The Story of Otto Bear: An Impressive Specimen
by Theresa Bakker, UAMN Media Coordinator
I have long been fascinated with how people respond to the nearly 9’ tall, 1200-pound brown bear that greets visitors to the museum’s Gallery of Alaska. Grown men giggle and point. Children approach wide-eyed. Their parents pretend to be a growling bear.
And they take photographs. Lots of them. It seems like someone is always posing in front of the bear. Thousands of photos are taken there each year.
Known by the museum staff as Otto, this mounted grizzly has stood for decades at the entrance to the Gallery of Alaska. Named for Otto Geist, who carried out the first major collection efforts for the museum, it is one of the most photographed objects in the museum and was donated in 1951 by Mr. and Mrs. James W. Webb.
The museum’s Curator of Mammals Link Olson calls Otto an “impressive specimen.” He says bears from the Alaska Peninsula tend to be larger than their mainland counterparts, although not as big as the legendary brown bears from Kodiak Island.
"We don’t know who prepared the mount," Olson said. "It’s an exquisite mount, clearly done by a professional and has certainly held up well over the years."
I recently got an email from John Holden Sr., who was visiting the UA Museum of the North in August 2013 when he noticed a sign asking for photos of Otto Bear.
John said he remembered seeing the bear before.
"I thought I had seen Otto in some of my late parents’ photographs from the time we lived in Fairbanks from the spring of 1950 through the summer of 1954. I’m attaching a scanned copy of a 35 mm slide I found in my parents’ collection. The slide frame is labeled ‘World’s Record Brownie.’
"Do you know where Otto would have been displayed in the 1950 to 1954 time frame?"
Our senior collections manager Angela Linn was excited to see the photo and confirmed that it would have been taken in an exhibit space located in UAF’s Eielson Building, one of the many locations that featured the museum’s collections before a permanent building was constructed at our present site in 1980.
Angie recognized the windows that look out the front of the building to the south and the steam radiator from other photos she compared it to. She noted that this one will be added to the historical record of our collections.
John also wondered about Otto’s fur. “It’s considerably darker in color in this photo than it appeared to me in your museum. Was his fur originally as dark or was that an aberration of the lighting and photo equipment?”
To answer that question, I turned to Exhibition & Design Coordinator Steve Bouta, who oversees all of the objects on display in the museum.
"That’s Otto for sure," he said. "Photos and monitors all render colors differently, but I’m sure his hair was darker back then. I’ve always thought he was holding up well, but also wondered how much the light had affected his coat.
"That’s what 60 years of light exposure will do to you, and why we keep light levels so low in the gallery."
A photograph can tell us so much. We started asking visitors to send us photos in the fall of 2010 to help promote a special exhibit about hibernation and the ways animals survive the extreme cold of an Interior Alaska winter. Since then, we’ve received over 500 different photos of Otto, each unique in its own way.
Steve has worked at the museum for more than 25 years. He said this is probably the oldest photo he’s seen of Otto. Something else about it caught his eye - the ghostly white moose on the left of the photo.
"By the way," he said. "That albino moose was de-accessioned in the early 80s."