She is 14, frightened, packed in a tiny ship, voyaging from France to Mobile. In 1704 the teenage Parisian set sail to take a husband she had never met. Today the transatlantic bride is a ghostly apparition, shimmering in a mirror, and telling her story at GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. “Don’t be frightened, ” she says, assuring startled guests. But be amazed.
Joining the exhibit Pelican Girls are 90 full-feature exhibits, with rooms, dens, nooks and crannies chocked with nautical chronicles, interactive exhibits, stories of wave-lapping commerce that transformed the world. GulfQuest believes the world should know.
Commanding Mobile’s Water Street, the 120, 000-square-foot facility educates and dazzles landlubbers who had no idea.
“The Gulf of Mexico is America’s forgotten coast, ” says the museum’s executive director, Tony Zodrow. “Our children’s history books feature the Cuban missile crisis, the BP oil spill, and that’s about it.”
But, says Zodrow, “The Gulf is as rich in history as the East Coast.”
Breathing life into that history has been the goal since the early 1990s, when the museum founders first began to dream of the riverfront project. Their mission: “To inspire people of all ages and backgrounds to understand and appreciate the Gulf Coast’s rich maritime heritage through exhibits, programs and activities.” But how?
The answer is a two-part solution, according to Zodrow. “One — take the subject matter, and two — bring it to life.” For example, every Alabama school student has read about the Pelican Girls. But before seeing the ghost of one of these girls discuss her predicament, you didn’t need a handkerchief.
Early on, the museum planners opted for exhibits that bring Gulf history to life, rather than static info-panels alongside dusty objects, Zodrow says. They envisioned a museum full of displays that would demonstrate part of the Gulf life and then encourage visitors to try it.
“We did not want GulfQuest to just be a collection of things, ” the director adds. “Less than five percent of our displays are historical artifacts.” Those artifacts are surrounded by 90 major interactive exhibits, theaters and simulators on five decks, housed in a structure resembling an ocean-bound ship.
Originally, the museum was to emphasize the city it resides in, Mobile. “But early on, we decided to go regional, ” says GulfQuest Board Chairman E.B. Peebles. “Focus on the entire Gulf Coast, not just Mobile. That’s the direction we took.”
But referencing Mobile, Peebles notes, “If not for our river and the Gulf, our city would not exist today. Our heritage is this water, and it has never been celebrated, until now.”
GulfQuest’s immersive displays range from small portholes that give a glimpse of history, to movie theaters to hands-on nautical navigation instruments. And what adventure would be complete without a nautical map? GulfQuest has one. It’s two stories tall and shows the routes of historic voyages.
In Take the Helm Theater visitors do just that — pilot one of six types of boats up the Mobile or Tombigbee rivers or out to Mobile Bay — using the same simulator tugboat pilots use for their training.
ABOVE In the “Take the Helm Theater, ” visitors become bar pilots navigating rolling seas and tempests.
Ocean Planet Theater features a model of Planet Earth, 6 feet in diameter, floating over the audience. The technology could be from “Star Wars.” Using real satellite data and imagery, current weather forecasts, earthquakes, aircraft in flight charts are displayed on the giant orb, suspended from the ceiling by almost invisible, fishing-line thin wire. Visitors view many paths, including hurricanes, cloud formations, current earth weather, shipping lane traffic and airline flight routes, sprawling over the Big Blue Marble.
“Some people think it’s a hologram, ” said exhibit educator Terry Ankerson, “because it looks like the earth is floating.” And one visitor was awe-struck by special effects: “As earthquake data splashed across the orb, the guest felt real-time vibrations.” Ankerson recalls, “Actually it was a freight train rolling by outside.”
A signature attraction, Container Ship, is a towering full-sized ship replica, housing exhibits, including stacked simulated garage-sized cargo containers. The vessel rests in real life water — all inside the museum. Yeah, it’s that big.
“The first impression visitors tell me is ‘I had no idea how big it is, ” says Diana Brewer, spokesperson for the Museum. “The next comment is, ‘I had no idea all of this was in here.’”
GulfQuest is much larger than it looks from the street, and it looks huge from the street. Financially, it is pretty big too.
The project cost of the public-private venture totaled $63 million. The nonprofit side paid $20 million. Of the remainder, $28 million derives from two bond issues passed by the City of Mobile and the rest comes mainly through federal grants. The building is owned by Mobile and leased to GulfQuest.
Building a maritime museum was not always smooth sailing. GulfQuest opened to the public on September 26, 2015, almost four years later than planned — a result of contractor disputes, costs overruns and construction delays.
“This is a very large and complicated facility, ” says Peebles. “Yes, we had delays, but we were in a learning process. There is nothing quite like GulfQuest anywhere.”
“The exhibits you see here cannot be bought off the shelf, ready to plug in, ” Peebles adds. “Each starts from ground zero and is built especially for the museum.”
Most of the exhibits started as prototypes, stored in a Nashville warehouse. People with no prior knowledge of the exhibits were brought for test drives. When all criteria were satisfied, the exhibit was shipped to Mobile.
Work on the building itself began in earnest during 2010. Workers installed 856 concrete pilings in the foundation. Crews worked a year and half just installing the underground foundation. “Building something of this magnitude on the riverfront presents distinct challenges, ” Zodrow recalls. “During construction, we had a breach, river water seeped in, and we had some mold issues.”
Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage made a movie in the museum’s parking lot (Rage), Bruce Willis filmed another one (Vice) inside, and the laborious tasks of building a unique museum by the bay continued, slowly, surely.
From its September, 2015 opening until late January, 2016, approximately 30, 000 people have visited. “We did not get to choose our time of opening, ” notes Zodrow, “but, honestly, we would not have picked September. The month is consumed by football, and it’s too late to book school groups.”
With less than a year in operation, Peebles looks back at the first months of GulfQuest, saying, “We are in a learning process, but we are happy with where we are and ahead of where we thought we would be.” He noted the museum “had a wonderful holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year.” At press time, all eyes are on Mardi Gras, as GulfQuest tests the Carnival season.
A different Carnival, but potentially just as important, is the cruise line company of the same name, returning to Mobile in November 2016. Carnival Cruise Lines and GulfQuest will be next-door neighbors. Both hope to benefit from the proximity.
And GulfQuest benefits from another key proximity. After touring all the exhibits and trying all the hands-on features at the museum, visitors can step out on the museum’s observation decks to see the theater of maritime life in real time — as boats and ships of every size and description ply the waters before them.
For more information, check out gulfquest.org.
Emmett Burnett and Elizabeth Gelineau are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma and she in Mobile.
Text by Emmett Burnett • Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau