PUBLISHED: 5:24 PM on Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Museum exhibit looks at tourism mecca in Alaska
During May in Juneau, legislators make plans to leave and cruise ships arrive, each one bringing thousands of tourists. When the switch occurs, the capital city's economy shifts from primarily producing government to consumption driven by people who have made money elsewhere. A new exhibit at the Alaska State Museum highlights the promoters, the symbols and the hype that helped turn Juneau and Alaska into a summer tourism hotspot.

The Lure of Alaska: a History of Tourism in the Great Land is one of the museum's most ambitious shows. Antique carvings, jewelry, baskets and brochures and other memorabilia came from across the state.

"We borrowed items from 22 institutions and private collectors," said Paul Gardinier, exhibits specialist at the museum.

The pieces range from beautiful to weird. There's a native home carved of argillite, an automaton of legendary con artist Soapy Smith, miniature wooden kayaks, canoes and paddles, intricately woven baskets and souvenirs made of moose droppings. Gardinier designed a special space so viewers feel like they're walking into a history of Alaska tourism.

"There's a mock steamship area, a 20th century curio shop and a Victorian cozy corner," he said.

Guest curator June Hall spent the better part of two years organizing the show. She said American adventure tourists arrived in Alaska shortly after the Russian transfer in 1867. Writers played a major role in turning the territory into today's tourist mecca. They portrayed it as a vast untouched wilderness, a place where world weary Americans could be revitalized. In the 1890s, travel writer Eliza Ruhumah Scidmore described goat hunting at Glacier Bay and staying on the beach with pleasure seekers and artists in John Muir's cabin.

The exhibit includes a copy of Robert Service's "Ballads of a Cheechako," published in 1909. Between its tattered covers are poems about the rugged and sometimes deadly experiences of early gold diggers.

"Now wouldn't you expect to find a man an awful crank.

That's staked out nigh three hundred claims, and every one a blank;

That's followed every fool stampede, and seen the rise and fall

Of camps where men got gold in chunks and he got none at all..." It's hard to imagine words like these written by Service a century ago inspired early tourists to follow the trail of prospectors, but they did.

The industry's pioneers are as colorful as the memorabilia they left behind. Martin Itjen was Alaska's Walt Disney. While most of the rest of the country struggled with the Great Depression, he was turning a part of Skagway into an historic theme park. Itjen scoured the town dump to create the automaton of Soapy Smith, women in Victorian dress and piano players.

"Entertaining people with live figures in a setting that puts the figures in their own context: that's what Walt Disney did, and what Martin Itjen did long before Disneyland opened," Hall said.

Transportation companies pried open the Last Frontier. Well-heeled tourists first discovered the Inside Passage via steamships. Company promoters lured them with slick brochures.

"This booklet from 1905 says Alaska via the totem pole route. Totem poles were one of the early iconic images that were appropriated by tourism promoters," Hall said.

As railroads and later roads opened up the Interior to large numbers of people, Mount McKinley became another important symbol for Alaska.

An entrepreneur in Nome established Wien Airlines in 1927 and throughout much of the 20th century it promoted the Arctic. Its marketers sent Eskimos in winter parkas to places like Mexico City.

"One of the more bizarre and interesting objects in the exhibit is a seal-skin two-piece women's bathing suit used by Wien Airlines as promotional gimmick," Hall said.

The curator said tourism proved a double-edged sword for Alaska natives. It helped to revitalize some dormant traditions, but tourists often treated native people as specimens on display and wandered into people's homes looking for an authentic experience.

"Tourism gave them a way to participate in the capitalist society and retain traditional crafts. Values were harder to retain. They were supposed to make exotic souvenirs for the market, but not supposed to do potlatches," she said.

Hall said many Alaskans remain ambivalent about great numbers of visitors coming for a brief stint to the Last Frontier. She said in Ketchikan in winter about half of downtown is boarded up as gift shops close with the September departure of cruise ships. In Juneau too, many downtown shops close, but for now they're open and shelves are stocked with candy dishes, postcards, sweatshirts, and if history is any guide, earrings made of moose droppings.

The exhibit runs through mid October.

For more information contact Alaska State Museum at 465-2901.