The polar bear has long been a symbol of Bowdoin and its historic relationship with the great white North. However, many students have never set foot inside of one of the college's greatest hidden gems: the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, located in Hubbard Hall and named for two Bowdoin graduates.
Named after Robert Peary (Class of 1877) and Donald MacMillan (Class of 1898), the museum boasts an impressive 32,000 artifacts, photographs, and archival films.
The only museum in the United States dedicated completely to Arctic studies, the recently renovated space is home to artifacts both purchased by Bowdoin and donated by collectors from all over the world. Stored in climate-controlled facilities on the top floor of Hubbard is everything from brass navigation tools used on arctic explorations to Inuit snowshoes to the fur coat belonging to MacMillan's wife.
The newest exhibit in the museum is a collection of baleen baskets woven by a Northern Alaskan Inuit tribe in the early 20th century.
The space is "an anthropological, natural history, art museum," said Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Susan Kaplan, who has served as the director of the museum for the past 20 years. With its plethora of historic objects, the museum often uses student independent studies to help maintain the upkeep of artifacts.
"You never put something on exhibit permanently because it could be damaged by too much light exposure," Kaplan said. "Each year two or three brave undergrads check all of the stored objects for bugs."
Bowdoin students have also contributed interactive computer programs and informational brochures to the museum, as well as aided in the digitizing of the hundreds of reels of footage shot by MacMillan during his 1908 expedition to the North Pole.
With an extensive amount of access to these artifacts, the lack of Arctic studies classes at Bowdoin is surprising.
"As important as the Arctic is for an undergrad to study, it would really limit them because it does not exist as a graduate program anywhere," Kaplan explained.
Students interested in Arctic studies must focus on different aspects of the arctic such as geology and anthropology.
While much of the museum focuses on the past, the problem of climate change is starting to determine the direction in which new exhibits are going.
A media exhibit shows a time lapse of Arctic melting in 2007, while a life-sized ice drill used by scientists to monitor water flow, sunlight exposure, and ice density sits atop the reference desk.
"It's ironic because 100 years ago people traveled to the arctic to find resources," Kaplan said. "Now, with the ice melting, there is dispute over ownership of natural oil and coal under the ice."
This school year is perhaps the most important in the museum's history because this spring will mark the 100th anniversary of Peary and MacMillan's historic journey to the North Pole.
The celebratory exhibit "Northward Over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole" opened in April of 2008 and will remain on display until April 2009.
Featuring replica ships, uniforms, manifests, Inuit clothing, and footage shot by the explorers, the exhibit sheds light on the planet's last frontier.