A Day in the Life: Objects Conservation

By Robin Croskery Howard, Objects Conservator

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 sword belt ATTK 1998.70.4 is destined for the museum’s redesign. I’ve inserted silk crepêline and added a special adhesive to help put these separated areas back together.

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.

THPO Collections received a donation of herbarium coupons from the Environmental Resources Management Department, which need to be photographed. This is Mount 16, listed as Sabatia grandiflora or largeflower rosegentian.

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.

Our facilities division was able to assist in moving this large sculptural trunk from the laboratory to the maintenance yard by using a forklift. The piece is dedicated to Betty Mae Jumper and is destined for a new health building on the Hollywood reservation.

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!


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:


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.

The Importance of “Where”

By Lacee Cofer, THPO Chief Data Analyst

Whether it’s researching a Seminole event that happened 100 years ago, or consulting with a federal agency on a project set to happen this year, we always ask the question, “Where?” The importance of place is integral to the work of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO). This is where the THPO Archaeometry team comes into play, to create maps to show exactly “where” things are happening.  The team is taking a unique approach to mapping in one of our biggest projects yet –an Ethnographic Study of the Seminole Tribe of Florida in the South Florida region.

Figure 1. Map depicting approximate project study area

An Ethnographic Study, or Ethnography, is a description of a group of people and their customs. THPO is taking a new approach to the concept of an ethnography to describe the Seminole Tribe of Florida, their customs, and how those customs relate to the utilization of land and water in the Everglades. Considering this, the team is seeking to protect the important cultural and environmental resources from future impacts due to Everglades restoration projects initiated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Multiple USACE projects fall within the identified study area, however the study area goes beyond current project boundaries, aiding in its relevancy for future use. The goal is to utilize information compiled during the study to aid the Tribe in federal consultation projects that affect the future of the Everglades.

Figure 2. Work being done to drain the Everglades in 1906

So what does an Ethnographic Study have to do with mapping? A whole lot, actually! While the final document will contain maps that show areas of interest and concern for the Tribe, we first have to collect locational information from the Tribal Community that is shareable and does not contain any sensitive data that the community would like to keep private. This method of mapping, or collecting spatial data from community members, is called participatory mapping.

The THPO has had a strong participatory mapping program for several years. This includes using paper maps and having Tribal Members draw locations of significant events, camps, or other cultural resources onto the maps. Once a Tribal Member provides us this information, we digitize and secure the data to keep it safe and private and archive the paper maps for safe keeping. These maps are only accessible to a limited number of staff, but are available for Tribal member use.

Figure 3. Quenton Cypress works the participatory mapping booth at the 2015 Big Cypress Cattle Drive

We are hoping to have strong participation from members of the community to provide spatial data in relation to the Ethnographic Study. Our goal is for this project to bridge the communication gap between the Tribe and outside agencies whose projects impact the land. We want to reduce the confusion caused by unfamiliar terminology by using place names known to the Tribal community. The Tribe’s voice will be strengthened, and the connection the Tribe has to the land and water will be understood and respected by outside agencies during their consultations.

To help explain the project to the community, provide an opportunity for feedback, and request participation, the Ethnographic Study team is in the process of creating a Story Map to do just that. The Story Map will describe the Ethnographic Study, current federal projects the Tribe is consulting on, staff working on the project, and how to get involved! Keep an eye out for the upcoming Story Map, and you may have the opportunity to help us answer the question, “Where?” If you have any questions about participatory mapping at the THPO, please contact Chief Data Analyst, Lacee Cofer, at laceecofer@semtribe.com.

Dear Sally, What’s It Like Being an Alligator During the Coronavirus?

By Carrie Dilley, Visitor Services and Development Manager

While the domesticated animals in our lives (particularly our dogs, maybe less so our cats) have enjoyed seeing us all day during these recent times, have you wondered how our free roaming friends have been faring?  Our Alligator Pen Pal program, launched on April 13th, brings Sally, our resident alligator, into the homes and hearts of people everywhere. Sally has brought smiles to the faces of Museum staff and visitors for years, and now people who may not be able to see Sally in person can interact with her through handwritten or email correspondence.  People can chose to either write Sally a letter and send it to the Museum, or send an email to us at: museum@semtribe.com.  Everyone who writes to Sally receives a personalized letter or email in return.

We have been trying to come up with fun ways to reach our community during the closure and engage in new and interesting ways.  The Alligator Pen Pal program is just one of a number of new activities that we have launched in the past few months.  Our education coordinator created numerous games and puzzles, along with a guided painting activity, which have been distributed on our social media channels.  These activities bring our exhibits and collection into people’s homes.  Although the Alligator Pen Pal program is intended to keep youth and adults alike occupied during the closure, we don’t plan to stop the program once we resume normal business operations.

So far the program has been very well received.  Most of the senders have asked her specific questions including: what she looks like, how she likes being an alligator, what kind of toys she likes, does she like bacon, and does she like cars?  The letters are signed with love and many include drawings.  It has been great to see the support and appreciation of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, especially during this challenging time.

We are currently promoting the program on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  Reach out to Sally today—she’s sure to write you back!