New Connections

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 heavily-marked and worn copy of Stuck's official version of the climb.

My heavily-marked and worn copy of Stuck’s official version of the climb.

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.

Rev. Robert G. Tatum reads a 1961 Life magazine article about climbers on Denali.

Rev. Robert G. Tatum reads a 1961 Life magazine article about climbers on Denali. Courtesy Sewanee: The University of the South Jessie Ball duPont Library digital collections.

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

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About AKEthnoGirl

I've been the Collections Manager of Ethnology & History at the University of Alaska Museum of the North since 1999. I worked as a graduate student in the department for three years prior to that. I grew up in Iowa, but moved to Alaska the day after I graduated from the University of Iowa in 1994, having spent the past 3 summers working for my Aunt & Uncle at beautiful Portage Glacier Lodge. I'm completely in love with my life in Alaska, which includes my husband and son and two dogs and my 14-sided-house, as well as my job, which takes me to interesting places where I meet amazing people who share incredible stories with me about all kinds of things. I hope to share some of the exciting things I love about my job, being the caretaker of a 16,000 object collection of Alaskan cultural heritage, and an active member of a number of Museum and Anthropology professional organizations.
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