Grant helps Washington State Historical Society preserve 60,000 images of Asahel Curtis to share with public – The Suburban Times
Washington State History Museum press release.
Tacoma – Most people in Washington have probably seen a photograph of Asahel Curtis, whether or not they recognize it as his work. One of the Pacific Northwest’s most prolific photographers, Curtis has created tens of thousands of images capturing our state’s natural resources, industries, early cities, historical events and people. He created an extensive archive, visually documenting our shared history in detail.
After his death in 1941, Asahel Curtis’ personal collection was donated to the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS), a nonprofit and the oldest heritage organization in the state. WSHS operates the Washington State History Museum and the Washington State Research Center, both located in Tacoma. The Curtis family entrusted WSHS with the preservation of 60,000 images, including 40,000 delicate nitrate negatives and approximately 20,000 glass plate negatives. Volatile nitrate negatives are carefully stored in a specialized nitrate room at the WSHS; it is the only such storage chamber in the state.
The Curtis Collection is the largest collection entrusted to the WSHS and the organization’s longest running project. To date, only 5,000 images have been cataloged, but advances in technology now allow for better scanning, processing, cataloging and sharing of fragile negatives. Soon, audiences will be able to see scenes captured by Curtis that have only been seen by a handful of people over the past 80 years.
“History is dynamic. Scholars, public historians and other researchers are constantly learning new information about the past,” said Jennifer Kilmer, director of the WSHS. “For historical scholars, the Asahel Curtis collection is a treasure. Its images will offer critical clues to ongoing discoveries and connections, so it is important that they are digitized and shared.
WSHS’ goal is to make the Curtis collection available in its entirety, and funding is essential to achieve this. Enter the Pendleton and Elisabeth Carey Miller Charitable Foundation, which recently awarded a $25,000 grant to WSHS, providing partial funding to hire a contract archivist who will begin cataloging and digitizing the remaining images. This phase of the work is expected to last 12 to 18 months. The WSHS estimates it will need an additional $75,000 to complete the project. Results will include a subsequent exhibition at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma and a permanent online gallery/database for the collection that will be freely accessible to historians, scholars, heritage organizations, and the public.
“We are grateful for the generosity of the Pendleton and Elisabeth Carey Miller Charitable Foundation and we look forward to this phase of the project. We also look forward to engaging community members, investors and history buffs to support this exciting work,” said Camille Perezselsky, Director of Philanthropy at WSHS. Curtis aficionados and history fans can donate to this project through the Washington State Historical Society website (www.WashingtonHistory.org/donate).
Born in Minnesota in 1874, Asahel Curtis moved to Washington Territory in 1888. He was a founding member of the Mountaineers, a climbing group that also promoted the preservation of wilderness areas, and he was involved in efforts to ensure that Mt. Rainier earned its place as a national park. At the age of 21, he apprenticed in the Seattle photography studio of his brother Edward Curtis. Edward became a renowned photographer who was recognized for his images of Native American and Indigenous peoples. Asahel’s images, though contrived, do not romanticize; he realistically depicted the Northwest.
Asahel Curtis and his studio have captured an almost encyclopedic view of a region transitioning from wilderness to modernity, capturing diverse and important subjects. From documenting the natural resources of the Pacific Northwest to significant historical events such as the Wellington Avalanche, the Yukon Gold Rush, and more, Curtis’ body of work provides invaluable information about the history of Washington State.
“He applied a high level of technical skill and had a sensibility that accurately captured the seemingly ‘everyday’ activities of this developing region. He was a keen observer of people, places and events, and appreciated the beauty and uniqueness of our natural environment,” said Margaret Wetherbee, WSHS Collections Manager. “We are thrilled and grateful to receive the Pendleton Miller Fellowship and to continue to preserve and share the legacy of Asahel Curtis. We can’t wait to see what the scans reveal and make this resource freely available to everyone.
Find out what awaits you by exploring the images that have been digitized so far on the WSHS website at www.WashingtonHistory.org/collections. Type “Asahel Curtis” in the search field.