Nicole Peters works on the two interlocking moose. Photo courtesy of KGRNHP
Taxidermy specimens undergo treatment in preparation for reinstallment in Soapy’s parlor
Itjen up to his old tricks in creation of moose battle
By KATIE EMMETS
After almost 40 years, Martin Itjen’s animals will be returned to Jeff Smith’s Parlor Museum — with makeovers.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park artifact conservation intern Nicole Peters spent the season preparing and stabilizing the seven stuffed animals located in the original Jeff Smith’s Parlor Museum.
For three months, she treated a husky dog, a grey wolf, two winter ermine, a white-tailed deer, two bull moose and one full moose skull. While on display in the original museum, the moose skull was outfitted with electrical sockets and had light bulbs for eyeballs.
Peters said park conservation department officials found tags on some of the animals indicating local taxidermist Percy Colton prepared all of the animals in the 1930s.
“These were definitely some of the more uncanny objects I’ve treated in my conservation career,” Peters said with a laugh.
Though she has never worked with stuffed animals before, she has worked with a lot of Native American artifacts containing fur. Both the animals and Native American artifacts are considered ethnographic materials, which means they give information about the specific cultures they came from.
“The two aren’t so unrelated,” she said. “Both are dealing with fur pelts and organic materials.
The treatment of the animals required a two-step process, which included surface cleanings and stabilizations.
While performing the surface cleaning, Peters went through each specimen inch-by-inch, lifting up its fur and vacuuming out dirt dust and grime.
Because Peters is familiar with the use of arsenic in the form of pesticides and insecticides for taxidermy treatment, she had to be prepared for the possibility of coming in contact with the chemical, though she wasn’t certain if it was used or not.
“The use of pesticides and insecticides is so prevalent in the history of preservation, so when I approach organic or taxidermied specimens, I know I have to proceed with caution,” she said.
When treating the animals, Peters wore a fitted respirator, a lab coat that was washed every day and Nitrile Gloves that are three-times more puncture resistant than rubber gloves. She also used a variable speed, highly efficient particulate air (HEPA) filtered vacuum cleaner. In order to be considered HEPA by United States Government standards, the filter must be able to remove 99.97 percent of .03 micrometer-sized particles in the air that passes through it. This filter was especially helpful to Peters because the vacuum was able to collect all loose arsenic particles that were airborne from after agitating the fur.
Halfway through the treatment, the Alaska State Museum in Juneau allowed Peters to use its X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to test the specimens, and the tests came back positive for arsenic.
But Peters ensured that the chemical would not harm anyone admiring the animals up close.
“They are not off-gassing, and particles are only actively airborne if agitated,” she said. “There is no risk of museum visitors ever being harmed by them.”
After the surface cleanings, Peters stabilized the animals by securing and repairing any loose or damaged areas.
“The white-tailed deer didn’t have eyes, which made it unable to be exhibited,” she said. “So I sculpted eyes and installed them.”
Each specimen took a different length of time to treat according to each one’s conservation needs, Peters said.
Maintenance worker Si Dennis Jr. fabricated wooden housing units for each animal and when they were finished, Peters wrapped each in polyethylene sheeting and sealed them.
They will be stored in the maintenance building until they are installed in Jeff Smith’s Parlor Museum in 2014.
The original museum was started by Martin Itjen in 1935. Along with having a museum, Itjen also gave tours of Skagway in street cars.
In a time where roadside attractions and bizarre museums were declining, Itjen brought the concept to the north, said KGRNHP Curator Samantha Richert.
“They mostly died at the turn of the century, but we’re pretty remote up here, so it worked,” Richert said. “And there was really nothing like (the museum and Street Car tour) in the world. It was like an early Alaskan version of Disneyland.”
Along with the diorama of animals, the museum also had animatronic figures of people that moved and lit up.
Richert said some of the animals were missing parts of their bodies when Itjen acquired them, so he had them altered to look more realistic.
“The story we’ve heard is that someone brought Martin Itjen the skulls of the two moose locked together and he constructed a mount to display them,” she said.
Richert said the moose were given fake bodies and moose hides were hung over them.
“If you look at the actual mounts, there’s a cabinet door that got sawed in half and what looks like a chunk of wall that got cut off of a gold rush building,” she said. “If he lived in today’s era, he would have used a lot of duct tape.”
But the moose weren’t the only ones he had altered.
Richert said the husky’s skin doesn’t hang naturally on its nose and the white-tailed deer was manipulated to look like a mule deer, as white-tailed deer don’t live in Alaska, and Itjen was going for an Alaskan scene.
Though the deer most likely came from out of state, Richert said it’s likely the other animals were found close to Skagway.
“I can’t really speak to what the animal population was around here 80 years ago, but my guess is that most of those animals were sourced very close by,” she said. “If not on this side of the pass then the other side of the pass, but not very far.”
Peters finished her work on the animals last month and Richert said the park was lucky to have her as part of its team.
“We’re really fortunate Nicole took an interest in doing this work,” she said. “When we pulled the moose out of the storage unit and it was so dirty I thought, ‘how are we going to get this clean?’ but Nicole said she really wanted to do it.”
This is Peters’ second year as a conservation intern at KGRNHP. In 2012, she prepared and stabilized two automatons that were in the original Jeff Smith’s Parlor Museum. Though she will be attending Buffalo State’s Art Conservation program this fall for two years, she plans to return to Skagway in the winter of 2015 for more gold rush conservation.