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May 18, 2011

Centennial Scholars Project

It has been a while since I posted; the spring semester at Barnard has ended and I have finished my first semester apprenticeship with the Centennial Scholar Program, which this blog encompassed. I gave a photo hint in my last post about what my Centennial Scholars Project, which has grown out of the reading, writing, and feedback this blog has encompassed. Well, now that my project has been approved, I can tell you what I actually plan to do!

In the course of perusing the AMNH research library online catalogue one day, I cam across the name Mary Jobe Akeley. In a minimal amount of reading, I realized how deeply this woman was involved with the questions I have been asking about women, science, art, and the frontier, and how little is actually known about her or appreciated.

Mary Jobe Akeley (1878-1966), was a pioneering women of the early twentieth century in more ways than one. She is most famously known as wife to Carl Akeley, African explorer and namesake of the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History. When I began doing research on Mary Jobe Akeley, however, it became clear that this woman was far more brave, interesting, and inspiring in her role not as wife but as teacher and explorer of the Canadian Rockies.

Born in Ohio, Jobe graduated from Scio College (now Mt Union College) in 1897, received a Masters from Columbia University in 1909, and tutored in the History Department at Hunter College in New York City. In 1916, Jobe established a summer camp for girls in Mystic, Connecticut, in order to expose young women to the wonder of the outdoors that operated until 1930. Throughout her time at Columbia, Hunter, and as founder of Camp Mystic, Jobe went on numerous expeditions to the Canadian Rockies. These journeys to often unexplored territories were part expeditionary, at times anthropologic, and always self-exploratory. 

After four summers in the Rockies, Jobe led her first expedition in 1913 along the west coast of Canada to conduct an ethnographic study on Pacific Indian tribes. Her next, and most notable expedition, was to map to the northernmost peak then speculated in the Canadian Rockies in 1914. Jobe’s expedition took six weeks and faced food shortages and bad weather, but produced the only map of Mt. Kitchi (later Mt. Sir Alexander) available to the Canadian Geographical Survey for decades. Jobe became Jobe Akeley, wife to Carl Akeley, in 1926, after her heroic and extraordinary expeditions in the Rockies. 

Mary Jobe Akeley, 1937, from the Revelstoke Museum and Archives blog.

This basic biographical information about Mary Jobe Akeley is essentially the extent of material I was able to find on her from basic library and online searches. For my Centennial Scholars project, I want to dig deeper and really draw out the narrative of this woman’s life that, from just this biographical information, I am already fascinated and inspired by. Her photographs, letters, and papers are stored in the research library at the American Museum of Natural History and at the Mystic River Historical Society in Mystic, Connecticut. The material at the Mystic Historical Society consists mostly of photographs and documents from her Rockies expeditions, while the AMNH collection covers her years in Africa with Carl Akeley more extensively. My plan is to spend several days in Mystic at the end of this month, pouring through the Society’s collection and creating a picture of Mary Jobe Akeley’s time in the Rockies. 

In August, with this information I have from the Mystic Historical Society, I will be travelling to the Canadian Rockies and redoing part of Jobe’s 1914 expedition. I obviously will not have time to recreate the full expedition, which took Jobe and her party six weeks, but I will be covering at least 30 miles along the trail Jobe's expedition followed. I want to hike Jobe’s path with her photographs and words as inspiration, but also to experience the process of self-discovery that she experienced in her many journeys to the Rockies. While in Canada, I will also likely be visiting the archives at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and talking to local historians about early women explorers in Canada.

When I return to Barnard in the fall, I think it will be fitting to then explore Mary Jobe Akeley’s collection at AMNH. The AMNH collection covers her later life experiences in Africa both with Carl Akeley and alone, after he died. My research process will therefore parallel in time Mary Jobe Akeley’s life history.

The final product of this project is still formative for me. I have requested a camera so that I can document my surroundings and experience in the Canadian Rockies, just as Jobe did. Depending on the resources available, I think an exposition of reprints of Jobe’s photographs next to mine could definitely be incorporated into my final presentation. I also want to write about my experience in the Rockies and do an “experiential explication” of Jobe’s own writing. I think that as I begin my primary research and learn more about her, these ideas will take on a more definite character. 

If you have any suggestions or questions about my project, please let me know! I would love to know what people think of the project concept, problems I might stumble upon, or ways to present it come this time next year.

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