Museum groundbreaking begin of cultural growth: Founder recalls the first dig for a city center in art and history

Anchorage Daily News
August 21, 2006

Mary Louise Rasmuson exits the Rasmuson Center flanked by her son, Edward, and his wife, Cathryn, during the groundbreaking ceremony for a $100 million expansion of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art on Sunday. (Photo by JOHN WAGNER / Anchorage Daily News)

Mary Louise Rasmuson, left, has a word with artist Saradell Ard, founder of the Anchorage Museum Association, during the groundbreaking ceremony for the expansion of the Anchorage Museum on Sunday. (Photo by JOHN WAGNER / Anchorage Daily News)

Mary Louise Rasmuson watched when crews first broke ground for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in 1966, when her husband, Elmer Rasmuson, was mayor.

On Sunday, the petite, gray-haired, 95-year-old woman reminisced at a groundbreaking ceremony for a $100 million, 70,000-square-foot museum expansion.

The who's who of Anchorage arts and culture were there, and speakers included Sen. Ted Stevens, Gov. Frank Murkowski, Mayor Mark Begich, major museum donors and those who have been planning the expansion for 10 years.

"You're all talking about the future now, but my thoughts are of 40 years ago," said Mary Louise to the crowd packed into the museum's central atrium.

Her late husband, a banker, dreamed up the museum and donated $50 million to this expansion project.

When Elmer first wanted to build a museum, he didn't have enough money, Mary Louise said. So he invited a bunch of people over and begged up enough pledges to get started. A lot of the people who worked to make it all happen aren't around anymore, she said.

She has chaired and worked on various committees involved with the original creation of and previous expansions of the museum. "It's certainly emotional," Mary Louise said.

This expansion project is supposed to be done in 2010.

"I'm looking forward to the day the ribbon will be cut," she said. "I hope that I will be there with you."

After she spoke, the crowd rose to its feet and applauded powerfully. And she was in high demand later; people lined up to talk to her and take pictures of her.

Rasmuson and other speakers said Pat Wolf deserves much credit for the impending expansion.

Wolf, 65, has been the museum director since 1987, and before that was the curator of education. She was involved with two previous expansions. In 1996, she said, she formed a committee to begin talks about what the next expansion should include, and her job has been consumed with the expansion idea ever since.

The new building will allow the museum to display more art and history collections and bring home to Alaska more than 1,000 Alaska Native artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution.

Also, the museum's mission is shifting to include the sciences, and the Imaginarium Science Discovery Center will move into the older parts of the museum.

The changes will include a new front door that faces downtown, Wolf said, and a public open space for ice skating in winter and concerts in summer. The new building is going to be architecturally interesting -- translucent and transparent glass, with a fourth story that will open up a view of the mountains, she said.

Wolf was beaming during most of Sunday's celebration. The groundbreaking signals something huge for her.

"I think that everyone starts out in a career saying they want to make a difference," she said. "I think my work here has made a difference."

Now, she said, she can retire sometime soon.

"I'm leaving a legacy for my children. That's all that anyone can ever ask for the work they do," she said.

Joy Atrops-Kimura, capital campaign director, said the building will cost about $100 million. So far, the project has collected $50 million from the late Elmer Rasmuson, nearly $20 million from federal grants, $20 million from the state of Alaska, and $14 million from individuals, businesses and foundations.

She still wants to raise an additional $12 million, for a total of $116 million. The money above the costs of the new building will go into the endowment that will fund the increased costs of operating a bigger building: more staff, programs, exhibits, and utility costs, Atrops-Kimura said.