Friday, November 18, 2011

A Key to Kodiak's Bear Guiding Past

Half of a Kodiak bear, currently part of
the Natural History exhibition at the
Baranov Museum.

What could half of a taxidermied Kodiak bear and an old room key possibly have in common?
Kodiak Hotel room key, a
new addition to the museum

On Monday we are having an Acquisitions Committee meeting, so this week I have spent researching recently donated or acquired objects. The Acquisitions Committee is a group of museum volunteers who meet with me, the curator of collections, and Katie, the executive director, to decide which objects the museum will accept as part of our permanent collection. Several weeks ago I came across the key in an old folder. Note that the key chain asserts "Drop in any mailbox, we guarantee postage." In fact, the key was given to the museum from the post office.
Promotional materials created by the
Kodiak Guides Association to tempt
hunters to Kodiak to land a trophy, likely
from the 1940s. From the KHS archive.

But I knew very little about the Kodiak Hotel. Time to hit the archives! I spent several hours digging around in the photo collection in order to discover more about the place. A few photos later and I had an answer: the Kodiak Hotel was the successor to the Sunbeam Hotel, which was owned by famed bear guide Charles Madsen.

Charles Madsen was a pioneer bear guide in Kodiak. He was the founder of the Kodiak Guides Association and was instrumental in promoting Kodiak as a hunters' paradise. He came up with the slogan "Kodiak, Home of the World's Largest Bear," putting Kodiak on the map due to his enthusiastic advertising of the island and his success in tracking our famed bears.

The bear pictured above was killed by Charles Madsen, and it first went to the Madsen's family living room. Judge Roy Madsen, Charles son, told the museum that the bear was too big to fit in the living room, so they cut it in half! Afterwards it was placed in Madsen's Totem Igloo Curio shop, a souvenir store attached to the Madsen-owned Sunbeam Hotel.  

WWII servicemen stationed in Kodiak as part of the Aleutian Campaign run by the Kodiak Hotel and Totem Igloo Curio Shop, both owned by famed bear guide Charles Madsen, in October of 1942. The half bear lived within the curio shop. KHS P 355-6-12.

Comedian and actor Joe E. Brown poses
with the half bear in the Madsen's store,
1942. KHS P 355-6-11
Today the bear is stationed in the natural history corner of the museum, but in truth that bear is one of Kodiak's most important ambassadors. Out of town guests would frequently pose to get their pictures with it. USO performers who came through town to entertain the thousands of troops stationed in Kodiak during WWII would have a snapshot taken next to it. This half of a bear with over sized teeth and a hairless nose from generations of petting can likely be found in old photo albums around the world. From being free in the wilds of Kodiak, to a mascot in the Totem Igloo, to a natural history specimen in the Baranov Museum, this bear has stories to tell.

The Kodiak Hotel in 1961. Alf Madsen gave
the bear in front of the hotel to the city of
 Kodiak in honor of his father, Charles. Alf
continued in his father's footsteps and was a
bear guide, too. P 688-2.

Some time after WWII the Madsen family sold the Sunbeam Hotel, at which point the building became the Kodiak Hotel. The bear found a home in the Baranov Museum. Judging from the appearance of the hotel key, it is very likely that it was a key from the Sunbeam, as well. As a result, not only did this key unlock room 26 in the Kodiak Hotel, it helps to create a fuller story of the history of our local businesses as well as Kodiak Island hunting and bear guiding. At the Baranov Museum, what initially seem like completely distinct objects can be connected in surprising ways.

-Anjuli Grantham, Curator of Collections

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rural Outreach Reflections

Only two hours delayed after a bumpy flight into Port Lions, I realize how lucky I am that the weather allowed me to stick at least approximately to my schedule. Hand in hand with my two year old son, aka my special assistant, I am ready to jump into lively conversations and art projects revolving around Kodiak’s diverse history with each of the 26 students at the Port Lions School. This trip is part of the Baranov Museum’s rural arts and education outreach program, funded by the Alaska Council on the Arts and American Seafoods. I am immediately wowed by the beauty of Port Lions.

As the Baranov Museum’s Curator of Education, I am struck by the challenges and opportunities of teaching about the Russian and Early American colonial periods on Kodiak. What language should I use with K-12 students? How do I balance the stories of colonialism, forced labor, the battle at Refuge Rock with Father Herman’s advocacy for the Alutiiq people throughout the early Russian American Company days? How do I convey the subtleties of history without sugar-coating how harsh the past has often been? I laugh to think that museum educators face this balancing act often in the midst of a squirming, energetic group of 4th graders longing to touch every item in the museum collections that they can. Now, as a visitor for two days to Port Lions, I am happily aware that my students will bring the richness of their particular experiences and stories from a rural Kodiak perspective. This proved to be true over the next two days.

In class with the high school students throughout the afternoon, personal anecdotes and connections to touchable artifacts and stories continue to emerge. One boy explains how Alutiiq halibut hooks are designed to trick the halibut into staying subdued, and another tells the story of actually fishing with one. A girl etches her scrimshaw with a silver salmon, as it not only fit into the context of traditional scrimshaw design, but was also the first fish she ever caught as a young girl. I was delighted to learn that students were well-versed with the cruelties and the subtleties of history, and that rather than giving them information, I could engage them in dialogue on their thoughts and reactions to historical events. After digging in to the meat of Kodiak’s history, students consolidated their knowledge and expressed their creativity with art projects; scrimshaw and matryoshka.  On several occasions between conversations I heard the full, wonderful sound of a creative silence as students intently etched and painted.

On my second day I return from a lunch time walk and the teachers inform me that if I wanted to make it out of Port Lions, I would have to leave right away as the winds wouldn’t allow for my 5 pm flight. My “no” was immediate, and I teased the students that afternoon that they were stuck with me. I was glad to have the extra time, as two days are hardly enough to get to know each other and cover as much material as we can. The Port Lions welcome was warm, and my overall impression was wonderful. My son and I made it out on the ferry the next morning, with only the pang of leaving a wonderful place with kind people.

-Marie Acemah, Curator of Education