In April, the Museum’s Conservator Robin Croskery Howard and I completed a courier trip to Disney’s Epcot theme park to rotate objects in the exhibit “Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art” in the American Adventure pavilion. Since the exhibit opened in 2018, the Museum has changed the objects on display five times allowing us to share more of the collection and, therefore, more of the Seminole story. Rotating objects also ensures their safety by limiting the amount of time they are exposed to potentially damaging conditions such as dust and light.
We worked with Walt Disney Imagineering’s curator to take down eight objects and install four dolls, a dress, and bigshirt that will be on display for the next six months. We used a steamer to remove wrinkles on the clothing before placing them on mannequins, and secured the dolls to specially designed mounts. The six objects are a mix from the past and present, since the exhibit aims to show how ancestral craftsmanship inspires contemporary art.
The oldest object is an early 20th century female doll carved out of wood, which signals its age since dolls are no longer made of wood. Also now on display is a male doll from the 1930s that unlike the female doll is made of palmetto fiber. They are both wearing traditional clothing, the female a cape and skirt and the male a turban and bigshirt, which remains a common feature among Seminole dolls. What notably distinguishes these two from contemporary dolls are their noses, which dolls today tend to lack.
Next to the older dolls is one made by Minnie Doctor and another by Mabel Osceola dating to the late 1990s. Minnie Doctor’s palmetto fiber doll is a mother with a baby on her back, while Mable Osceola’s palmetto fiber doll is a woman holding a pestle next to a mortar. She is posed as if ready to grind corn to make the traditional food sofkee. Both dolls are dressed in traditional capes, skirts, and beaded necklaces, so though the dolls are contemporary they celebrate longstanding practices.
Accompanying the dolls in the display case is a boy’s bigshirt and a girl’s dress. The bigshirt dating to the 1950s has many rows of applique, a decorative detail that grew in popularity during the 20th century. Its vibrant blue fabric stands out next to the red fabric of the dress Annie Jim made in 1990. Part of the dress is cotton like the bigshirt, but it is also made of synthetic metallic fiber. This metal-coated plastic is a modern material that distinguishes this dress from earlier clothing. A continuity between the bigshirt and dress is patchwork. Colorful bands of patchwork remain popular features on clothing though new designs have arisen.
The six objects on display in the “Creating Traditions” exhibit exemplify continuity in Seminole art but also show how styles have evolved. In six months, we will rotate the objects with ones that similarly celebrate past and present artisanship. We hope that the park’s millions of visitors will enjoy the beautiful pieces and be inspired to learn more about Seminole culture.
Hi, I’m Robin; I’m an objects conservator, and one of the many people at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum tasked with the care and protection of Seminole cultural heritage objects in our collection. Most people have never heard of my job, so it’s okay if you didn’t even know my field exists! The easiest way for me to explain this job is like the medical profession: I am essentially a ‘doctor for objects.’ I make sure everything in our collection is happy, healthy, stable, and able to go on exhibition, loan, or undergo research. Even if none of these things can happen, I make sure that we store objects in a special way so that they last a very long time.
Treating objects is what most people immediately think of when they find out what my job is. It really is like being a doctor; I investigate the object: look at the type of material it’s made of, how that may have degraded over time, figure out what is causing an issue and if that potential issue can be solved, write up a proposal for how to solve that issue, and then execute the plan. This might mean sewing a patch onto a tear to provide a textile with more support, using special chemical mixtures to stop metals from oxidizing, vacuuming dust off a painting, using special paper to put a document back together, or even removing something like scotch tape or staples from an object. It’s all done in such a way that the object will continue to be happy.
A typical day for me runs the gambit, depending on what is happening at the Museum. I’m usually doing 3 to 4 projects in a single day: photographing objects; completing condition reports (checking on the physical condition of an object) for new objects, loans, or exhibits; treating objects; installing objects in exhibits; doing research on objects, typologies, treatments, or for other divisions; or simply helping other divisions complete their work if they need an extra hand. This isn’t everything I do, but it’s a pretty good list.
Here’s a great example of a typical day in my life from last week: I spent the morning doing research for a treatment on a leather sword belt.
This object will be featured in the Museum’s redesign as a part of the Seminole war era story. The belt is fragile now, so my job is to make sure that it can be displayed once the redesign is completed. I already had a good plan for stabilizing the object, but wanted to triple check my research and make sure there wasn’t a better option that I could take. Later, I worked on condition reports and photographing new objects that came into our collection this month including really cool tiny dolls! I’ve also been assisting the THPO Collections division with photographing some of their new objects, and spent time on that particular project.
And that afternoon, I was able to finally make some progress on a big project. I’m working on a large sculptural trunk for another department so that it can be installed inside of a new building. I was able to get some time on our sandblaster, so I worked with Facilities to move the sculpture over to the maintenance area and ended the day with a well-cleaned trunk—and me covered in sand! This perfectly describes an average day for me.
Whenever I speak to high school and college students, I close by saying, if you can’t pick a favorite subject in school but like to work with your hands, you might want to be a conservator! Knowledge of chemistry, art, history, and a desire to help preserve heritage makes for the perfect blend in a conservator. Every day is different, and I wouldn’t change my profession. If you’re ever interested in seeing more behind the scenes, stop on by the lab at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum!
By Chelsea Nielsen, Cataloging Assistant and Tara Backhouse, Collections Manager
Though the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum remains closed due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, it continues to serve the Seminole community in part by cataloging thousands of photographic negatives. Hmm, photographic negatives, who remembers those? It actually wasn’t that long ago when almost everyone had experiences with them. Anyone who put film in a camera would have to get those pictures developed, usually at shops that specialized in film development or at photo centers in major retail stores such as Walmart or Target. It was there that the film was developed into negatives, using specific chemical processes. Then photographs were printed using an enlarger machine to duplicate the image on each negative. People then picked up their photographs in an envelope that contained both the negatives and the printed photos. You had to keep the negatives if you ever wanted more photos printed, and this was important to many people. There was no other easy way to reprint a picture. It was possible to reprint a picture from a print, but the quality was never as good. This was a much more cumbersome way to capture important moments in our lives, but people got used to it. This is how taking photographs worked for nearly 100 years. But about 15 to 20 years ago, people began transitioning to digital cameras and moving away from cameras that used rolls of film to create lasting memories.
Cameras that used rolls of film, like this one, used to be almost as common as iPhones.
These days, negatives are valuable pieces of history, which is why Collections Manager Tara Backhouse secured a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to catalog a collection of photographic negatives donated by the Seminole Tribune in 2015. The Seminole Tribune is the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s award winning newspaper (https://seminoletribune.org/).
They have been recording and publishing Tribal events, lives and milestones for over 30 years. The IMLS grant provides funding for storage materials and a Cataloging Assistant position. This fall I became the Cataloging Assistant, and my job is to organize and describe the collection’s 9,000 negatives that up until September sat in boxes with little information known about them.
This box of jumbled negatives won’t look like this when we’re done with it! The negatives will be organized and stored safely with identifying numbers that match up to catalog records in our database.
Peering into these boxes, I felt overwhelmed; 9,000 suddenly became an intimidatingly large number. The project will take nearly two years to complete, since I must scan, house and describe every negative as part of the cataloging process. The first step in making the collection accessible is assigning each negative with an identifying number that will link the object to its catalog record in the database. The record will include details such as a description of the image and the physical location of the photo to help Museum personnel find it among tens of thousands of objects.
The database catalog record contains any information we know about both the subject of the negative and its physical nature, such as size and condition.
The Museum aims to not only organize this collection but also to ensure the long-term safety of the photographic negatives. I help accomplish that by housing the negatives in mylar, a type of polyester, and then putting them in specialized paper envelopes that go into acid-free boxes. The boxes are then placed on a shelf in a secure vault. These layers of protection will help preserve the negatives for future generations.
Museums used storage materials made of acid-free paper and inert plastics. These don’t degrade like normal materials which would damage the negatives over time.
After I label and house a negative, I then create its catalog record that includes all its information, completing the cataloging process. Cataloging the photographic collection is like opening a window into Seminole culture. The snapshots taken by Seminole Tribune contributors date as far back as the 1970s and represent an array of events. The resultant visual story is a string of moments that highlight how close-knit the Seminole community is. Multi-generational gatherings such as holiday events, friendly tournaments and festivals comprise the bulk of the collection.
Billy L. Cypress, veterans and the Seminole Tribe’s Color Guard members Stephen Bowers, Dan Bowers and Mitchell Cypress take part in a grand entry procession at the Seminole Tribal Fair in 2001 (record 2015.6.32151)
There are many happy moments captured by the photographic negatives. There are photos of people covered in mud battling in tug-of-war contests or playing volleyball at a 4th of July Blowout. Other negatives show youth beaming with pride as they participate in 4-H livestock shows or receive academic achievement awards. There are also images of grand entries and patchwork clothing contests at Tribal fairs that honor Seminole culture. What is unique about this collection is that some photos appear in Seminole Tribune articles, which enrich the collection’s visual story by providing additional information. Collections records include these details and note the associated article, which allows someone viewing the records online to learn more about photos that interest them.
A tug-of-war battle in a muddy trench at a 4th of July Blowout (record 2015.6.33338)
The photographic negatives are a celebration of recent Seminole history. You can relive moments, share them with others or learn about local history by browsing the online catalog. The Museum also accepts requests for copies of photos, and what is unique about a collection of negatives is that they can be printed in various sizes to suit your needs. Upon request, negatives are re-scanned at a higher resolution to create quality copies for your family albums. You can view records and make requests on our website:
A group photo during a Big Cypress recreation field trip to Sunsplash Family Waterpark (record 2015.6.32188)
Already online for viewing are 1,000 of the project’s 9,000 photographic negatives, specifically records 2015.6.32000-33000. Over the next year and a half, the rest of the negatives will be cataloged and uploaded to our online collections, which you can access through our website or directly at https://semtribe.pastperfectonline.com/. As you browse the collection, you may notice that some records lack details. Should you recognize a person, location or event and wish to share that information you can submit feedback through the website, or contact Collections Manager Tara Backhouse at firstname.lastname@example.org. New information is used to update records, which makes searching through them easier.
The project aims to preserve memories for the Seminole community now and in the future, and the Museum hopes that the growing online catalog will help people feel connected to their past and each other. As the pandemic continues to separate people in an unprecedented way, it is nice to remember the joy brought by community gatherings and look forward to their return.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services Native American/Native Hawaiian Museum Service FY20 Program.
Back in autumn 2018, the Museum was fortunate enough to receive as a donation a sash that purportedly belonged to Osceola. It is believed to be one of the many articles of clothing that was taken from him during his imprisonment. Our Collections Manager, Tara Backhouse, has written several posts and articles that include the background of this object and how it made its way into our collection. For more background, check out the blog post “An Incredible Piece of History Comes Home” by Tara Backhouse from December 2018.
As the Museum’s conservator, I am tasked with taking care of all of the objects in a tangible way: through storage, monitoring and managing the environment, and also treatments which may be as simple as adding extra support in a box or as intricate and delicate as some surgeries. This sash came to the museum after having been stored in a brown paper bag for almost 100 years.
Paper, unless it undergoes a special process, is inherently acidic; the wool that is the primary fabric is also inherently acidic. Together, this overly acidic environment caused extreme brittleness of the actual fibers of the textile. It was so brittle, that when I started to carefully remove it from the bag, some of the long tassels were already broken off from the body of the sash. Therefore, it was really important that this sash undergo a special set of baths to try and neutralize the acidity and thus allow the fibers to relax back into place.
Anytime textiles are stored for a long period of time, the way in which it is folded (or in this case, crumpled) will create a memory in the fabric. It will continue to want to stay in that position, even after you have unfolded it; this is why clothes end up with lines on them if they stay folded for too long. So, to try and help get some of the folds out, I straightened out the piece as best I could, placed it under a large piece of acrylic, and put weights on top of it. The sash stayed like this until we could find a specialist to help treat this object.
After talking to other conservators, we were able to work with Howard Sutcliffe – a textile specialist – to treat this very delicate object earlier this year. It takes years of training to be able to become a conservator, and even longer to specialize in a single area of conservation. The treatment was straightforward, but not easy. Howard was able to bathe the textile, clean the beads, mend some of the tears, and stabilize the object overall to a point where it can be stored or displayed with relative ease.
Even though the Museum is closed to the public, the Collections staff worked with Howard to ensure the safe return of the sash late this spring. When it arrived back at the Museum, we were all thrilled with the amazing work Howard completed, and our ability to now safely store and exhibit this unique object. Please enjoy some of these in progress photos. I hope that once the Museum is able to re-open, that this object will get the fanfare it so richly deserves.