(Posted by James Powell on behalf of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s Exhibits Preparator Nora Pinell-Hernandez.)
Otter, Coffee and Sand – Bringing an Interactive Exhibit to Life
by Nora Pinell-Hernandez, Exhibits Preparator
With every exhibit there exists an immense amount of research and consideration involved to make the experience informative and engaging. The Education and Exhibits departments have been working hard to create an interactive activity at the Stranahan Trading Post located in the From the Land gallery of the museum. Visitors, especially students, will have the opportunity to trade deer, alligator, and otter pelts for supplies such as flour, sugar, soap, and fabric-much like what the Seminoles would have traded in the late 1800’s. The activity reinforces the concepts of trade, bartering and basic mathematics to students. As Exhibits Preparator, I oversee the production of props, signage, and display elements that make the space look and function as a trading post. This process requires technical drawings and many test pilots that will inform how the props will be constructed and displayed.
Lucky for me, the façade of the Stranahan Trading Post was constructed in 2007. The crate-like exhibit cases were modified into tables and shelves were constructed to go onto the larger crate. The technical drawing drafted by Rebecca Fell, Curator of Exhibits, was helpful to imagine where the tables will be positioned.
Flour, coffee and sugar sacks were bought with the intention to display them upright. I constructed eye shaped towers to stand the sack upright and created a shallow shelf that will support at least 40lbs of weight.
The sack frame made out of foam board was later dressed with cotton batting. Each sack was topped with a fabric that matched the color of the item: brown painted faux suede was used for sugar, muslin for unbleached flour and a dark cocoa sheer-weave for coffee.
To make the trading post look from the 1800s certain objects needed to be artificially aged. Small pieces from the sack were applied different stains to determine which method would be best to stain all sacks.
We decided to stain all the sacks using method A, which is a concoction of brewed coffee and green tea. The fabric was then dunked in a vat of this concoction 3 times in two hour intervals. This method is easier to manipulate and offers a more natural aged look.
Considering that the public will be interacting with the sacks, a weighted custom crate was constructed to go inside the foam shape – making the sacks less probable to knock over.
Another concern was the material that will be used to weigh down the crates inside of the foam frame and the filler for the brown bags on top of the sacks. Dirt and sand typically found outside may contain bugs, eggs and larvae which can cause severe damage to the collection. To combat the possibility of pest infestation, we decided to use “clean” sand which is sand that has been filtered multiple times.
Our bags of clean sand have been in our Back Bay Area for quite some time which is why we decided to err on the side of caution. We placed our sand in the freezer for over 96 hours in a freezing temperature of -18 degree Fahrenheit. Freezing objects is a preventative technique used to reduce the chances of pest infestation because it can kill insects that cannot adapt quickly to low temperatures.
Faux alligator skin, suede, and fur were purchased to mimic the animal hides that will be used to trade items. A pattern was created to make the process of making multiple alligators easier. Even the feet of the alligators where considered when making the pattern. My favorite part of the entire interactive are the googly eyes on the otter pelts.
The element that brings the entire exhibit together, and makes the interactive feel more authentic is the replica of a receipt sheet that would have been used at the Stranahan Trading Post. The original sheet was scanned and digitally edited by Rebecca Fell. The edited image was then printed on stacks of paper, cut to its original sized, and glued into booklets. Every visitor can now write and take with them a replica of a receipt sheet.
The Stranahan Trading Post took a lot of brainstorming, planning and painstaking labor. Though I truly enjoyed working on this project, nothing felt more satisfying than seeing all of the elements combined together to make an immersive space.
I hope you make a trip over to the museum and make use of our interactive. We otter see you there!