July 10, 2012
I didn't really know what to expect when I stepped off the plane in Juneau, AK this past May. I had been diligently planning and preparing for this moment since March, when I found out that I had been chosen for a conservation internship at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, in Skagway, AK for the summer. However, it's been my experience that no amount of researching or Googling about a place can really prepare you for that rush of stepping off into the unfamiliar or unknown.
Stepping out of the Juneau airport, I was greeted by the crisp, cool air and snow-capped mountains that engulf the Alaskan landscape. This was quite a contrast to the typical East Coast sweltering summer heat I had grown so accustomed to. My first thought was, "guess I won't be needing that pair of shorts I brought."
I made my way from the airport and got settled in town. After a day of exploring Juneau and brushing up on my knowledge of bears, I met up with Katie Bonanno (my new co-intern at KGNHP) and conservators Scott and Ellen Carrlee from the Alaska State Museum, where we toured the museum and conservation labs.
Our 3 days in Juneau were spent getting acclimated to our new environment (19 hours of daylight!) while Scott and Ellen helped us prepare for our upcoming project. Both Scott and Ellen are providing technical support from Juneau for Katie and me during our internships here this summer in Skagway, AK. In addition to getting some work logistics squared away, Scott also spent some time taking Katie and I to some well-known Juneau landmarks, including a trip to Mendenhall Glacier.
After a few days in Juneau, it was time once again to pack up our gear and move on. Although it felt like I had been traveling forever, there was still one last leg of the trip required in order to get Katie and I to our final destination: a 5-hour ferry ride from Juneau to Skagway. The weather broke the morning of our departure and Scott, Katie, and I had a sun-filled, breathtaking journey through the icy-cold waters of southeastern Alaska.
We traveled along mountains that seemed to stretch out forever and even saw some orcas and sea lions that were swimming alongside the ferry boat. I distinctly remember standing on the boat deck and looking out at the picturesque landscape and saying to Scott, "looking at these mountains just doesn't get old, does it?"
As we rounded a final bend in the Lynn Canal, the Taiya Inlet estuary greeted us as our ferry approached the port in Skagway. Samantha Richert, curator at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, greeted us at the dock and gave us the grand tour of Skagway and its neighboring town, Dyea (a place, I'm told, that has the most magnificent display of Alaskan Fireweed and wildflowers around.)
Once Monday morning rolled around, it was time to get to work. In the days to come, Samantha, Scott, Katie, and I discussed the scope and goals of our artifact conservation project and the diverse materials found within the George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection at KGNHP.
After Samantha led us through the storage facility and introduced us to the objects in the Rapuzzi Collection, I soon realized that this wasn't just a collection of found Gold Rush-era artifacts. There were life-size automaton-mannequins rigged to fire pistols and tap their toes. There were taxidermy animal head castings with interior electrical wiring once used to illuminate the animal's light-bulb eyeballs. Did I mention the 1930s streetcar whose exhaust blew through the mouth of a mechanical bear figure?
What I came to realize was that the creator of these bizarre objects within the collection, Martin Itjen, was actually a self-taught mechanical wizard who brought a sense of life into these unique folk art constructions.
I began to wonder, who really was Martin Itjen? Why did he create these things? Or more importantly, how did he create these things? As Katie and I dive further into the psyche of Itjen and examine the Rapuzzi Collection, we work vigorously to find answers to these questions to help shed light on this truly unique collection.