“When Crab Was King,” an innovative exhibit featuring oral histories and photos from the Kodiak Island king crab fishery's storied heyday, closes June 1 after a monthlong run at the Baranov Museum. The exhibit will then be available online for the foreseeable future on the Kodiak Maritime Museum website.
The collection offer a fascinating look into what the fishery meant to Kodiak as seen through the fishermen, cannery workers, bartenders and other who lived through the island's greatest boom, which peaked in the mid-1960s and then gradually tapered off until the fishery was exhausted in 1982.
Visitors are presented with large black and white photos of two-dozen of these individuals as they are now, holding color photos of themselves taken 30 to 40 years ago. An audio tour of the exhibit is also available via cell phone by dialing a number and entering a certain code for each portrait. The audio portion consists of oral histories corresponding to each of the photos. The combination provides an intimate, personal perspective on the not-so-distant past through eyewitness accounts of men overboard, sinking ships, and piles and piles of king crab massing on the ocean floor visible even from airplanes.
“When Crab Was King” was supported by 2007 and 2011 grants from the Alaska Humanities Forum for $7,500 and $3,500, respectively.
The exhibit is an important piece of Alaska's maritime history that the Kodiak Maritime Museum's executive director Toby Sullivan, a former king crab fishermen himself who spent many years fishing the Bering Sea, is excited to be able to share with the public. Here, Sullivan talks with Door 15 about “When Crab Was King,” then and now.
You arrived in Kodiak in 1974. What drew you there and what was Kodiak like then as opposed to now with other fisheries replacing king crab?
I was 19 and had always wanted to come to Alaska. I hitchhiked cross-country from where I grew up in Connecticut to work on the pipeline, that was my vague plan, but it was not up and running yet. So I worked in a cannery in Kodiak and ended up fishing crab for 20 years in the Bering Sea.
The king crab fishery was a huge part of the community in those days. This was a wild and crazy place in the '60s and '70s, with a lot of young fishermen and cannery workers. It really was a boomtown, and a lot of fun to be a young person here during those times.
In the old days everyone competed for a set quota and chased those crab until they were caught, so it was highly competitive. Now each boat has their quota and fishermen can fish when they want, they don't have to go without sleep, and people don't die as often as they used too.
How did the audio recordings and photographs come together as a project?
The Kodiak Maritime Museum wanted to document the voices and stories of the king crab fishermen and the huge effect they had on Kodiak over a span of 30 or 40 years. We started collecting the recordings of people's stories and putting them on radio shows and our website, but we also wanted to somehow have a visual component. We looked at lots of different ideas but one that really struck me was a series of portraits Richard Avedon did called “In The American West.” I thought we should try to get that look – with all the extraneous details gone – just faces. No boats, no crab pots, just the people.
The Alaska Humanities Forum helped us with a grant this year, the Alaska State Museum kicked in some money, and with local photographer Alf Pryor we worked on design and lighting for about a month or so until we got it just right.
We photographed 24 people against neutral backgrounds holding a picture of themselves when they were young. It’s an interesting contrast with the picture of them now in black and white, and the picture of themselves then in color. Having the past in color and the present in black and white reverses what you would expect to see and creates an interesting effect.
How did you decide on using cell phones for the audio tour, where people dial a number and enter a code to listen to the oral histories?
We used a business out of San Francisco to set up the cell phone audio tour, because with cell phones you don't have to purchase all of these [handset] devices and it really cuts the museum's cost for exhibits. We just edited out the music from the radio shows, uploaded the files, and they put it into their system. Each person viewing the exhibit is given a guide with all 24 photos and their corresponding file numbers. It worked well.
We've had a very positive response. Originally we hadn't considered showing it outside of Kodiak, but since then we have thought about it going on the road. There are 24 pictures so it would be really easy to ship.
In the meantime we are updating our website which will feature a page of thumbnail portraits you click on so anyone can see the pictures and hear their stories. But it won't be the same as seeing it in person. All the pictures are 20” by 30”, which is three-quarters life size.
Another idea we have talked about is making billboard-sized prints of some of the pictures and putting them up around Kodiak, furthering the idea that art or exhibits don't have to be just inside a building, but can be part of the community as well.