Bringing Seminole Art to Disney

By Chelsea Nielsen, Registrar

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.  

Chelsea Nielsen using a steamer to prepare the dress made by Annie Jim for display

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.

Robin Croskery Howard placing the bigshirt on a mannequin and securing it will pins

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.

Author: Collections Division

The Collections Division manages the Museum's collections, produces and maintains exhibits, conducts the oral history program, and staffs the Museum's village.

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