Can you imagine sailing a small boat across the Pacific with the famed author Jack London? Or navigating the Nile through the wilds of present day Sudan to Uganda? Or maybe even flying over an African jungle in your own airplane? There is a museum where you can relive these experiences.
UNESCO recently reported that the number of museums in the world has exceeded 100,000. With all of these institutions, one would think there would be one dedicated to travel. There happens to be such a museum, and it is a fascinating institution in the middle of the United States — The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas.
Before Margaret Mead sailed to Samoa, Joy Adamson went to Africa or Dian Fossey was even born, there was a Kansas teenager named Martin Johnson who was smitten by the travel bug. The year was 1907, and young Martin heard that famed writer Jack London was seeking a cook for a trip around the world on his 40-foot sailboat named the Snark. After a passionate plea to London in a letter, Martin was accepted on this trip that lasted two years, from 1907 to 1909. He returned from this two-year voyage with hundreds of exotic photos and objects from
such places as the South Pacific and Africa.
Martin toured the vaudeville and country fair circuit impressing audiences with his excellent photography and exotic artifacts. He met 16-year-old Osa Leighty while exhibiting his travelogues and they married soon thereafter. For the next several years, the couple toured the United States and Europe earning money to finance their first overseas journey.
In 1917 the couple visited the new Hebrides (now Vanuatu) near the Solomon Islands, armed with Martin’s motion picture camera. The high point of this first journey was a frightening episode on the island of Malekula. The tribal chief took a particular liking to young Osa and held the couple against their will, and it took a British navy ship’s intervention to allow them to escape. Fortunately for them, this encounter was captured on Martin’s camera and the footage was featured in the couple’s first feature film: Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas. This 1918 film launched a successful Hollywood career for the couple. For the next 19 years, they alternated lengthy trips to the South Pacific and Africa with lectures, exhibitions and successful box office movies.
On an earlier trip to Africa, Martin and Osa traveled by boat down the Nile to Uganda and made their first motion picture of a pygmie tribe. Then they made another film entitled Simba on the Serengeti Plains, and the following year the couple went into the Belgium Congo where they made a survey of the mountain gorillas and a movie titled Congorilla — the first sound motion picture made in Africa.
In 1937, while on a speaking tour in the United States, the commercial plane carrying the couple crashed near Los Angeles killing Martin and seriously injuring Osa. Following Osa’s recovery, she continued their life work, and took one final trip to Africa. There she published dispatches of lifestyle practices of the Masai and other tribes. In 1940, she wrote a best-selling book on her life: I Married Adventure. Osa died in 1953 as she was preparing for a return trip to Africa.
The museum is a hidden gem in Osa’s childhood home of Chanute, Kansas. It boasts over 15,000 photos and several floors of ethnic art and artifacts. In 1974, the museum was bequeathed the extensive West African ethnological collection of famed infectious disease doctor Pascal Imperato. This and other gifts have made the West African collection the most extensive in the Midwest.
As members of the Travelers’ Century Club, it is fascinating to imagine how we would fit into the 1920 travel world of Martin and Osa Johnson. How many of us would take the travel steps of the Johnson’s? Similarly, it is interesting to speculate how the adventurous couple would fit into the 2022 world of travel. What would they be doing to pursue new and unexplored areas of the world? And how would they be doing it? We will never know. However, the world is ours to explore in our own way.