Despite having lived in Tacoma for the last three and a half years, I am the first to admit that much of the city remains a mystery to me, and in my last semester at UPS, I have been trying to get out more and experience all that Tacoma has to offer. Last month, I found myself back in Tacoma in early January with little to do before classes started up again. At a loss for ideas, I headed to trip advisor, hoping to find some undiscovered Tacoma attraction. In my search, I came across Tacoma’s Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, which is located just across the street from the Seymour Botanical Conservatory, in Wright Park. I had been meaning to check it out since I’d heard about it over the summer, but hadn’t yet visited. So, in the spirit of getting to know the city a little better, I ventured out with a friend in tow.
The Museum is currently showing a Mark Twain Exhibit, which features letters, manuscripts, notes, and illustrations by or about Mark Twain’s works. While the exhibit was interesting, the director of the Museum, Tom, is arguably more informative than the exhibit itself. As my friend and I were the only two people in the museum at the time, Tom ended up giving us a personal tour, as well as telling us about various materials that have moved through the museum in past exhibits. The whole experience was surprisingly interesting and engaging- I learned quite a bit about Mark Twain, and I got to chat with Tom about rare books and the variety of materials that rotate through the Tacoma Karpeles. He even brought out some reproductions of some of the other items in the Karpeles collection, including a “historical” time line of Narnia created by C.S. Lewis when he was doing the world-building for his books, which was really fun to see.
While the museum is free and open to the public, with only one employee, it remains in a state of disrepair and seems to remain a mystery to much of the city. Intrigued by my visit, and mildly confused about why the museum hasn’t been marketed better as a Tacoma cultural attraction, I decided to do a bit of quick research on the topic.
The Karpeles system as a whole is rather eccentric- developed by David Karpeles, a southern California mathematician turned real estate tycoon, the creation of the museums allowed him to display his ever expanding manuscript collection to the public. The museums are solely funded by Karpeles himself, and all are free to the public. Karpeles’ holdings include a wide range of materials, from the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, to a Papal decree from 1183, and none of the museums have a permanent exhibit. Instead, exhibits rotate among the museums roughly every four months. While the cities in which Karpeles museums have been established may seem random—Duluth, Minnesota, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Tacoma Washington—Karpeles reportedly established museums in cities that lacked cultural resources, rather than in urban metropolises. With so many museums across the country—fourteen locations in all—it seems that some locations may be better cared for then others.
That being said, the Tacoma Karpeles Museum is definitely worth checking out. The museum provides a hands-on way to experience history, and with the non-existent price of admission, may be a more accessible way for students like us to experience the variety of rare materials the Karpeles system has to offer.
For more information about the museum, check out Kate Albert Ward’s article in Post Defiance: http://postdefiance.com/the-tacoma-karpeles-manuscript-library-museum/ or the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums official website: http://www.rain.org/~karpeles/
By Kara E Flynn