Mobile’s new waterfront maritime museum is a dream two decades in the making. After years of planning and construction, the GulfQuest Museum finally opened its doors late last month — and all indications are that it was worth the wait.
Billed as the “National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico,” GulfQuest is the only museum in the world dedicated to the Gulf, and one of only two interactive maritime museums in the United States. More than 6,000 people have come through the museum’s doors over the past few weeks, said Diana Brewer, GulfQuest’s director of marketing and public relations. “What’s been so great is that everybody who comes in just seems to be blown away by the museum itself,” said Brewer.
Featuring more than 90 exhibits, many of which are hands-on and interactive, the $62 million museum is the most recent addition to a half-mile stretch of public waterfront on the Mobile River, joining the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center, Cooper Riverside Park, and the Alabama Cruise Terminal, from which Carnival Cruise Lines is set to begin four and five-day cruises next year.
“GulfQuest is going to give people locally, Mobilians, a greater sense of connection to the waterfront, and a greater sense of pride in that sense of place, that maybe people haven’t really had, that they don’t really understand,” said Brewer.
Creating an immersive and interactive experience is GulfQuest’s central focus, and it’s apparent from the outset that the museum isn’t your traditional grey-walled collection of display cases. Indeed, the bulk of the museum is housed inside of a towering replica of a container ship, organized into five decks. The ship — the SS McLean — is named for Malcolm McLean, the pioneer of intermodal containerization, which revolutionized global commerce by dramatically reducing shipping costs. McLean first tested his concept in Mobile after purchasing the Waterman Steamship Company in the 1950s.
Each deck of the McLean uses hands-on exhibits and impressive technology to demonstrate everything from physics to nautical principles to the Gulf’s diverse ecosystem. Visitors have the opportunity to pilot miniature sailboats, load and unload container ships, and experience hurricane-strength winds. In addition to two traditional theaters, the Ocean Planet Theater features a spherical screen which displays stunning three-dimensional visualizations of the planet Earth, global shipping traffic, and much more.
The ship’s top deck, or bridge, is home to the Take the Helm Theater, a state-of-the-art maritime simulator that uses 14 computers and nine video boards. Here, visitors can take up the challenge of piloting vessels through Mobile Bay and local waterways in one of six different simulations.
“Beyond its focus on the Gulf of Mexico, GulfQuest is unique among maritime museums in that it features interactive exhibits, simulators and theaters, complemented by artifacts and memorabilia,” Tony Zodrow, GulfQuest executive director said. “We have taken extra measures, every step of the way, to design an immersive experience for our visitors. The exhibits are both entertaining and educational, and will truly encourage visitors to explore every maritime aspect of the Gulf of Mexico.”
In addition, GulfQuest will offer a wide range of traveling exhibitions, plus programs on weekends, holidays and summers. School field trips and weekend camp-ins will also become regular fixtures in the museum experience, with classroom programs that follow state standards for science, math, social studies and the language arts.
Just as impressive as the museum’s educational offerings is its location on the Mobile waterfront. The two observation decks, located on the top deck of the McLean, offer an unparalleled view of both the Port of Mobile and the downtown Mobile skyline. Off the lobby, the Galley restaurant — open to the public without admission to the museum — features downtown Mobile’s only waterfront dining, again with striking views. Currently open for lunch, museum staff is looking to add a Sunday jazz brunch and other special events.
GulfQuest is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. The museum is closed on Mondays, though exceptions will be made for holidays such as Memorial Day and Labor Day. For admission, directions, and other information, visit gulfquest.org.