Martin & Osa Johnson are the couple you don’t know that you know. And you should learn more about them because they were a pretty kick-ass couple of American adventurers!
Martin and Osa explored a world that was inaccessible to so many in the 1920 and 1930s. Their photography, film and writing allowed others to experience it at the time. Today, that material provides a history of culture and wilderness that has since vanished.
It’s very cool to see their influence in modern pop culture, too: a clothing line and a chain of stores (Martin + Osa) from American Eagle Outfitters, a 2011 Kate Spade “I Married Adventure” zebra-striped purse and the design of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. It’s even been pointed out that many story elements in the sweet animated movie “Up” follow the real life story of the Johnsons.
This article was published in The Wichita Eagle.
Stalking the Wild
Safari museum in Chanute showcases exotic lives of Kansans Martin & Osa Johnson
CHANUTE, Kan. – Martin and Osa Johnson spent more than half of their lives exploring the people and animals of remote regions of Africa, British North Borneo and the South Pacific Islands to capture a vanishing world on film.
Thanks to the community of Chanute, the efforts of this famous Kansas couple to document wilderness, tribal customs and cultures has not vanished.
The thousands of photographs, hundreds of cans of motion picture film footage, 18 books and numerous articles produced by the pioneering adventurers during the first half of the 20th century have been preserved since 1961 at the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Osa’s hometown of Chanute in southeast Kansas.
“The Johnsons had this vision of a pristine, wild world out there and believed civilization was making that world disappear,” said Conrad Froehlich, director of the Safari museum since 1989. “They saw themselves as creating a record on photographs and film of this vanishing world.”
The Johnsons’ films and photographs represent some of the earliest and best quality images of our natural world, and they continue to be used in documentaries around the world. More than a half-century after their travels, the Johnsons continue to educate people through those documentaries and through the museum.
Each year 6,000 film makers, photographers, naturalists, historians, collectors and the general public visit the museum, which made the list of top 50 most unique U.S. museums in the 1997 book Offbeat Museums.
An Inspiring Story
“Every year we get zoologists and film makers who make pilgrimages here because their career was inspired by the Johnsons,” Froehlich said. “We also get folks who come in really not knowing anything about the Johnsons and they are not sure what this museum is about. But when they leave, they are really excited about the story of two young Kansans who travel the world and experience adventure and romance.”
Osa Leighty was born in Chanute in 1894 and had not traveled more than 35 miles from home until the age of 16, when she met 26-year-old Martin Johnson. Johnson, who grew up in Lincoln and Independence, Kan., had just returned to southeast Kansas after two years spent roaming the South Pacific on novelist Jack London’s failed quest to sail around the world.
The trip didn’t last seven years as planned, but Johnson brought back thousands of photos, as many stories and a passion for adventure. He opened several Snark Theaters, named after the 45-foot vessel built by London, in Independence to show his photographs and talk about his journey. He met Osa when he took his show to Chanute. A month later, they were married.
There began a life of adventure that made the kids from Kansas famous. They devoted 27 years of their short lives to recording their travels. From 1917 to 1936, they would make five safaris to Africa, two to Borneo, and two to the South Seas. They would produce box-office hits and become stars during Hollywood’s infancy in the 1920s and ’30s.
“They popularized travelogues,” Froehlich said. “They weren’t just showing the scenes, the animals and the people. They were showing themselves on safari: how they lived and how they traveled. It became a story and that’s what people found so fascinating.”
The images opened the eyes of millions of Americans who had never dreamed of seeing such exotic places. Moviegoers flocked to see footage that was photographed at the risk of life: the Kansans living among cannibals and other native tribes, running from angry rhinos and standing among stampeding elephant herds.
The Johnsons also wrote 18 books, including two that are still in print today: Martin’s “Camera Trails in Africa” and Osa’s “I Married Adventure,” which was the No. 1 best-seller in nonfiction in 1940 and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year.
However, the Johnsons are best known for the dozens of commercial films they produced in order to finance their adventures. “Congorilla” was the first sound movie ever filmed in Africa; “Baboona” followed the Johnsons on their final trip to Africa, when they used two Sikorsky amphibious aircraft to produce the first aerial footage of animals moving across the plains of Africa; and “Borneo,” which included the first photographs of wild blue-faced maroon leaf and proboscis monkeys and is considered their finest technical film.
Martin died in 1937, soon after returning from that trip to Borneo, in a commercial airplane accident on his way to a lecture tour stop in California. Osa wrote many of her books, including her best-selling autobiography, after Martin’s death and continued to work until her death in 1953.
The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum opened in 1961 and moved into its current home in the renovated Santa Fe Railway depot in 1993. Osa’s mother, Belle Leighty, donated the Johnsons belongings to start the museum.
Although Johnson archives can be found at a number of institutions, such as the Library of Congress, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Modern Art, the Safari Museum is the only museum dedicated to preserving and showcasing the life work of the Johnsons while continuing their work of sharing the knowledge of natural history and cultural anthropology.
Visitors start in the replica Snark Theater for a 10-minute orientation before winding their way through the two-story museum that shares the depot with the public library.
The centerpiece of the Johnson Exhibition Hall is a mock campsite with life-size models of Martin and Osa. Visitors can trace the lives of the explorers by following the chronological displays on the walls of the Hall. Photographs allow visitors to see the expeditions through the eyes of the Johnsons, while artifacts such as camera equipment, field journals, clothing and other personal belongings illustrate their way of life.
The highlight of the museum is the collection of photographs taken mostly by Martin Johnson anywhere from 60 to 80 years ago. These are powerful images of people and animals in a world that no longer exists. The images are even more amazing when you consider that they were taken with primitive equipment before zoom lenses, so the Johnsons often stood at dangerously close distances – 8 to 12 feet – to their subjects.
Besides the Johnson archives, the museum houses an art gallery of wildlife paintings, prints and art objects; a research library featuring more than 10,000 volumes of natural history, travel and exploration literature, documentary films, as well as photographs; an interactive area for children; and a gift shop.
One wing of the museum, the Imperato African Gallery, includes objects and masks that represent the traditional way of life in west Africa, an area of the continent not covered in the Johnson’s travels. The tribal cultural material was donated by Dr. Pascal James Imperato, an epidemiologist and admirer of the Johnsons who, along with his wife, wrote the most comprehensive biography of the couple, “They Married Adventure: The Wandering Lives of Martin and Osa Johnson.”
The Johnson Legacy
The Johnsons were pioneers who made a lasting impact on the world with their hundreds of miles of film. But the most enduring legacy left by the couple is their spirit of adventure and exploration, which is kept alive at the museum in Chanute.
“Here were these two Kansans from regular families who had a vision and followed that vision,” Froehlich said. “I hope that when people leave our museum, they are inspired by the story and they think about following their own dreams.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum
Where: 111 N. Lincoln Ave. in downtown Chanute, Kan.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 1-5 pm. Sunday. Closed holidays.
Admission: $6 adults; $4 seniors & students; $3 children ages 6-12; and free for children under 6. Group tours and discounts available. Accessible to people with disabilities.
More info: www.safarimuseum.com or (620) 431-2730. Many of the Johnsons’ books and movies are available in the museum store.