Martin Itjen Curiosities

Itjen Begins His Legacy

During the 1910s through the 1930s, tourism began streaming into the Alaskan coast. More and more tourists replaced gold seekers, making the journey to see the natural beauty. Martin Itjen greeted the town's visitors down by the marina offering a guided town tour complete with his personal accounts of the Days of '98. His love of the automobile and the tourist industry evolved together to form the Skagway Streetcar Company. He developed a narrated tour that kept stories of the Grand Adventures of the Gold Rush alive. In doing so, Itjen created an abundant amount of unique artifacts that have become a part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

All of the artifacts highligted in this article are part of the National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection. Gift of the Rasmusson Foundation.

Curious Canines

In the case of the taxidermy mounts at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a man by the name of Percy Colton is thought to have prepared the specimens for the Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum. An important component of art conservation involves historical research of an artwork or artifact. The identification of maker’s marks, signatures, or even the recognition of a similar hand, or “fingerprint,” in a series of artworks can provide crucial information about the artist, time period, and the materials used during fabrication. These two specimens consist of a grey wolf mount and a Husky dog mount. During the conservation treatment of these specimens, the park has been examining and taking note of both the similarities and differences in the animals’ construction and mounting systems. After spending hours carefully surface cleaning the animals inch by inch, it was revealed that both the dog and wolf musculature and body structures were prepared in very similar manners.

Close up images of a stuffed wolf and dog

NPS. Artifact: (left) KLGO 57695 (right) KLGO 57693

The first critical observation that draws parallels between the two specimens is that their core interiors were both made by the same method: wrapping a large mass of wood shavings, or excelsior, with a cotton/linen twine. The tone, texture, and density of the wood shavings from each individual specimen appear to be nearly identical. Interestingly, the cotton/linen twine used to wrap the excelsior appears to be akin to the twine used in two other specimens that the park recently treated in the collection. Secondly, both animals’ interior face structures were sculpted or cast in plaster. The wolf mount has exposed plaster around its eyes, nose, and mouth, as does the husky dog mount. This process likely entailed applying plaster in layers or with plaster bandages (one of Martin Itjen’s commonly-used materials) over top the excelsior/twine bundle until a basic form was accomplished. The material then could be wet-sculpted or dry-carved to achieve a canine-like head.
The inside of a stuffed wold consisting of twine.
Finally, both animals’ mouths were fastened shut by the taxidermist, but by two very different methods. In the dog’s case, it is unlikely that the teeth were preserved within the mount because there was a concentrated effort to enclose the mouth with hand-sewn sutures covered in a black fill material, mimicking the black lips of a dog. Alternatively, some of the wolf’s teeth were retained within the mount and jut out from gaps in between the upper and lower lips which have been tacked shut with small copper nails. The correlation between the materials and methods used in both the wolf and dog mounts suggests there is a strong probability that the specimens were prepared by the same person. Supporting this theory is the fact that Skagway’s population in the 1930s was around 500 people; so if Percy Colton was the pronounced taxidermist in town during this time period, it seems unlikely that Martin Itjen would have outsourced the work, instead of contracting Colton to do it.
A close up image of the mouth of a stuffed wolf

Moose Mounts

These two specimens are thought to have been prepared by local taxidermist Percy Colton in the 1930s. Itjen included the two moose in his diorama exhibit inside Jeffs Smiths Parlor, in addition to all of the other taxidermy specimens that the park has treated. Transporting the moose from their off-site location to their new downtown home in the fall of 2012 was no simple feat. Relocating the moose was necessary in order for the specimens to be better protected against pest infestation and potential exposure to moisture. The new space also provided ample room and amenities for conservation work to be completed on the specimens. The relocation efforts were made possible by the maintenance division, who loaded, transported, and safely unpacked the unwieldy taxidermy mount into its temporary home in the Meyer Building.
Two stuffed moose locked by the horns
When visitors walk inside of Jeff. Smiths Parlor, they do not expect to see such large curiosities as these two moose that are locked by the horns!

NPS. Artifact: KLGO 57690

The challenges encountered when treating an object of this caliber are twofold. First, there is the sheer size of the animals to consider. A thorough inch-by-inch visual examination is a time-consuming but crucial first step in the conservation process. Conservation work consists of an initial visual examination to assess the condition and stability of an object or artwork, directly followed by thorough written and photographic documentation to record the current condition of the object, the fabrication processes applied, and the proposed treatment necessary in order to stabilize it.
Secondly, there is the issue of safety and establishing future handling protocol for the taxidermy mount. Historical taxidermy mounts often times have been treated with preservatives, insecticides, and/or pesticides. In the case of the moose taxidermy, arsenic (likely in the form of arsenical salts or soaps) is believed to have been applied to the surfaces of at least one of the moose. Proper protective equipment combined with extreme caution is necessary to ensure personal safety as well as the prevention of cross-contamination of harmful residues. One major problem natural history institutions and ethnographic museums face is the migration of these harmful chemicals onto surfaces such as phones, door knobs, keyboards, etc. from improper disposal or quarantining of contaminated treatment equipment. For the treatment of the moose specimens, we wear protective gloves, clothing, respirator, and used a HEPA-filter vacuum to minimize potential harmful air particulate while surface cleaning the animals.
An employee wearing protective gear while cleaning a stuffed moose
Fortunately, the moose were in relatively good condition and required only minimal intervention in order to stabilize them. The primary issue with their condition was the plaster fill material excreting from the ears and hooves. The damage was likely a result from pest (mice) damage. The goal for this part of the treatment was to remove the unstable plaster, save the historical material by bagging it and keeping it with the object’s file, and to prevent any further agitation to the interior plaster material. The solution consisted of creating customized physical barriers with Japanese tissue paper. The paper was tacked into place using a reversible, pH-neutral adhesive in four locations to keep the barrier from moving. Then, the paper was coated with a water-proof resin to reinforce and strengthen the tissue paper so that it can be toned with acrylic paints to camouflage its presence within the mount. This same process was applied to each moose’s ears and to one of the moose’s hooves. All of this stabilization was necessary prior to the overall surface cleaning of the animals, which involved carefully lifting and preening the animals’ fur inch-by-inch with tweezers and a vacuum microattachment to remove dust, dirt, and grime. Once the object has been entirely treated and stabilized, another round of written and photographic documentation will be completed to record the post-treatment condition and also to provide a detailed rationale behind why certain processes and materials were applied during the treatment.
A plastered ram's head with glowing eyes

NPS. Artifact: KLGO 57752

Ram's Head

Additionally, Itjen wired an interior electrical system whose original function was to illuminate the two filament bulbs inserted into the eye sockets of the cast animal's head that we call "the Ram's Head." The treatment for this artwork was relatively straight-forward, however, the decision-making behind recreating the illuminated filament bulbs was not a linear process. Ultimately, it was decided that having the bulbs lit was a very important element of the Ram's Head; one that was essential to the artwork's identity and to the artist's original intent. With help from the park's own Scott Logan, a custom LED light system was fabricated and installed onto the mixed media animal mount so that it once again has those glowing (and somewhat creepy) illuminated eyes.
Two employees carefully removing the clothes of a mannequin

NPS. Artifact: KLGO 55043

Lady Lou

Lady Lou was definitely a lady of mystery. Her treatment involved some minor fills, in-painting, and surface cleaning; but the procedure that really initiated some interesting discussion concerning conservation ethics was whether or not to remove all of her textiles. On one hand, keeping the original garments would be preserving as much historical context as possible. On the other hand, the textiles were in very poor condition and were badly stained and contained substantial silk shattering. n the end, the park's curator Samantha Richert asked us to remove the garments so that they could be kept safe inside an archival storage box. Her decision was based on recommendations provided by Alaska State Museum conservator Scott Carrlee, Katie and myself concluding that if these tattered garments were to remain on the mannequin their preservation would ultimately be jeopardized by their extremely unstable state. Not to mention that Lady Lou's torso is made from car tires; a petroleum-based product that would continue to off-gas and stain her original garments. Katie's sewing and textile experience really came in handy and she whipped up a great Marvelseal vest for Lady Lou to wear so that the off-gassing could be minimized on the reproduction garments that will be installed.
A park employee cleaning stuffed artifacts

Taxidermied Ermines

Amongst the diverse fauna included in Itjen's collection are two winter ermine taxidermy mounts. These are not taxidermy specimens in the traditional sense, like the mounts used for biological study and display in natural history museums. The ermines, which are believed to have been prepared by local taxidermist Percy Colton in the 1930s, are curious little creatures with animated facial features and odd glass eye inserts. Their homemade construction and peculiar physiology is indicative of Itjen's preference for the sometimes odd and unusual. The interesting thing about the taxidermy specimens in Itjen's diorama is that their presence was more than just display for biological study. His selection of animals told a story: specifically, an Alaskan story that embraced the wonder and wildness of his adopted hometown, Skagway.

Two stuffed winter ermines

NPS. Artifact: (left) KLGO 57700 (right) KLGO 57701

Another aspect to consider is how the animal was mounted and what materials were used in its construction. In the case of the winter ermine, each specimen has an interior iron-wire armature bound with wood strands that are wrapped in different shapes and volumes to mimic bone structure and musculature; a method used amongst taxidermists around this time period. Once a basic form had been achieved, the wood strips or fibrous material would have then been consolidated with a clay slurry or glue. While the consolidant is still wet, the pelt is fitted and pressed into the form and sewn together. These interior materials, as well as the properties and the condition of the pelt itself, help guide the route of conservation treatment each specimen receives. The wood fibers, iron wire, and acidic nature of cured hides and pelts discourage a conservation treatment involving wet-cleaning. As a result, the ermines were gently dry surface cleaned and their fur was preened, neatened, and removed of any foreign debris. The goals of the treatment were to safely clean both specimens to remove harmful and unsightly dust and dirt and to fully document the ermines' current condition and the fabrication processes that were applied in their construction.

About This Article

This article was created from a complilation of blog posts that have been created by past conservation interns for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

Last updated: September 25, 2019