Time is an amazing thing. It passes from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day… then months give way to years and before you know it more time has passed than any of us care to admit. Unless of course you are an institution, then it is a badge of honor and a testament to fortitude and progress. Such is the case with the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.
On August 21, the Museum commemorated its 15th anniversary with a celebration honoring the tireless efforts and dedication of the numerous visionaries comprised of Tribal leaders, Tribal citizens, Museum staff, Museum members and visitors who have provided the opportunity to live by our very definition… a place to learn, a place to remember.
With the passing of 15 years, one cannot help but reflect on the magnitude of the progress which has so proudly complimented the unwavering commitment of its founding and working luminaries. It is an outstanding and significant achievement and occasion that warrants an insightful look back and ahead.
In 1987, the Seminole Tribe of Florida began a comprehensive evaluation of its cultural departments. This study, uncovered the need to further collect, preserve, and communicate, the culture and history of the Seminole people. Always committed to nurturing and sharing tribal customs and traditions, the Tribe has given priority to maintaining cultural rituals that involve participation of Tribal elders alongside Seminole youth. The Tribe also has a long history of encouraging Seminole cultural exchanges with non-Seminole people world-wide. The Tribe’s commitment to this ideal led to the commission of a master plan for the design and implementation of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.
In the words of Tribal Chairman James E. Billie, who donated his traditional camp in Big Cypress to develop the Museum, “We have lost priceless knowledge of our people because we failed to properly document and store these documents. Therefore, I believe it is time to develop a museum where we can do these things and share our culture with those who wish to know a little about the Seminole.”
With considerable prowess and deft handling, the former Executive Director and Seminole educator Billy Cypress, along with a small core team of Museum commissioners, set about making the project become a reality. Assembling a collection of items that now rivals most historic houses and small Museums, the work to draft into existence a historical and cultural museum that would preserve the vital history and culture of the Unconquered Seminoles had begun.
Officially chartered in 1989, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum opened its doors to the public on August 21, 1997. The state-of-the-art curatorial building was completed in early 2004. The Museum became accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM) on April 21, 2009; becoming the first ever tribally governed museum to be accredited by the AAM.
By most industry standards this timeline is incredible. And if you have ever stepped foot on the Museum campus you would know it and feel it, quite tangibly. The Museum sits on a 66 acre natural cypress dome and is home to more than 60 indigenous everglades flora and fauna. The one-mile raised boardwalk through the cypress dome is a tremendous feat, worthy of the best naturalists, botanists, birders and outdoor enthusiasts. The interior of the Museum boasts lifelike dioramas with mannequins molded after actual Tribal members for the most realistic representation of Florida Seminole Indians, as opposed to the more stereotypical non-Indian ethnographic stylized work.
This unique perspective, the Seminole perspective, is what dominates and carries forward throughout the experience. The Seminole tell the story their way, and all who listen are enriched.
Behind the scenes at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, is what truly fascinates and delights, for a staffer like me anyhow. The road to accreditation gained serious momentum from 2005-2009, and with it came the enhanced management of the collections, more intense focus on operational matters, development of educational programs, revitalized marketing efforts and careful stewardship overall. The process of self-assessment was unyielding, unforgiving, and magical. While daunting and rigorous, it was at once invigorating and highly motivational. And it has been a beauteous privilege to be entrusted with carrying out and enacting the vision of the Tribe and its early Museum proponents.
Also entrusted to us at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, is the future of the Museum. As we round out fifteen years we make plans to broaden the baseline of services to our Tribal constituents and the general public. New programs and exhibitions are being developed to enhance the visitor experience and we are working to make more distance learning opportunities available via a newly designed and more accessible website. We have produced unique Seminole inspired merchandise to help us drive revenue to sustain the Museum and dazzle the public. We collaborate regularly with area partners and industry affiliates in an attempt to favorably impact the greatest number of people and make thoughtful use of opportunities to gain exposure, share our message and fulfill our mission… for the enrichment of all people.
Naturally, we rely heartily on the support of our Members and donors to make this happen. We thank each and every one of you, welcome others of you and hope we can count on your continued support in the minutes, days, months and years ahead.
For time and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki march on…. and no one man or woman is an institution.
Dorian Lange is Development Manager at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum