Otto the bear photobombs at the museum

Lex Treinen/Sun Star Reporter
September 11, 2012

Images of Otto the Bear have been around the world, and now the Museum of the North wants them back. The museum, located on West Ridge, recently began a campaign for visitors to send in photographs taken with the 1,200 pound grizzly bear to social media sites. Workers will eventually combine into a Mosaic image for the upcoming exhibition Hibernation: the Science of the Cold. So far, the museum has received hundreds of photographs from around the world.

A photo of Otto the bear taken in the summer of 1980. Brian Walker is being held up by one of his uncles. Brian was 2 at the time. Today he is finishing up a masters in fisheries at UAF. Photo courtesy Pat & Enlow Walker.

The campaign is a part of the museum’s increased focus on social media, according to media coordinator Theresa Bakker. “Museums now have the mission to connect with the community, even though they may not physically be there,” Bakker said. As a part of the campaign, the museum asks users to send in their pictures through Facebook, Instagram or email. Bakker said that most of the visitors come from other states on bus tours, and submit their photos via email.

Otto’s popularity makes him the most photographed object in the museum, perhaps even in Fairbanks, according to Bakker. Museum workers began referring to the bear as Otto in honor of Otto Geist.  Charles Bunnel, the first president of UAF, commissioned Geist, a German who had no formal education, to collect items from around Alaska for the soon-to-be built museum. After seven weeks, Geist returned to Fairbanks with thousands of artifacts that are still used for both research and exhibition at the museum. According to the museum’s website, the bear was killed by Arthur Johnson on the Bering Sea in 1950. The next year in 1951, Otto was put on display.

The campaign has brought in some surprising submissions. One photo from 1980 shows a baby being held up to the bear. Today Brian Walker, the baby from the photo, is finishing his masters in Fisheries at UAF.  Another photo submission is the cover of The Polar Star, the Sun Star’s predecessor, in 1951. Some entrants get creative by digitally editing their photos or striking creative poses.

Bakker said that one of her goals is to minimize the cost of publicity campaigns. She said that aside from the bookmarks being printed, a press release, announcements on social media and the website, and a sign next to the bear are essentially the only advertisements the museum is using. While it is difficult to get every visitor to submit their photos, there have been modest successes. For example, after the Arizona Daily Star newspaper picked up the release and have solicited two photos from Arizona residents who visited the museum before.

Though Bakker is in charge of media relations, she hopes that the presence of social media will allow an overall increase in museum activity. She cited technology as a driving force behind the change in the way that people interact with museums. “It allows people to continue to interact online even though they go back to Switzerland or Tokyo or Arizona,” she said.

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