Volunteers working with Curator and Collections Manager Tara Beresh assist in the organization and background research of the photos and objects within the Museum Collection. Accession records have been kept since the foundation of the Moab Museum in 1957. Pictured here, the accession record shows the accession number, object number, donor, date, description, and occasional hand-drawn illustration of the new object within the collection. [Moab Museum Collection]

Earlier this fall, the Moab Museum explored several rock inscriptions and their significance in our weekly column. This week, we take a deeper dive into the museum collection through the photographic work of James (Jim) Knipmeyer, work featured in a previous exhibit at the Moab Museum: “Butch Cassidy Was Here: Historic Inscriptions of the Colorado Plateau.”

In 1976, Knipmeyer set a goal of locating and photographing all the historic inscriptions left before 1900 in the Colorado Plateau region of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Today, more than 2,800 images of inscriptions make up his collection, now entrusted to the Utah State Historical Society and the Moab Museum, respectively.

The Knipmeyer Collection, housed at the Moab Museum, includes photographs from Jim Knipmeyer’s travels around Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau, recording pre-1900 inscriptions. [Moab Museum Collection]
Bill Jackson, 1841 Inscription within the Knipmeyer Collection. [Moab Museum Collection]

Born in 1947 in Kansas City, Missouri, Knipmeyer taught earth science and geology close to his hometown for 30 years. 

Knipmeyer said: 

“I have always been interested in history and I gradually read and learned more and more about that of Utah and Arizona. It finally got so that, now being more familiar with the local history, I began to recognize some of the names and dates that I would occasionally find carved or painted onto the boulders and canyon walls during my backpacking trips. 

Some of these historic inscriptions, however, I knew nothing about, and upon inquiring with park service personnel, BLM rangers, or even local townspeople and ranchers, I soon found that there seemed to be comparatively little interest in them. Therefore, I set for myself the seemingly modest goal of photographing and documenting all that I could of the historic names and dates of the Colorado Plateau region.”

In addition to his fieldwork, Knipmeyer authored 46 articles in various magazines and periodicals, as well as six books—one of which, “Butch Cassidy Was Here: Historic Inscriptions of the Colorado Plateau” was the foundation of the museum’s inscription exhibit. 

Bodies of work like the Knipmeyer Collection serve as important community touchpoints. Objects, photographs, and documents donated to the museum can be created as a special collection under the name of the donor. Through this process, the museum pays tribute to the donor, while attributing an unbiased designation to the specific objects within the Collection. For instance, by naming a collection after a donor, the museum avoids using non-Indigenous terminology to indicate historic sites, inscriptions or vessels that have Indigenous origins.

The museum has many special collections; each tells a detailed story about the history of Grand County from the objects they contain from the unique perspective of the donor. Over the next few weeks, the museum’s column will focus on the internal process of accessioning objects, adding them to the collection, why this process is so rigorous and detailed, and how the Moab Museum cares for the history that the Moab community entrusts to it.

For thousands of years, people have left their mark not only on the canyon walls of the Southwest but on the historical record of what we now call the Moab Valley. Individual collections, such as Jim Knipmeyer’s, offer a unique window into the time period they come from. As part of the museum’s ongoing collections update process, rehousing objects in the new off-site collections storage facility, our staff is working on an in-depth digitization project to make objects within the Collection available to the public at all times. 

The Moab Museum is dedicated to sharing stories of the natural and human history of the Moab area. This is part of a series highlighting photographs and stories of downtown Moab over time. To explore more of Moab’s stories and artifacts, find out about upcoming programs, and become a Member, visit www.moabmuseum.org.