Getting Positive with Negatives

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.

Single exposed roll of film next to compact 35 millimeter pocket camera with open back cover over white background in selective focus

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:

https://semtribe.pastperfectonline.com/

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 tarabackhouse@semtribe.com. 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.

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