Panama Canal at 100 is subject of Mint exhibit

A steam shovel scoop once used along the Panama Canal brings a sense of massive proportion to an exhibition opening today at the Mint Museum Uptown focused on the engineering marvel that opened 100 years ago and connected the oceans.

Dan Martin, head curator of the Nederland Mining Museum outside Boulder, Colo., loaned the three-ton scoop to the Mint for display at the threshold of “Connecting the World: The Panama Canal at 100,” which runs through Feb. 1.

“Most people who look at it think it’s a hunk of junk,” Martin said. “But it still works.”

When hooked up to the rest of the Bucyrus steam shovel, the scoop can still gnaw into tons of earth and rock like it did along the canal for decades. It was one of 24 such steam shovels sent from the United States for service in building and maintaining the canal and the only one to make the return trip.

After it came back in the 1940s, it went into the gold mining business in Colorado and was finally abandoned in an ancient riverbed, where Martin found it in 1997.

“I’ve come to look at it as a sculptural object,” said Jonathan Stuhlman, the Mint’s senior curator of American, modern and contemporary art who organized the exhibition featuring early art works from Panama and the Canal Zone.

Among the featured artists are Alson Skinner Clark, who depicts the gritty industrial scene of digging the canal in gentle pastels.

Also displayed is a multimedia installation by Mel Chin, a former McColl Center artist-in-residence, that features two giant globes symbolizing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that visitors squeeze between. Each globe subtly emits data about its respective ocean.

As part of the exhibition, whose primary sponsor is Wells Fargo, writer Anthony Doerr was commissioned to write a short story related to the Panama Canal. He wrote a fictionalized account about Dr. William Gorgas, whose role in the giant project was solving the microscopic problem that stood in its way – curing the mosquito-borne illnesses killing thousands of workers.