What Inspires a Great Exhibit?

By: Greg Palumbo

Over the last week I took a vacation to Washington DC. In a city with some of the world’s best museums it’s hard for an exhibit designer to stop thinking about how they can incorporate new elements into their own exhibits.  As a Tribal employee, it was important that I made a stop to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). I even got a behind the scenes tour from a very accommodating Collections Manager, Gail Joice.  But one of the most inspiring places I visited on my trip is sort of a hidden gem of the Smithsonian museums, the National Postal Museum. 

As I walked though the NMAI it was clear that there was a deep commitment to native peoples in the exhibits. This, I believe, was the intent from the onset of the museum, and it shows in a very appropriate way.  Native co-curators are showcased in the exhibit areas and helped tell their stories. Each exhibit space was somewhat different from each other and reflected the individualities of the Tribes.  The concept of community co-curation is something that we here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will be bringing to our rotating gallery space in the years to come. This will allow the different communities within the Seminole Tribe of Florida to in the development of the exhibits that will tell their stories.  We are also in the process of developing a more consistent advisory committee for both the museum as a whole and for the Interpretive Planning Committee (for those unfamiliar, this committee helps to develop a lot of the programming in the museum).   

Another inspiring element that struck me, and will influence my future exhibit designing was in the “Our Lives Exhibition” gallery.  The exhibit in this gallery features the inclusion of a modern art piece which was seamlessly integrated within the middle of what is essentially a history exhibit.  I say essentially a history exhibit, because nothing at NMAI falls neatly into traditional museum boxes.  The concept of many voices and many hands developing the exhibits in a more community based way lets NMAI push the norms of museum design.  Art mixed with history, with a dash of anthropological explanation, a community center vibe, all make for a vibrant museum that is alive with energy.  The “Our Lives Exhibition” gallery uses the idea of a storm swirling around, encompassing the native world.  From contact, to daily life, to legal battles, these struggles take the form of a hurricane spinning its way around the gallery, but in the middle is a conceptual art piece by Edward Poitras (Saulteaux/Metis) entitled “Eye of the Storm” the label reads,

“This is a place of stillness, a space in time where Indians regrouped, adopting elements of the storm to keep their cultures alive.  The piece features evidence of Native survivance: seeds of corn, cardinal direction markers, pages from the Biblical book of Revelation, and the hat similar to one worn by Wovoka (ca. 1858-1932)… Storms come and go, but life continues.  There is regeneration and renewal, rebirth and rebuilding – always and forever.  Native history is not over it continues as yet unwritten.”

“Eye of the Storm” Edward Poitras (Saulteaux/Metis)

This piece was impactful even without the explanation above and the feeling of a still, reflective space in the middle of a tempest of information and overwhelming abundance of artifacts, exhibited on a scale intended to overwhelm, created a powerful experience as a visitor, an experience that I will not soon forget.  For professionals, we hope that moments like these will instill in the visitor a drive to learn more and understand the subject matter after they have left the space, even if they don’t retain all of the information written in the text. 

Another experience I had in DC, that I will not soon forget, was my visit to the National Postal Museum.  Tucked next to booming Union Station, this museum tends to be overlooked by visitors. However, it is well known in the exhibit world that this is a place that is getting things right.  When you walk into the museum you’re greeted by the all too common security check and then what I think might be one of the only failings in the museum. When you enter the beautiful old post office with grand architecture, you have to be guided by the security guard around the corner to actually enter the museum, which is then past a small information desk and down an escalator.  After talking to some staff, I know that this is something which is being addressed in the next two years and there will be more of a museum presence in the old post office.  However, once you are in the museum you are in for a treat. 

National Postal Museum Main GalleryStamp Collection Display at NPM


The NPM features exhibits that lead you in and out of beautiful immersive environments, interactive elements that even we most senior of kids can have fun exploring, and hierarchical text panels that allow the visitor to get the quick facts and move on or read more in depth when they find something that sparks their interest.  Many elements in this museum can be held up as examples of how things should be done. One element in particular is the way that the museum has identified their audience and reflects it in the exhibit spaces.  The more difficult concepts for younger people to understand (i.e. legal issues, development of the early mail systems, route management) are dealt with in interactive immersive elements that allow the visitor to make discoveries and learn at their own pace while making sure the major themes and concepts are conveyed.  Meanwhile the NPM also knows that they are recognized mainly for the post offices icons such as their mailboxes, trucks, and most of all their postmen and women, and they don’t bury the lead.  As you come down the escalator you enter an atrium that houses the trucks, trains, planes, stagecoach, mailboxes, and postal worker statues that everyone immediately recognizes as postal.  But we can’t forget the largest revenue stream for the post office and how millions of people interact with the post office… stamp collecting.  The NPM has made sure that they dedicated ample space to this pursuit with an area geared toward the youngest stamp collectors in a fun design gallery, to the most serious who can go through dozens of collections racks to view stamps from all over the world.  The NPM also doesn’t forget what every stamp collector wants to know the most either. How can I get more?  The NPM has a special gift shop just for the collectors where they can purchase stamps right from a teller in a classic style old post office counter. 

Stamp Collection Display at NPM


       As someone who is an exhibit designer and who loves museums I didn’t have any allusions that my vacation wouldn’t involve some work.  But with terrific institutions such as those of the Smithsonian I don’t mind punching the clock.  While the National Museum of the American Indian is a must see for any fan of this blog, try to carve out a little time in your DC trip to stop in to the National Postal Museum and see what’s new, you won’t regret either stop. 

GregPalumbo@semtribe.com , Exhibits Manager


Building a Trading Post, in this Economy?

The Exhibits Department is proud to announce the grand opening of the new, actually old, Stranahan Trading Post this fall in Big Cypress!  Ok, it isn’t really a grand opening, and it isn’t really a trading post, but it is pretty close.  This fall the museum will be opening the exhibit Striving to Thriving: An Everglades Economy, an exhibit focusing on how the Seminole Tribe has used the natural resources of the Everglades around them to not only survive in day to day life but thrive in today’s tourist and agricultural economy.  The center piece of this exhibit will be the full scale reproduced façade of Frank Stranahan’s trading post from c.1896. Many of our readers may be familiar with the Stranahan house in downtown Ft. Lauderdale on the New River.  The New River was the location of the original house and somewhere inside what stands now is what used to be the original trading post.  (For more information about the Stranahan House visit: http://stranahanhouse.org)  Throughout the 1890’s and 1900’s the Stranahans added to the building reshaping it into a stately home on the river.  But in the beginning, it was a modest house with a small trading post that was essentially the start of what is now Ft. Lauderdale.  The area in those days was called “the camp on the New River” or “the New River camp” and was where Frank Stranahan planned to build his trading post with goods and materials shipped from Boston.  It is our plan to recreate one wall of that trading post within the exhibit and include what would have been the first addition to the trading post, a wraparound porch.

Picture from Fort Lauderdale History Center: http://www.oldfortlauderdale.org.

            After some digging at the Fort Lauderdale History Center, we were able to find letters between Frank and his lawyer detailing what goods were to be shipped and the amounts of lumber that were intended to build the building.  Unfortunately for Frank, that first shipment never arrived.  After leaving port in Jacksonville the ship carrying the load sank.  Another shipment was soon to follow and the post would turn from a grouping of tents to a full fledged trading post.  From a photo of Frank on his porch and the listing of materials from that sunken ship, I have been able to put together a fairly good representation of the scale and scope of the post’s front wall and will be constructing the façade as part of the exhibit.  Throughout its use as a trading post the house was often visited by Seminole Tribal Members trading hides and crafts for things such as flour, sewing machines, and guns.  Many Tribal Members would camp for weeks next to the home and Mrs. Ivy Stranahan, who was a school teacher by trade, would teach the children to read and write.  The Stranahans eventually built shelters next to the house near the slough for the Seminoles to use when they would come to trade.  On the porch of our reproduction we will display items such as hides and fabric, and postcards of Tribal Members using the very waterways they would have used to make the trip to Stranahan from their camps in the Everglades. 

            In future posts I will chronicle the installation of the façade and include other interesting nuances of the build.  I have included here the picture from which I have developed the plans for the façade.  I have taken some license to make the trading post more comfortable for our visitors.  The scale will be slightly larger because I have based the scale off Frank being a modern average of six feet tall, where in reality he was likely slightly shorter.  We will also be making the building off white with green signage.  After talking with the staff at the Stranahan house we believe that the current color has not changed and there is no record of a change.  There is a mural downtown that was painted in the last 20 years or so and it shows the original post with red signage but it is generally agreed that that is a product of artistic license and baring any new developments in the researching of the post our signage will stay green.  You can see the photo we are working from accompanying this blog.

“Reach Out and Touch Someone”

Hey, hey you… I’m going to let you in on a little scoop.  Coming in 2011 the museum is developing a theme that we are internally calling “Get in touch with the Museum.”  This is going to be a full year of rolling out exciting openings, interactive elements, and programs all designed to engage the senses, stimulate the mind, and just have fun with cool stuff. 

            One of the biggest parts of next year is going to be the piece that inspired the theme.  The Microsoft® Surface™ multi-touch table top is a unit that runs interactive programming.  Basically, think Ms. Packman meets Star Trek.  The screen of the unit faces up and visitors will be able to sit or stand to interact.  The visitors will be able to scroll through several programs including a timeline of the three Seminole Wars, a map of a camp on which you will put actual game pieces that will guide you from place to place and tell you all about living in a camp, and a stickball game that up to four people will be able to play. 

            The table will actually arrive later this year in August of 2010, but because the programming is so intensive it will take several years to roll out all of the games, maps and stories.  To start, Quatrefoil Associates, with the help of the museum staff, will be putting together an interactive timeline of the three Seminole Wars.  This program will highlight the battles, leaders, weapons, and treaties of those wars in a graphical representation which will also include reenactment footage, archival documents, contemporary accounts, and artifact images.  Visitors will be able to interact with the timeline in several ways to go more in depth.  Important dates will link with images of artifacts either related to those events or are emblematic of that time period.  Along with the interactive Seminole Wars timeline, there will also be a static timeline showing concurrent events from around the county and the world.  This will help to show the context of the war periods.

            Other ways in which the Museum will invite people to “get in touch” will be though a technology called iCell.  One might think this is the latest product for making phone calls and listening to music but it is actually a proximity sensor system that reacts to body heat.  When the viewer comes close to touching an area or taps on a surface the infrared sensors detect the body heat and trigger a backlight and a video on a nearby monitor.  The videos highlight a certain interesting snippet of information on a piece, or a depiction of how something was used. After a beta testing of the product in the upcoming Tools of War exhibit we are hoping to add the technology to several of the permanent exhibits.

            Also in 2011 we will be expanding the already in place Guide By Cell® tour stops found throughout the current Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism exhibit and out along the Boardwalk.  If you haven’t tried out the tours come by and give a listen, there are no hand held units to rent or headphones to share. Simply use your very own cell phone to dial up the tour stops and hear Tribal Members tell their stories in their own words. 

            Everyone in the Exhibits Department and especially me are really looking forward to the next year and all of the exciting things we are developing.  The Microsoft® Surface™ will be a show piece in the museum and will also serve as a show piece for South Florida while keeping the first tribally owned museum accredited by the AAM on the cutting edge.  And along with the rest of the technological advancements and exciting upcoming programs, 2011 is the perfect time to “Get in touch with the Museum.”

Welcome to the Exhibits Division

Hello from the Exhibits Team. My name is Greg Palumbo and I am the Exhibits Manager here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki. This is my first blog and I have to say I feel like we are off to a good start, introductions are out of the way and we can dig in to what we do to build exhibits.

Hello from the Exhibits Team. My name is Greg Palumbo and I am the Exhibits Manager here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki. This is my first blog and I have to say I feel like we are off to a good start, introductions are out of the way and we can dig in to what we do to build exhibits. Along with myself, Stephen Ast is our Exhibits Coordinator and the boss around here is Saul Drake our Curator of Exhibits. While we have a structure for the paperwork side of things we really work as a team to develop engrossing exhibits that will make you want to come to the museum and learn something. As a team we develop themes along with the Interpretive Planning Committee for the topic we want to interpret, and we fill the exhibit with the help of the collections staff (whom you heard from in our first blog post, check it out if you missed it).

Ok I skimmed over a lot of stuff there, right? Let’s hit some bullets; Interpretive Planning Committee, that’s a group of people including exhibits, education, outreach, Tribal Members, and collections, which develop themes and storylines for the museum. Our staff’s structure; Saul is at the top as our Curator, he decides what topics we are covering, what needs to be researched, chooses artifacts that will be used, and writes up the text. Under Saul is myself as the Exhibits Manager, I design the physical layout, decide how things will be mounted and protected, create the schedule for install and deinstall, make sure we are falling within our budget on construction costs, and generally make things look good. Under me is Stephen as the Exhibits Coordinator, his responsibilities include assisting me with the install and deinstall of the exhibits, coordinating all of our traveling exhibits both incoming and outgoing, the necessary roll of a graphic designer, and he is in charge of making sure our labels are all correct as well as printing them up. On top of all of that Stephen is also in charge of making sure general maintenance is carried out on all of our exhibits. For a small staff we cover a lot of ground. That was just a quick listing of our responsibilities; there are many more facets to each and a hundred little things in between.

Often times the Exhibits Division, and this is true for many museums, is seen as the more artistic and less pragmatic side of what a museum does. However, over the last several decades the practice of Interpretation has become much more the ability to marry the artistic with the scientific. Our goal is to create an interesting experience for our visitor that engages them and leaves them a little more knowledgeable and a little more likely to take a moment to think about how they are affected from day to day by what they have learned; whether that be correcting misinformation about the Seminole Tribe, or changing something they might do that would impact the Everglades’ ecosystem.

Right now we are working on some really interesting exhibits for the next year. The one I am looking forward to the most is a militaria exhibit focusing on the Seminole Wars. It will be one of the largest and best collections of guns from this period in South Florida. Another one that is coming up quickly is an exhibit of postcards at our Okalee facility. Now if you have been a fan of the museum for a while you will remember an exhibit a few years back called Postcards: Our People Look Back. That exhibit focused on the people who took the photos that would become postcards in the tourist trade. Our new exhibit will be focusing on the topics that the postcards cover and the people in the photographs. It will also have nearly six times more postcards than the old exhibit. In the next week or so I will be working very hard to get the layout set for “Postcards” and we will be settling on a name for the exhibit. If everything goes well the next post from me will be during the install of that exhibit.

Well there you have it, first post from the Exhibit Division, hope you didn’t find it too long winded and that maybe you learned a little about how the stuff you see in a museum gets there, if you didn’t and have questions let me know, and if you thought I was a bag of wind… keep that one to yourself. Sho-na-Bish!