Putting the finishing touches on our special exhibit.
Most people have no idea how museums put exhibits together. At UAMN, we’ve developed a process that, while slightly different with each exhibit, follows a basic structure of using a guest curator (myself, in the case of Denali Legacy) along with a curation team. The curator develops the initial idea and shapes the narrative, while the team provides expertise in their various areas, including digital media (Roger Topp), communications, editing, and interviewing (Theresa Bakker), graphic and exhibit design (Tamara Martz), and exhibit production & fabrication (Steve Bouta). The hands-on and interactive elements are developed and refined by our Education Department staff (Jen Arseneau and Maite Agopian).
The team efforts put forward on Denali Legacy echoes the team efforts put forward in the 1913 expedition of the Stuck-Karstens expedition. No one person should have received the credit for accomplishing that dramatic task, and likewise, no one person is responsible for the success of this engaging exhibition. I’ve felt incredible support for ideas I’ve put forward and the creativity of the team is showcased in many different products.
Roger Topp, our Head of Production, came up with idea and look of the Denali mountain model and the projection of 100 years of climbing routes. In addition, he crunched the numbers and worked out the animation for the routes, which will be a cool interactive. He has managed the project and kept us all on task and on time – not an easy feat!
Theresa Bakker, the Media Coordinator for the Museum, is also a former public radio person and has incredible interviewing skills. She has created a great social media presence through our Facebook posts, developing this blog, and managing the “Share the View” photo campaign. Her interviewing and sound editing are highlighted in both the documentary that she and Roger produced, and the audio diary components of the exhibit. She is also an excellent writer and has helped us keep the narrative and interpretive panels concise while communicating the personalities of each of member of the climbing expedition.
The exhibits department is headed up by Steve Bouta, our Coordinator of Exhibits and preparator extraordinare – and longest-time employee of the museum. His keen eye, excellent editing skills, straightforward communication style, and ability to work any tool in the shop translates into quality exhibits time and time again.
The task of figuring out the look of the exhibit falls on the capable and creative shoulders of Tamara Martz. Our resident kiwi who has come a long way from making our brass mounts for the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery back in 2005, Tamara met the difficult challenge of presenting an exhibition with a lot of text. From the creative designs and beautiful color palette, Tamara makes this exhibit more than just the words on the page – she’s made it accessible.
Making an exhibit interactive and fun for kids (of all ages) is part of what our Education staff tackle. Jen Arseneau and Maïté Agopian have researched period clothing, food items, and equipment, and have worked on finding ways to integrate learning opportunities with our exhibit narrative. And they have fun doing it. For Denali Legacy, a campsite in the corner of the gallery will be a fun place for kids to hang out while their adult family members are nearby reading about the experiences of the 1913 team.
As for me, well, I’ve spent a lot of time reading, emailing, talking on the phone, writing labels, working with objects, talking with people in person, and thinking about this group of men who did something so incredible that it continues to blow my mind. I’ve laughed over their journal entries, cried over the stories of the ends of their lives, and generally been in awe of what they each contributed to the story of Alaska and their families. I hope that everyone who visits the exhibit can connect with at least one of these men and shares with others the legacy they have left for us all.
T [Robert Tatum] is working on an American flag which he hopes to hoist on top of the instrument tent on the summit and I am carving a rude inscription on a tent pole, of which I hope to make a cross to set up on the summit. I got half my carving done and T [Tatum] his flag cut out- two silk handkerchiefs and the lining of a padded noodle can. — From the climbing journal of Hudson Stuck, dated Wednesday, June 4, 1913
When Doug Tatum was grown with children of his own, he discovered an unlikely connection to Alaska. His great uncle, Robert Tatum, was one of the members of the first climbing party to reach the summit of Denali.
“I was in my 30s and I had never, nor did any of my siblings know, that my dad’s father’s brother was Robert Tatum and had summited Denali. We didn’t know that. Dad said he was a very modest, quiet spoken gentleman.”
Doug Tatum was shocked. He knew Robert was a humble person, but this was something noteworthy, something worth bragging about, at least to his generation. Doug Tatum soon found more tangible evidence of his great uncle’s accomplishments: photos, letters from Hudson Stuck inviting Tatum to be a member of the climbing party, and a handmade flag Tatum had constructed from items along the climbing route.
“It wasn’t kept very well. I found it in a shoebox with some other items while going through some stuff with my parents. I hand carried it to the Chicago conservatory. They spent nine months cleaning it up. We got it just in the nick of time.”
Robert Tatum’s flag will be displayed in the museum’s special exhibit, along with several other artifacts and entries from the four climbing journals kept by the first men who made it to the top of North America’s tallest mountain.
I had made a flag and raised it. First of all after we all shook hands with congratulations, Arch deacon [Hudson Stuck] offered a prayer of thanks. Then the instruments were read and I raised the flag and Arch d photographed it.
Then while I took some angles with the prismatic compass, W. [Walter Harper] & Mr. K [Harry Karstens] erected a cross. And set it up. And we all gathered around it and said the “Te Deum” — From the climbing journal of Robert Tatum, dated Saturday, June 7, 1913, the first ascent of Denali
To tell the story of the first ascent of North America’s tallest mountain in our special exhibit Denali Legacy, we decided to use the original journals of the four men who went to the top. Guest Curator Angela Linn was able to track down all four of those diaries and arrange to have them loaned to the museum – the first time they’ve all been together in the same place in a hundred years.
Much of what we’ve shared so far on this blog has been objects and information she’s uncovered in the months leading up to the construction phase of the exhibit. But the reason for this exhibit is, after all, a mountain. And it must be represented somehow.
Enter the Denali model. Head of Production Roger Topp has been dreaming in wood cut since early 2012, envisioning a stage fit for projections of what more than a century of climbers have tackled. The four-foot wide model will be constructed of thin strips of laser-cut birch plywood (1/8 inch thick) glued in 28 layers.
Once the plans were drawn – to scale – and the pieces started to arrive, there was only one man with the patience, steady hands, and fortitude to put this thing together. Steve Bouta, our exhibitions and design coordinator, armed only with charts, measuring tape, cans of paint for ballast, and wood glue, has the job of painstakingly applying the layers of mountain terrain to our model.
The animation projected onto the finished model will illustrate the climbing history on Denali, beginning with the first ascent of the north peak in 1910 and ending with the 2012 climbing season. There are a total of 64 known routes. The climbs will be shown in different colors, depending on the rate of success of any given route. The thickness of the lines will indicate the number of climbers attempting that route each year.
Soon, visitors will be able to experience 100 years on the mountain in just a few minutes.
When you take on the role of a guest curator, you never know what sort of new ideas you’ll discover. You make the pitch, about how your interpretation of a story is going to be “new” and “different,” and how you’ll bring to light information that no one either knew about, or put into the context that you’re developing. As the research rolls along, you often reveal things that have been hidden for decades. In the case of Denali Legacy, I started the research process by reading, very carefully, The Ascent of Denali by Hudson Stuck. Originally published in 1914, it had been scanned as part of Project Gutenberg, and as a result, was posted at Google Books. Our curation team was encouraged to read it in whatever format they could find.
My copy is a 1977 reprint by The Mountaineers Books, in Seattle, which contains some amazing additional information. From photographs of the mountain made, and annotated by Bradford Washburn, to the transcript of the diary of Walter Harper, this book has become a symbol of this research process.
It was this copy of the book that made me realize that there was much more to the story of the climb than the “official” version published by Stuck. Despite being an engaging and exciting story (I highly encourage everyone interested in this ascent to read the book), it’s told in a formal way with little emotion or insights into the personalities of the men on the climb. It left me wanting so much more.
The research trail led me to the American Geographical Society in NYC, to the American Alpine Club library in Golden, CO, to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and finally, down the road from my office, 3/4 of a mile, to the UAF Rasmuson Library’s Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives. The diaries holding the stories of the four men who summited Denali on 7 June, 1913, recorded in their own words while experiencing the actual events, lay in their archival homes waiting to be heard.
I never could have found these without the help of Ken Karstens and the Karstens Library, great-grandson of Harry Karstens, and Tom Walker, Harry’s biographer. The research-driven connections made with them, and now, many other family members of the original expedition participants, has been invaluable. As we’ve each made our own discoveries, which we’ve shared with one another, a new family of sorts has been created.
The farthest-reaching connection has been with the Tatum family. Robert Tatum was the 21-year-old from Knoxville who signed on as the official cook, but reached the summit of the mountain himself. This fourth member of the summit team was the only member of the team without a Wikipedia entry… which intrigued me even more. I felt a sort of obligation to fill out his story and make the world more aware of his contributions.
This has been aided by the efforts of a number of members of the Tatum family who still reside in Tennessee. From an initial connection on a blog post, to phone calls and emails, Robert’s story is beginning to fill out, including his final resting place at Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville.
With only six weeks until the opening of our exhibition, we are still learning about these men, uncovering the enormous impact this three-month-period had on their lives. Their legacy, to their families, continues to be written.
-Angela Linn, Guest Curator
Accumulating artifacts for an historical exhibit like Denali Legacy might include some obvious similarities with the event itself. For example, the planning, like that of the Denali expedition, began well over a year ago. And there’s always a bit of luck involved with coordinating the supplies and other logistics necessary for any successful endeavor.
Although Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens were dismayed when many items from the New York outfitter Abercrombie & Fitch didn’t arrive in time for their climb, they were able to take advantage of local resources to outfit the expedition.
A hundred years later, with the advantage of regular air mail and light speed communication, Guest Curator Angela Linn has had great success assembling items from the historical climb to use in the exhibit.
“We started this process thinking we would have one or two items from the climb, if that. But through the ‘magic’ of the internet and the ease of making connections, incredibly significant artifacts have shown up.”
Thanks to the foresight, and generosity, of the Karstens family, many of the items used by Harry Karstens will included in the exhibit, such as the climbing satchel he brought with him to the top of the mountain and his glacier goggles.
The family has also loaned the last remaining commemorative pin, commissioned by Hudson Stuck from Tiffany & Co for each of the climbers. The stickpin features a polished piece of granite from the mountain on the front and is inscribed on the reverse with the words “Denali, 7th June 1913.”
Linn said no amount of planning could have guaranteed success, but the exhibit will be much improved by the presence of these items. “The objects will help visitors make an immediate connection with the 1913 climb and turn the figures in the photos into real people.”
It’s been a hundred years since the first ascent of Denali. In that time, thousands of people have tried to reach the summit. If you know what that view looks like and you’re willing to share, send us your photos so we can use them in our special exhibit, Denali Legacy: 100 Years on the Mountain.
Share them on Facebook (/alaskamuseum)
Upload them to Flickr and other social media sites (#DenaliView)
Email them to email@example.com
Details on our website.