Monday, March 29, 2010

The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum - Chanute, Kansas

I remember hearing my mother talk about Martin and Osa Johnson. Maybe she thought I would enjoy their travel and adventure books; perhaps she had heard them speak. I don't know for certain, but their name has stuck in my memory bank through the decades. Recently I drove to Chanute to visit the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum.

Who were Martin and Osa Johnson? Although virtually unknown today, this handsome young couple from Kansas were household names during the 1920s and 30s whose images could be seen on product endorsements in the most popular magazines of the day. Their adventure and wildlife films had movie-goers queued up all over the world, and their books were top sellers.

Stricken by "wanderlust," 23-year old Martin talked his way into a position of cook on an intended round the world sailing voyage led by author Jack London. (Martin was not a cook, but took a crash course in a restaurant). Using skills he picked up at his father's Eastman Kodak and jewelry store in Independence, Kansas, he also documented the journey, which ended prematurely in the islands of the South Pacific, on film.

Back in Kansas, Martin traveled about the lecture tour, thrilling audiences with tales and images of frightening encounters with the wild natives of those mysterious, far-away lands. One of his most rapt listeners was a vivacious 16-year old girl in Chanute. A week later, Martin and Osa eloped.

Together they worked the vaudeville circuit with the likes of W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, until gathering enough money to finance the first of what would be numerous journeys to some of the world's most remote and (then) mysterious locales.  Their goals were adventure and the documentation for future generations of our vanishing natural and cultural world; books and films became the means by which they could finance these efforts.

It is doubtful they could possibly have realized the full impact of their influence on future generations of naturalists, conservationists, anthropologists, and film-makers. Naturalists and anthropologists alike owe a debt of gratitude for their early documentation of the native peoples and wildlife prior to the coming of white explorers and sports hunters.  Martin was one of the first wildlife cinematographers, and a pioneer in the use of multiple synchronized cameras, slow motion, and remote control cameras which were especially useful in those day before zoom lenses.

Another first for the Johnsons which I found interesting - product placement, a practice we now take for granted. The leading cola drink manufacturer paid a handsome sum to have Martin and Osa relaxing on the African veldt with a particular soft drink in hand; natives could be seen wearing American kitchen aprons with the name of a leading coffee; etc. They were clever in coming up with new marketing angles to finance their operations. 

The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum occupies half of Chanute's 1902 Santa Fe Railway Depot - a superb re-cycling of this grand old building. (The other half is a public library.) The ground floor includes the Snark Theatre showing a long but very interesting video presentation, The Explorer Library, a museum gift shop, and The Imperato African Gallery, an impressive collection of primitive artworks and artifacts. As a rule, I find little of interest in the traditional folk art of Africa, but there were a number of fascinating and unique objects which caught my eye, especially the ceremonial masks. I'm guessing many of the ladies will find two display cases of jewelry and necklaces to be of particular interest.

The second floor contains meeting rooms and the Selsor Art Gallery devoted to artistic forms featuring natural subjects. The main attraction of the upper level is the Johnson Exhibition - a gallery dedicated to Martin and Osa. Rather than filling the hall with as many artifacts as possible, the bane of many local and regional museums, the curators have been careful to create a visually pleasing space that leaves a memorable impression while telling the Martin and Osa Johnson story. I left the museum inspired to learn more about this adventurous couple, not weary. Rarely does a museum visit take me to that place.

The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum is a private, non-profit Public Trust funded by memberships, contributions, admissions and museum shop sales. 

The Octave Chanute Memorial - a mobile sculpture replicating the Wright brothers' flying machine, commemorating important relationship between the town's namesake and and the birth of flight. French-born Octave Chanute never was a resident of Chanute, Kansas; however, one of the four railroads he built through Kansas made the town possible.

Chanute was an engineer by profession, credited with building several important railroad bridges (including Kansas City's Hannibal Bridge) as well as the stockyards in Chicago and Kansas City. He also developed an interest and expertise in the developing science of aviation. His book on the subject of gliders caught the attention of Wilbur and Orville Wright, who contacted him. Chanute served as a mentor to the young aviators, and the shape of their Kitty Hawk flying machine frame was strongly influenced by Chanute's successful glider design. [This is the same Octave Chanute who platted the city of Lenexa.]

A real, honest-to-goodness, old-time soda fountain: Drop into the Cardinal Drug Store (on the main drag downtown) for an old-fashioned soda fountain treat, and a look at one of the dwindling number of such fixtures in use. The soda fountain was not originally part of this store, but purchased, restored, and moved to this location by the owner. The back bar dates to 1914, and the counter portion with soda fountain to 1937.  

Images and text copyrighted © 2010 by Frank Thompson. 

The Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum:
Martin & Osa Johnson biography (Kansas State Historical Society):
Octave Chanute Biographical Information: 
Chanute Area Chamber of Commerce & Office of Tourism:

Simba - 1928 (excerpt):
Congorilla - 1932 [the first sound movie made entirely in Africa] (excerpt):
Osa Johnson jazz dancing with pygmies (excerpt from Congorilla):


Coming Soon to a Leavenworth Near You!! 
The Kansas Sampler Festival features more than 300 booths providing a sample of what there is to see and do in Kansas - whether you are looking for hiking trails, historic sites, natural landmarks, unique restaurants, off-the-beaten track eateries, architectural gems, hole-in-wall performing centers, artists-at-work, specialty shops, or have-to-be-there Kansas events! May 1-2 at Ray Miller Park (next to K-7 at the south edge of town) More info at:

1 comment:

  1. it is so cool,I really like it, I want to be in a safari, I love the lions, I would like to visit a great zoo or museum!