Lock and Load: the Museum’s Firearm Collection

By Marlene Gray, Conservator

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FGCU Intern, Silas Pacheco removes dirt and corrosion from a pistol on left. Museum Conservator, Marlene Gray applies protective wax to a rifle on right.

As the Museum’s Conservator, one of my large projects this year was to examine and assess the firearms in the Museum collection. While some of our exhibits have replica weapons on display, the real action is found in the vault where the historic objects are stored. Thirty-eight pistols, rifles, carbines, muskets, and revolvers are safely kept in storage (and are available for viewing by making an appointment for a behind the scenes tour if I have peaked your interest!) I had to determine whether the weapons were still loaded with gun powder or bullets, remove harmful corrosion and dirt, and complete an overall condition survey of that specific collection.   Once it was confirmed that the firearms were safe to handle, each one was inspected and lots of interesting things were discovered.

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The oldest firearm in the collection is a 1750’s French Officer’s musket. French designed weaponry was the inspiration for early 19th century American-made firearms at both armories in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and Springfield, Massachusetts.  The majority of the Museum’s firearms collection was manufactured at one of these two armories.  This musket is one of few that contain a leather-wrapped piece of flint in the lock.  As the trigger is pulled, the flint makes contact with the frizzen to create sparks that hit the priming powder in the pan, causing it to burn and release enough gases to project the ball from the barrel.

Muskets from the 18th and 19th centuries were known to misfire and not work well in humid and damp conditions.  Percussion cap systems were invented in the early 19th century to remedy these problems, but it was the Maynard Tape Primer System that helped increase the rate of fire.  Dr. Edward Maynard’s tape primer consisted of two thin strips of paper embedded with pellets of priming material.

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Model 1855 U.S. Percussion Rifled-Musket dated 1858

Compared to the manual loading needed with prior percussion cap systems, when the musket’s hammer was cocked, the tape automatically advanced through the lock.  While it was a neat idea, Maynard’s system still did not do well in humid climates, like Florida.  The U.S. Model 1855 Percussion Rifled-Musket in the Museum’s collection is an example of this tape primer system.  This particular musket dates to 1858 and while cleaning, the tape primer was found rolled inside the patchbox.

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Clockwise from top left: Quality mark and flint from New England style Fowler Flintlock Rifle; U.S. Model 1840 Hall-North Breech-loading Percussion Carbine with fishtail lever; tape primer found in patchbox of U.S. Model 1855 Percussion Rifled-Musket.

For something a little rarer, the Museum holds two firearms that were both limited productions. Manufactured by Simeon North in Connecticut, the U.S. Model 1840 Hall-North .52 caliber, breech-loading percussion carbine, Type II is one of just over 6,000 that were made between 1840 and 1843.  It has a fishtail-shaped lever that releases the breech, which is why it was called the fishtail model.  Then there is the .56 caliber Colt Model 1855 revolving rifle that would have been used during the latter years of the Seminole War and during the Civil War.  Only 9,310 of these rifle models were created.  Samuel Colt’s big break came during the Seminole Wars when the U.S. Army purchased his earlier versions of revolving rifles which deterred Seminole warriors from immediate retaliation after U.S. soldiers used their single-shot weapons.

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Lastly, there are the materials and intricate designs that make each firearm a work of art. The New England style Fowler flintlock rifle was the first American-made firearm manufactured in the 1770’s and 1780’s and used by early American settlers to hunt.  The Museum’s rifle has a mark on the barrel consisting of a crowned X, which was an indication of the quality standard for pewter.  Our 19th century Spanish smooth bore percussion rifle uses a Miquelet lock system that was often used in Florida’s Spanish settlements.  The ornate gold inlay and shell patchbox make this one of the most decorative weapons in the collection.2003-317-1  Spanish smooth bore percussion rifle

Patinas of blue and brown were historic chemical treatments applied to firearms as both decoration and to prevent metal corrosion.  In the early 19th century, bluing was done with charcoal and heat to form a blue-grey color.  The practice is still done today with different chemicals to create a more blue-purple color.  Bluing can be seen on the U.S. Model 1816 flintlock pistol, manufactured by Simeon North for the U.S. War Department in 1813.  Care must be taken not to remove the bluing or browning patinas on historic firearms since it is an example of historic practices.

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From top to bottom: Oldest firearm in the Museum’s collection, 1750’s French Officer’s Musket; detail of gold inlay on 19th century Spanish Smooth Bore Percussion Rifle; “bluing” on the barrel band of Colt Model 1855 Revolving Rifle.

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Our collection of weapons represents not only the American-made examples that would have been used against Seminole people during the war torn 19th century in Florida, but also one example of the lighter and more versatile Spanish-made weapons that Seminoles acquired through trade during the same period.  Such Spanish guns, as well as the local knowledge and cunning resourcefulness of the Seminoles themselves, helped the Seminole people and their allies resist American soldiers and their guns in order to emerge The Unconquered!

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You can look into these subjects at the Museum research library, where our Research Coordinator can help you find the information you need. Please call ahead for appointments, so that we are better prepared to help you!  To see the historic guns, ask for a behind-the-scenes tour during your next visit to the Museum.  Hope we see you soon!

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The Struggle of– Struggle for Survival

Writer and Meme Generator: Nora Pinell-Hernandez

Comedic Editor: Natasha Cuervo

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Our new exhibit, Struggle for Survival, is perhaps the most ambitious exhibit the team has ever developed. Walls were erected, the swamp was recreated, the back of a boat was fabricated, a backlight map interactive was engineered, a web app was developed and a Seminole camp was reconstructed.

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We installed on the first two weeks of December but began fabrication in late October. The monumental task of leading a team to fabricate the exhibit doesn’t come without a few headaches and a couple of tears. Working in the swamps means that if anything needed to be ordered from the hardware store it would take a total of 3 hours of driving, 30 minutes of waiting at the cashier, 30 minutes filling up the cart, 10 minutes to submit the PO to my supervisor and 8 hours to have the Purchase Order completed to actually pay for the items. I had to account for each wood screw, each gallon of paint, each foot of blue tape, and each square inch of plywood to create what we have in the galleries now.

Things got hectic in the sardines tin-sized shop I worked in.

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My stress level peaked when I almost cried in front of a volunteer. It was a week before installation and we still had a lot to complete. The wind was not cooperating as I was painting the 4’ x 8’ wood scrims outside with a paint gun. Everything kept clogging; the tarp kept hitting the blotches of wet paint that spewed out of my paint gun.  Heather Billie volunteered to help me sand the wood scrims –there was a lot of sanding to be done.  Her shift ended at 2 and at 1:45 seeing all the work to be done I whispered under my breadth, “I think I’m about to cry”. To my embarrassment, Heather heard me and responded, “Please don’t cry Nora. I can stay a bit longer”. “Just leave and don’t ever look back Heather. It’s over. We are doomed” – is what I wanted to say. But instead I mustered a batch of optimism and reassured her that we were going to be alright.

I let a little tear go after she left.

After letting my internal walls collapse I reorganized myself and had a talk with Rebecca Fell, Curator of Exhibits. “We need more souls.. I mean people – to help out”. Thanks to many people from all departments we were able to fabricate and install the exhibit. Fabricating is my favorite part of my job and I was not going to let my anxiety get in the way of enjoying what I love to do. Along the way the team took photos of the process. I decided to create a couple of memes to remember these wonderful experiences even if it means poking fun of myself because once you cry in front of a volunteer you don’t have much to lose.

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But now that the mayhem is over, it’s time to enjoy the result!  Come out this Saturday, January 16, from 1-3pm to enjoy our exhibit, refreshments, and entertainment!

 

Have you searched our Online Collections yet?

by Mary Beth Rosebrough, Research Coordinator

Cataloging is a major activity here in the Collections Division of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. We do it almost all day, every day.  Cataloging means we record in our database, PastPerfect, all the information we have on the item in hand.  Who donated that newspaper clipping? Oh, it was William Boehmer of Brighton Reservation fame!  Did anything else come with it? Yes, as a matter of fact, it came with some black and white photos.  Right – all noted in the record. Recording the information keeps our accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums current and makes those materials available for research.  To access this blog page you clicked on a button at the top of our web page. But did you know you can access much of our collection from our website?  You can! – if you go to the dropdown menu under the Collections tab (right under the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki  logo), click on Online Collections, and then scroll down the page to “Online Collections connection”.   I’ve made it easy for you today:  our “Online Collections” search page is here:

http://semtribe.pastperfect-online.com/34687cgi/mweb.exe?request=ks

Because of the diligent work done daily you have access to a large percentage of our collection and can research or “visit” our collection from your favorite comfy chair.  I hope you are sitting in it right now with your laptop and perusing a bit.  Try searching “patchwork” and you will get over 1300 hits.

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That ought to keep you or any student, maybe a homeschooled high schooler? – busy for most of the afternoon.  Not only are you able to view a very good scan of the object BUT you can also read the information that accompanies it in the database – the description, the size and what it is made of.  Have a look:

http://semtribe.pastperfect-online.com/34687cgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=8016704B-A69E-40F5-8054-560520439956;type=101

Interested in document research? How about this historic newspaper dated August 18, 1921?

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http://semtribe.pastperfect-online.com/34687cgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=CDC46080-403A-4171-8D54-221031109362;type=301

Not only can you read the synopsis to determine the article is about a scouting expedition for the building of the Tamiami Trial, but you can actually read the clipping itself.  Great, right?  And you find out it was part of a notebook belonging to Francis Frost White, a BIA employee in Dania (Hollywood) in the 1930s and 40s. Our collections assistant, Tennile Jackson, very carefully took apart that notebook, page by painstaking page, wearing purple latex gloves, and cataloged each one, recording all the important details.

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And so, because of that attention to detail, we deduce that Francis can provide us with some interesting history. We can use Francis Frost White as our search term and find what else she collected.  Let’s try it and see what comes up:

http://semtribe.pastperfect-online.com/34687cgi/mweb.exe?request=keyword;keyword=francis frost white;dtype=d;subset=300

What we get is 145 hits providing an interesting walk through time and the history of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Now you try it!  What are you interested in – guns, the War, beadwork, bandolier bags, baskets, dolls?   All are major holdings that can be searched and researched.  When you put in your search term, look to the right and see the different modules available:  All content (for searching all the modules), Objects (artifacts, not paper), Library (books, journals, and periodicals), Archives (paper documents), Photos, and People.  To refine your search check the most applicable one(s) so you aren’t having to wade through pages of items that don’t suit your purpose.

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I hope you have enjoyed our walk through the online collections on the Museum’s website.  And hopefully you will enjoy the collection from the convenience of your own home – in preparation for your visit to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki  Museum!  Our exhibits highlight collection pieces to tell the story of the Seminole Tribe of Florida you won’t find in history books.  This month we have an exquisite exhibit, Struggle for Survival, on Seminole removal and survival in the Everglades being installed in the Museum.  It tells a story that has not been told before in this way.  Come and see how our Exhibits team has used our collection to tell the Seminole side of the constant conflict of the 1800s and learn the real story of the Unconquered!

 

Exciting Changes in the Museum!

by Rebecca Fell, Curator of Exhibits

It is very rare for a museum to completely shut down and de-install their exhibits. One good reason is to make renovations and updates. We recently had our ceiling and rafters re-stained and re-painted and new carpet installed. Both of these items were original to the building’s opening in 1997. For the long-term maintenance of the museum, these were redone.

More visible changes were made to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki including opening up the museum shop by adding another doorway. And, replacing the visitor services desk – this new desk makes it easier for wheelchair bound visitors to purchase tickets and receive information from our visitor services staff and tour guides.

A New Opening

A new opening is made into the gift shop wall, adding accessibility and space.

The process for closing the museum required us to remove all of the objects, mannequins, and other items out of the galleries for safekeeping in our vaults. Not everything in our exhibits is moveable. Items, like our large canoe and trees, were covered In plastic so any paint drops wouldn’t ruin them.

Teamwork Ensures Safety

Working as a team ensures that large items, like this Noah Billie painting, are moved carefully.

Taking down and putting up exhibitions require a lot of help and careful coordination. We worked in teams and started with the most important items first: the historic objects on loan from other institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, historic objects from the Museum’s own collection, and finally the mannequins. As many of you know, the mannequins are life-castings of tribal members. Because of this, we value them very highly and their take special care in moving and storing them.

Binding the Necklaces to keep them Safe

One step to keeping the mannequins safe is to wrap the women’s necklaces with plastic – this way they won’t break or get lost along the way.

Uncovering the Trees

Once the painters and carpet-layers are done we uncovered all the trees and other non-moveable backdrops.

As we gear up to re-open the museum on September 25th, we have begun to put the exhibitions back together. All of our permanent galleries will be exactly as they were prior to renovations. We will put back two temporary exhibitions: It’s Not a Costume – Modern Seminole Patchwork and Guy LaBree: Painted Stories of the Seminoles. We will also feature a new exhibition: Seminole Spirit, which highlights a couple of photographs by noted photographer Russell James, of Nomad Two Worlds.

The re-opening on the 25th coincides with National Indian Day and is part of the Tribe’s series of event occurring throughout the week and on various reservations. At the museum we will feature food tastings, guided tours, presentations, and a talk and film premiere with Russell James. The museum is open from 9-5 and events will run from 10-4. Come and join us!

Operation: Extraction

by Marlene Gray, Conservator

Pssst…well hello there! Want to hear about an extraction operation that recently happened at the Museum? The escapade involves the return of some very fragile objects to a land very far away. By far away, I mean Washington, D.C., but that is way up north! It was quite a production involving multiple agents and exotic locales, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Shall we start from the beginning and see what adventures the Collections Division has been up to for the past few months?

Background on the Case

Since the early days, the Museum has held a long-term loan agreement with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to display many of their Seminole artifacts here in the permanent gallery space. Over the years, the Museum has released custody of said objects back to NMAI, save for a few that remain in cases. Five objects – a turban plume, a belt loom, a set of two beaded earrings and a necklace were chosen this time around to be couriered back to Headquarters (a.k.a. NMAI) and take a break from the limelight of exhibit display. You see friends, objects like these tell pieces of the Seminole story to Museum visitors. In order to keep them around for many years into the future, objects should rest in a secure storage environment with cushy supports, away from the harmful effects of continuous light exposure and the poking and prodding of the stiff Plexiglas and metal mounts that have held them in a static position.

A few months before the big de-installation mission, Agent Registrar and Agent Conservator gathered intelligence from NMAI’s conservator, Susan Heald (a.k.a. the Transporter). Discussions were had in regards to how the objects were to be handled, travel arrangements to and from D.C. and Big Cypress, and the hazardous travels around alligator-infested canals. We had to downplay that last part until all the necessary paperwork had been completed, but this is the Everglades after all! Due to meticulous recordkeeping, we also had the condition reports, mount notes, and loan paperwork on hand from the previous decades which all make up a sort of “medical record” for each object that conservators can reference over time.

Leading up to the Day of the Drop

The Transporter and the amazing Special Forces team (a.k.a. three NMAI Conservation Fellows) were scheduled to arrive mid-day one sunny and warm Florida Monday and set up a base for the night at the RV Campgrounds across the street from the Museum. The Exhibits squad staked out the area in the Museum where the mission was to take place and sequestered it the night before so no prying eyes would suspect what activities were about to commence.

As part of the loan agreement with the NMAI, their conservator traveled from Washington, D.C. to Big Cypress Reservation with three Conservation Fellows to oversee the de-installation of the objects, carefully package them, and take them back home. The Exhibits squad and the Maintenance Intelligence Agency handled the physical challenge of moving the exhibit cases so that the objects could be removed by the Transporter and Special Forces (SF) team.

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Figure 1: Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s Oscar Rivera, Nora Pinell-Hernandez, Siobhan Millar, and Fermin Carranza prepare to move case containing NMAI necklace and bracelets.

 

It was a delicate process removing the objects from their custom-made mounts which had protectively and faithfully prevented them from receiving any damage for years while on display. While the majority of the time conservators wear gloves to protect objects from the oils and dirt on our skin, sometimes it’s easier to handle delicate and small objects with clean hands so as to get a secure grip on them. Once off display, the objects were examined to compare previous intelligence – the older condition assessments – to the current state of the objects’ condition. The objects were then carefully concealed in discreet boxes for protection from various elements (extreme weather or an unwanted “brush pass” by a pesky bird for instance) and transported to the Safehouse, ahem, I mean Conservation Lab, situated in a separate building from the current location.

 

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Figure 2: NMAI’s Susan Heald, Caitlin Mahony, and Cathleen Zaret examine mounted objects.

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Figure 3: Susan Heald and Kate Blair examine objects for updating condition reports.

 

A Proper Sendoff to a Few Treasures

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Figure 4: Caitlin Mahony and Kate Blair secure twill tape ties to Ethafoam support.

 

Once the objects were safely moved to the Safehouse, the Transporter and SF team began the careful task of packing the delicate plume, loom, and accessory set for travel by plane back to the Washington HQ. pH neutral blue board supports, strands of securing twill tape, and soft Ethafoam sheets are materials often used in conservation that help protect fragile objects from the jostling of arduous travel and won’t cause any further damage to the objects by leaving a residue or impressions. With the objects safely secured and placed in a locked briefcase, this part of the mission was complete and the objects were ready to leave the Museum in a very official way!

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Figure 5: Kate Blair, Cathleen Zaret, and Caitlin Mahony display their detailed packing of the objects.

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Figure 6: The finished product: objects in their traveling briefcase!

 

Now that their identities can be revealed, a special thanks to Ms. Heald and the Fellows for the safe return of the objects to NMAI after many years at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki – they will surely be missed! For now though, Museum visitors can see silverwork accessories and an impressive silver worker’s kit, the remaining objects from a very special loan agreement between two institutions sharing in the preservation and interpretation of Seminole history. So the next time you see someone at the airport with an unsuspecting bag or briefcase, chances are they contain extremely boring documents and clean socks. However, you may be witnessing the completion of a successful museum extraction operation!