In early 2010, I received an e-mail out of the blue from Julie Decker, the chief curator of the Anchorage Museum, asking if I would be interested in co-curating an exhibition on flight and Alaska. Her idea was to bring together artifacts and archival materials from different museums into a gallery that told the story of Alaska and aviation during the state’s centennial of aviation in 2013. The idea was great and I jumped at the chance, which quickly developed into one of the best experiences of my career at the National Air and Space Museum. Our three-year collaboration resulted in the exhibition Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation, which opened in Anchorage on February 9 and closes August 11, and the accompanying book, Alaska and the Airplane: A Century of Flight.
The history of Alaska during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is intertwined with the airplane. James V. Martin made the first airplane flight in the territory in his Tractor Aeroplane on July 4, 1913. Aerial Alaska emerged in two important ways during the 1920s and 1930s. The pioneers of flight used the territory as a byway as they flew around the world, over the North Pole, and expressed their visions of the airplane as a global technology. Air-minded Alaskans, embracing their own pioneer spirit, took to the air as bush pilots and started the airplane’s ascendance as the main form of transportation. During World War II and the Cold War, world powers fought over the Aleutians, built an aerial bridge to Siberia, and faced each other during decades of nuclear stalemate. The bush pilots created aviation empires that connected the rest of the world to an industrialized frontier that served villages, resource developers, and outsiders seeking adventure. Along the way, both women and Native pilots found opportunity in the air. One thing remained a constant throughout the century of Alaskan flying, the unpredictable weather and rugged terrain remained the great equalizer.
Besides me, the Museum was involved in other ways. Our Archives provided many historical images like the one above. Photographer Eric Long documented the artifacts selected for Arctic Flight, which became the basis for the photo essays in Alaska and the Airplane.
The Collections Department assisted with Eric’s photography and prepared the artifacts that traveled on loan to the Anchorage Museum.
Co-curating an exhibition and co-authoring a book is a challenging process in itself. You would think trying to do that from over 4,000 miles away, with a few memorable research trips thrown in for good measure, would be nearly impossible, but the collaboration between the National Air and Space Museum and the Anchorage Museum was a grand partnership. We hope that the people of Alaska and anyone enthusiastic for the airplane will find the final product as exciting and worthwhile as we did putting it together.