The new building housing Bowdoin College’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum has an elevator big enough to transfer large exhibits, including the taxidermied Arctic animals seen here from a second floor overlook. Mikayla Patel / The Forecaster

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College opened the doors to its bright new home at the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies this spring.

The new campus facility not only allows the museum to broaden the scope of its displays, it also allows the college’s Arctic Studies program to expand on its goal of encouraging students to problem-solve with both environmental and social considerations in mind, according to Susan Kaplan, the museum’s director and Bowdoin professor of anthropology.

The John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies is electric- and solar-powered and was made with mass timber, to avoid burning fossil fuels.  Mikayla Patel / The Forecaster

While the new building has been in the works for the past few years, the department has wanted a building of its own much longer than that.

“We’ve been asking for an Arctic museum for decades,” Kaplan said.

Its previous location was in Hubbard Hall, surrounded by other departments, classrooms and offices unrelated to it.

The new building, solely used for the museum and the Arctic Studies program, is entirely climate controlled, whereas at Hubbard Hall each display case needed to be individually climatized. Because of that, it was difficult to borrow collections from other museums.


“It offers a more flexible space,” Kaplan said.

“Now we can have things out in the open which is more appealing to visitors,” said Geneveive LeMoine, curator for the museum. “The new space is bigger and airier. Things have a little more breathing space around them.”

The all-electric- and solar-powered building was made with mass timber, to avoid burning fossil fuels. 

The “Collections and Recollections” exhibit details how the Peary-MacMillan museum came into possession of some of its artifacts and the stories behind them. Mikayla Patel / The Forecaster

Bowdoin began sending students and faculty to the Arctic to study cultures and the environment there in 1860, with Robert E. Peary (Class of 1877) and Donald B. MacMillan (Class of 1898) among the first explorers.

Students who study through the Arctic program today sometimes get the opportunity to travel to Greenland for research.

“The reality is that the environment is changing and one of the best records of climate change has been collected from the Greenland ice cap,” Kaplan said.


While a key focus of the Arctic Studies program is climate change and the environment, Kaplan said what she most appreciates is its emphasis on colonialism’s role in it. The program teaches that Indigenous knowledge and cultures are central to approaching the issue of climate change.

In one museum exhibit, visitors will find a display about smart ice technology, developed by Inuit communities, who rely heavily on stable and secure ice sheets to navigate their landscape. With a rapidly warming atmosphere and melting ice caps, the ice is thinning and becoming more difficult to live on.

A museum exhibit explains how Inuit communities have combined technology with on-the-ice experience to navigate their landscape. Mikayla Patel / The Forecaster

The smart ice technology incorporates a combination of GPS and on-the-ice know-how from those who regularly experience the ice conditions, Kaplan said, and it is a perfect example of why Western science alone cannot “solve” the climate crisis.

“The new space and programming is an opportunity to broaden our capacity to teach young people to problem-solve,” she said.

She said the program is about “getting students to think both of the environmental and the social, because you can’t solve problems without looking at both.

“Indigenous people have a very different perspective on how the environment works around the world,” she said. “If you don’t understand those perspectives, you’re going to miss so much.” 


The “At Home in the North” exhibit, a semi-permanent exhibit on the second floor, details the lives, cultures and histories of Inuit people who have built lives in the icy North.

The exhibit on the third floor, “Collections and Recollections,” takes visitors through the journey of how the museum came to collect some of its items, who donated them and the stories behind them.

This collection has largely been donated by Inuit artists, photographers and crafters.

“Every year or so the exhibit will change,” said Kaplan.

LeMoine said the process of putting together an exhibit is “a back and forth between what the exhibit is about and what the story is you want to tell.” She said, “We come up with ideas for what the exhibit will be around, and sometimes it is around particular objects, and sometimes we have a story we want to tell and find objects that go along with that.”

One of the things that’s really nice is the dialogue we get between collections and between different donations,” she said. “I like the variety and expressions of creativity you see.” 


Students help with things like digitizing, cataloguing and photographing objects for the museum’s collections.

“We have many kinds of majors who study and get involved with the museum,” said Kaplan.

LeMoine said one of her hopes with the museum is to highlight the present-day people creating and living in community in the Arctic.

We hope to disrupt people’s stereotypes and show them that the Arctic is actually a beautiful place with wonderful, modern people there,” she said. “It’s not stuck in the past, and there’s a lot of innovation happening there.”

The museum is free and open to the public, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

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