant marines, women’s expanded roles during World War II, bar pilots, river tow pilots and the like. There’s a rarely encountered story about a 19th century African-American who once owned the land that became Bellingrath Gardens and Home.
Want to learn your nautical knots? There’s an exhibit that teaches you more than you’ll likely ever use.
Young enthusiasm abounds at exhibits with speed and power. Some use a crane to move cargo containers. Others laugh as they chugged ships around a harbor and at another where sailboats scooted around a small cove.
More history materialized with the ghostly images of Pelican Girls from Mobile’s colonial days who tell visitors about their journey to the New World. Visitors can float above a sunken Spanish galleon, look at archaeological finds, dive through coral reefs or see what happens when you release 28,000 rubber ducks into the ocean.
It’s an extensive showplace — there’s far more I haven’t mentioned — but the most compelling components are easy to name. Two are technological and the other purely analog.
Atop the fifth floor is a ship’s bridge simulator where visitors can pilot a selection of vehicles in both fair and foul weather through locks, down river, even into and out of detailed recreations of Mobile Bay. Want to wrest a full load of cargo out into the Gulf? Done. Want to bounce across the roiling waves in a Coast Guard rescue craft? You can do that too.
The employee supervising the exhibit said she has encountered actual ship pilots in off hours exercising unmet indulgences. She said their thrills often surpass their kids’ enthusiasm.
The decks outside the bridge reveal marvelous panoramas of downtown and the working waterfront. Taking in Fort Conde, the History Museum and the Exploreum, it’s easy to grasp the wealth of museums in the vicinity.
My favorite sight hangs indoors on a 6-foot globe actively churning with vitality. It’s a three-dimensional screen for projectors fed by NOAA’s Science on a Sphere program and can display a month’s worth of worldwide weather, flights, shipping, earthquakes and a startling variety of mesmerizing information.
The glowing orb in its natural state hints at astronauts’ “overview effect.” Since Apollo 8 took humans to a vantage point whereby they could see the entire planet, they’ve all noted being overcome by a new perspective about our species’ self-imposed divisions and shortsighted behavior.
While the $18 entrance fee is more than fair for a six-hour experience, if we truly learn everything GulfQuest instructs it’s worth even more. If staring at Spaceship Earth brings us a taste of astronauts’ “overview effect,” it becomes priceless.