The Spoils of Conversion: Charlotte E. Mauk’s Color Slides

Guest blogger: Megan

For a while now, we have been in the process of converting our old finding aids to a more standardized format. Being very pro-standardization in most aspects of my archival work and having done my share of time in past jobs on a conversion and usability projects, I always find it satisfying to apply these standards to our old collection inventories. There’s nothing like watching a previously messy legacy guide suddenly appear relatively neat and orderly on the computer screen.

But what I really love about converting finding aids is the discovery factor. We have a lot of collections. Many of them were processed by people who are no longer employed here. And they have varying levels of description, some detailed down to the item level and others just the barest sketch of what’s in the collection. Add that up with the impossibility of any one of us knowing exactly what’s in every one of our several thousand collections, and conversion can turn into a treasure hunt – especially for me, who has been playing catch-up for the last four months to get a handle on what we have here in the Archives. Sometimes we end up stumbling on a little nugget (let’s stretch the gold rush metaphor, shall we?) of a collection that’s been hiding just under our noses.

So last week, I was chugging away at my weekly chunk of conversions when I came to our collection of Charlotte E. Mauk slides. When we purchased this collection at internet auction in 2005, its significance seemed clear enough. Charlotte E. Mauk served on the board of the Sierra Club from 1943-1968 and, in 1948, edited the book Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, which included photographs by Ansel Adams and text by John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. Her involvement with the club and the conservation movement led her to become one of a small group of dedicated women – which included the Sierra Club’s Doris Leonard, Celia Hunter of the Wilderness Society, and Eleanor Anthony King, editor of Audubon Magazine – who pushed the movement to prominence after World War II. (Fox 344)

Our Mauk collection consists of color slides that Charlotte took on travels to Alaska in the summers of 1944-1945 and again in 1961 and 1963. The guide I was converting also indicated that, among these slides, there were some photos of “naturalists Olaus and Mardy Murie” on their trips with Mauk to the Sheenjek River and Mount McKinley National Park. That was all. Right away, my cataloger’s instinct kicked in: who were Olaus and Mardy Murie and what was their significance, if any, to Mauk and Alaska? I didn’t have to dig very far at all to realize that naturalists Olaus Johan Murie (1889-1963), president of the Wilderness Society, and his wife, Margaret “Mardy” E. Murie (1902-2003), were two of the most vocal voices behind the conservation movement that began in Alaska in the late 1950s. Spurred by a trip to the Sheenjek River in the Brooks Range in 1956, Olaus and Mardy spent years fighting for federal protection of the area; their success in advocating for conservation of those lands led, eventually, to the creation of now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge . Not only that but Mardy Murie was also the first women to graduate from the University of Alaska (class of 1924) and the author of Two in the Far North, a book that’s been on my Alaska reading list since I moved here.

Charlotte Mauk’s slides are exceptionally well labeled – archivists weep with relief when they see visual materials that have this much information attached to them! But there were still other mysteries, heretofore unsolved by our current collection description. For instance, I noticed two other names that caught my eye: Celia Hunter (hmmm, didn’t I just mention that name?) and a man variously identified as “Ade” or “Adolph.” Celia Hunter turned out to be Celia M. Hunter (1919-2001), who co-founded the Alaska Conservation Society in 1960 to help the Muries advocate for the preservation of Brooks Range land. Hunter also became the president and executive director of the Wilderness Society in 1976 and in this capacity was the first female to ever head a national environmental organization. Additionally, her work with the Federal State Land Use Planning Commission led ultimately to the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act in 1980. The man identified as “Ade” also turned out to be an equally important figure in the Alaskan conservation movement: Adolph Murie (1899-1974), Olaus’s younger brother and wildlife biologist who authored a now-classic study of wolves in the Mount McKinley area in 1939-1941 that led to the protection of that species.

Mardy Murie and Charlotte Mauk preparing dinner

If all the “famous faces” in the collection weren’t enough, the slides themselves are fabulous. I’ve always liked slides from this era, as the color retention tends to be beautiful. Charlotte’s early slides from 1944-1945 are Kodachrome, filled with almost unnaturally deep blues, reds, and yellows; these mostly depict her trips to the Ketchikan area to document totem poles at Mud Bight (now Totem Bight) and Saxman. Much of the rest of the collection depicts Charlotte Mauk’s camping trip with the Muries to the Sheenjek River in June 1961. There are the expected sweeping views of the Sheenjek River Valley and detailed documentation of its local flora but also some very sweet shots of Mauk and the Muries in camp together, cooking and eating hotcakes, giving each other haircuts, and inspecting the weather, which ranged from sun to storms to ice. (The photo above depicts Mardy, left, and Charlotte, right, preparing dinner at their camp on Lobo Lake; click on it to access the full image on the Alaska’s Digital Archives website.) These slides also include some unusual shots of rural Alaskan life in the early 1960s: the tiny, dusty runway at the Fort Yukon airport, a float plane taking off from the Yukon River, an abandoned riverboat on the Nenana River, pickup trucks parked in front of a Northern Commercial Company store, to name just a few. Mauk’s later slides from 1963 mostly depict her travels in Glacier Bay to photograph its inlets and glaciers. Having recently traveled there myself, I found these slides especially compelling for the literal snapshots they give of how the glaciers have changed and receded over the intervening fifty-odd years.

I love it when we find such rich collections like this that can operate on so many levels for researchers. On the one hand, there’s the obvious documentation of a particularly important moment in Alaska’s conservation history. But then there are also the potential usefulness of the photos for studying topics ranging from climate change, Native art, Alaskan natural history, development of rural communities… this list goes on. I ended up putting our new scanning standards (recently written about by Arlene) to work and digitized about 54 slides from the collection. They are now up in Alaska’s Digital Archives, and I invite you to view them. Just search for “Mauk” in the search box. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.