Elson Lagoon

Cooper Island, Elson Lagoon to Barrow outline map

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Angela Linn compiled a history of the UA Museum of the North (UAMN) for the Sept. 5th issue of the Daily News-Miner. She showed that 2026 will mark the museum’s 100th year of existence. The permanent and temporary exhibits on the bowhead whale completed in June of this 95th year since UAMN’s founding showcase perseverance, resourcefulness, flexibility and community appeal by the university and its museum.

The bowhead whale skeleton now hanging near the UAMN entrance came from a whale harvested 58 years ago in the fall hunt of 1963 off Cooper Island. Thus began a long, slow odyssey. Successful whaling captain Arnold Brower, Sr. and his crew probably towed the whale for most of a 24-hour day, around Point Barrow, using an outboard-equipped umiaq, to a beach suitable for its butchering by Utqiagvik whaling crews and families.

After the butchering, Floyd E. Durham, affiliated with the Los Angeles County Museum, working from the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, undertook to clean remaining flesh from the whale’s bones. After the skeleton had weathered some more, Durham arranged for its transport and delivery to UAMN in 1965— the 39th year of the museum’s existence.

The skull of this bowhead specimen was put on display 15 years later when the UAMN moved into its new building on the western part of UAF’s Troth Yeddha’ campus in 1980. Whale oil continued to drip slowly from the displayed skull into a few cups, while the rest of the skeleton weathered somewhere in the woods on campus.

A quarter-century later, UAMN’s West Ridge building expanded (2004-05). Putting the bowhead skeleton on display was planned, but delayed for lack of funding and the need to certify the support strength of the ceiling from which it could be hung.

In 2016, the body of a humpback whale beached in Anchorage’s Kincaid Park re-energized the bowhead exhibit dream. Four UAMN staff, including Aren Gunderson, dealt with this attractive nuisance, as warmup for handling the larger bowhead skeleton. Dermot Cole wrote an article for the News-Miner about the challenges.

The Bill Stroecker Foundation entertained a prospectus for hanging the bowhead skeleton. Ron Inouye of Friends of the UAMN and Cory Borgeson of the Stroecker Foundation board facilitated the prospectus, assisted by Karl Petterson, of UAF Facilities Services Department’s Design and Construction Division. He addressed questions about contingencies, such as earthquake protection from such a massive skeleton’s installation over museum visitors’ heads.

Other North American museums that exhibit mounted dinosaur, megafaunal or marine mammal skeletons shared tips on dealing with technical challenges and safety precautions. In 2019, administrators moved UAMN’s store into space previously devoted to a café, while converting the previous store space into more ample room for temporary and traveling exhibits, such as the one accompanying the permanent bowhead skeleton exhibit.

Dave Norton is a retired UAF research faculty member, instructor for UAF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and member of Friends of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

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