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!

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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!

Art in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Village

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Greetings!  One of the great things about spending our days at the Museum is that we get to enjoy our wonderful boardwalk for lunchtime walks and peaceful escapes from the fast pace of the office.  If you have never visited the Museum, we hope you come and have this same experience.  While you’re here, it’s worth your while to make the journey to our village, which is at the mid-point of the circular trail.   It is the crown jewel of our boardwalk, nestled in the far southwest corner of the cypress dome. When a visitor starts the boardwalk journey, he or she is met with this sign.

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It sits in front of a picturesque banana tree, and it points the way to a “Seminole Camp”. This is our village, but there is nothing on the sign to tell the visitor what experience awaits. As one continues along the mile-long boardwalk through the tranquil trees, this map appears at the halfway point to the village.

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Again it beckons with little information, but hopefully provides incentive to the walker, by showing how far he or she has come. Finally, at the entire boardwalk’s halfway point, an arrow points toward the chickees of the village and nearby ceremonial grounds. If you’re lucky, you may witness a totem pole being carved here by a Seminole artist, or even a wild bird show by our resident falconry expert. But it is by carrying on past this point that you reach our village.

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Until the boardwalk was recently re-designed, it was possible to fail to notice the winding entrance, shrouded by trees. The entrance beckoned some visitors, but others felt they were intruding and passed it by. For the latter category, many glimpsed the chickees and perhaps the fire, and thought they would invade private homes if they ventured any further. This is a funny conclusion for those of us who work at the Museum, but we have heard it’s true! Hopefully now this mistake cannot be made, as one must pass through the village in order to complete the boardwalk journey. Other feedback from visitors who took advantage of the village entrance, stepping off the boardwalk to admire the setting as well as the artwork they found there, has been equally surprising. Those visitors noticed and sometimes commented on the electric fans, refrigerators, radios, and other evidence of modern life, like the smart phones that some of the employees have there. But why should this be surprising? These items are found anywhere that people today work and spend their time. We think it is because some uninformed visitors expect to step into the past when they enter our village. They see a thatched roof, and perhaps people wearing patchwork, and mistakenly think that those individuals are portraying a historic time period, perhaps as long as 75 years ago, when tourist camps began to flourish in Florida.

The postcard below shows a woman and child in one of these historic villages. In such a village, Seminole men and women would demonstrate customs and crafts for visitors. The woman in the postcard is sewing patchwork using a type of antique hand-cranked sewing machine that was used by many Seminole women at the time. But sewing machines like this were not always available, and at one time, Seminole women sewed only by hand. I wonder if visitors to popular villages such as Musa Isle, in Miami, wondered why sewing machines were featured in that camp, the way they wonder the same thing about relatively modern equipment at our village today. The fact of the matter is that in both cases, the people in the village were contemporary artists using their preferred mediums and tools. Hand cranked sewing machines were common in Seminole camps 75 years ago. But today, electric sewing machines are more commonly used by Seminole textile artists. So why wouldn’t today’s artists use contemporary tools and conveniences?

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Historic Postcard in the Museum’s Collection (ATTK Catalog No. 2003.15.233)

We at the Museum would like to revolutionize the way many people think of craftspeople in villages that are open to tourists today. If you enter one of these villages, you are privileged to enter the studios of modern Seminole artists, who constantly design new products in order to keep their art fresh and relevant. Never expect these people to be stuck in the past. It’s easy to imagine why such an artist would use modern tools to produce art quickly, and why they might want a refrigerator, radio, or phone while they work! A tourist camp in the 1940’s and the Museum’s village today have something in common. The craftspeople found therein were and are the modern artists of their time, none of them stuck in the past, portraying people from past decades.

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Artist Lena Cypress makes a basket behind a colorful display of her artwork for sale in the village

In the Museum’s village, arrays of colorful beads and textiles are displayed in shady chickees that provide a welcome refuge from the heat for both the visitor and the artist. If you are lucky, you will be able to see and talk to an artist making a piece of jewelry, a doll, or a basket. Although these techniques have been passed down among artists for generations, innovations in style can be seen in many of the pieces. Woodworking is also a common occurrence. Our woodcarver Jeremiah is happy to show off the stages of making a hatchet, or to talk about the chickee he carved them in, because he also built that structure!

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Whimsical items throughout the village serve as conversation pieces for visiting children and adults alike. A life-like alligator sits next to a very trusting bird, as often happens with the live versions of these creatures. And a stylish archer takes aim at them from a safe distance. A display of collectibles sits in front of a fire under a chickee. The fire is an essential feature for a village. In ours, it protects nearby people by driving mosquitos and more dangerous animals away!

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Now a large welcome sign hangs at the village entrance, and hopefully no visitor will wonder whether they are welcome in the village. On the back, it thanks the visitor in the Mikasuki language for their visit.

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Museum Director Paul Backhouse enjoys viewing the new sign during his lunchtime walk

After you leave the village, a well-placed bench gives you an opportunity to rest and look back on the picturesque village, while a nearby sign lets you congratulate yourself by making it more than halfway around the boardwalk. The remaining walk back to the Museum leads you through what is often the swampiest and most wildlife-filled area of the dome.
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When you visit the Museum, please take the boardwalk journey not only to experience our village, but also to learn from the signs along the way about animals, plants, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida clan system. Very soon there will be a few more signs that describe the village and ceremonial grounds, so come back often to see what’s new! As always, we welcome feedback from our visitors. So tell us what you think on our Facebook page ( https://tinyurl.com/mvtc583 ), or in person when you visit!

176 Years of Experience

By Mary Beth Rosebrough, Research Coordinator

“The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum collects, preserves, protects and interprets Seminole culture and history – inspiring an appreciation and understanding of the Seminole people.” This is the Museum’s mission statement. It reflects our desire to reach every one of our visitors, researchers and guests. We strive to do this with a multi-generational approach to educating and learning. With that goal in mind, we would like to introduce you to our multi-generational Collections Library staff.

We found, after a little research of our own, that this year the ages of our four Library staff members fell into four successive decades. We thought it would be fun to take a photo and reveal to our readers how different generations complement and support each other here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.

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First, from left to right, we have Tennile Jackson, 29, fittingly the newest staff member in the Library. Tennile likes to say she has been working in museums her entire life (well, since high school). After starting out as a biology major at FGCU (one of our favorite universities), she fell in love with art history after taking the course required of all students. A degree in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Art History followed. Tennile acquired a second Bachelor’s degree in Art History while working at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and her career path was set! A Master’s degree in Museum Studies with a Certificate in Cultural Heritage Preservation from Syracuse University, and a stint in Americorps, landed her in Ohio, working in the Collections Department of the state’s Historical Society. While there she wrote a definitive book on Collection Care, which we use at our museum today. As the Collections Assistant, Tennile catalogs and creates housing for literally thousands of archival materials – bringing a fresh approach to dusty papers and musty tomes!

Second from left is our Collections Manager, Tara Backhouse, 39. Tara has over 15 years of experience in museums, moving with ease into positions of ever-increasing responsibility. A graduate degree in Anthropology, working at a museum in New Mexico, and a job as a (archaeological site) photographer in west Texas gave her the experience necessary to start a career in collections management. Tara came to the museum with her husband, Dr. Paul Backhouse, and began as a Research Assistant. She continued her career’s forward trajectory by getting a certificate in Museum Collections Management and Care from George Washington University, and receiving a Master’s degree in Library Information Studies from FSU. Much of the studying for these two academic achievements was done on the hour and half long drive to and from work at the museum – an achievement in itself! Thanks to Dr. Backhouse for doing the driving – we appreciate your support! Tara provides the leadership required to handle the varied duties of a manager here as well as the energy to accomplish the Museum’s mission.

Third from left, we have James Powell, 49. James brings 30 years of experience and knowledge to the position of Registrar, resulting from a varied, yet focused career in the Collections field. In the late 80s James earned a degree in Political Science from UF and worked at the University Gallery. Then on to the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photos Division, Tulane’s Manuscripts and Rare Books department, and the Historic New Orleans Collection as Curatorial Cataloguer. And if that isn’t enough, James earned a second Bachelor’s Degree, this time in Art History! From there, back to D.C. and the Library of Congress, in the Conservation Division, and a Master of Library Science degree from Catholic University. With degree in hand, James went to National Public Radio to help catalogue and archive the broadcast content of programs such as All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Talk of the Nation. James returned to his home state of Florida and happily came to work at the museum, first as Associate Registrar, moving to Registrar within the year. When we have a question about anything related to archives, artifacts or books, you know who we call – James!

To the far right is me, Mary Beth Rosebrough, 59, Research Coordinator. I am the poster child for “Never Give Up on Your Dreams!” because I landed my dream job at age 58. It all began with an internship at the Museum in the fall of 2009, while earning a second Bachelor’s degree, this time in Anthropology with a focus in Archaeology. While interning, I learned there was little piece of heaven on earth right in the Museum – a position called “Research Coordinator” in the Collections Division, researching and writing on Seminole culture while running the Library. What could be better? After my internship ended, I stayed on at the Museum for three and a half more years as a volunteer, continuing to associate with the interesting people who had the fascinating jobs I’ve described here (where else could you have a serious conversation about the best way to house a newspaper article from the 1930s?) while experiencing the beauty of the Museum and its surroundings. Luckily for me, the job as Research Coordinator opened up in June of 2013 and it has been a cloud nine experience ever since. My job depends on my public relations and years of volunteer experience to work with those who visit the Library. Want to come and do some research? Please call me!

Our multi-generational approach to Museum Collections has been a rewarding experience for us all. We represent the computer generation and the service generation, the newly minted and the weathered coin, working together in an effort to foster cohesiveness and accomplishment. We hope our multi-generational group complements and comprehends our fellow staff members and museum visitors, as we merge our strengths and serve the community of Big Cypress!

Behind, Under and Over – Views of a Keeper

by Nora Pinell-Hernandez, Exhibits Preparator

Hi Friends,

If you ever visit the museum towards the end of the month, early or late enough in the day, you may spot a wild haired little lady wearing something that looks like a proton pack from the movie Ghost Busters. When the vacuum cleaner strapped around her waist is turned off her presence in the dioramas is almost unnoticeable. If you follow the bright yellow extension cord into the lively scenes in the permanent galleries you will see her crouching, crawling, tip-toeing or turning in the speed of a moving snail as not to disturb any props or mannequins surrounding her. Another clue of her presence is a plank of wood set carefully aside a tiny opening the size of a personal cooler. From that tiny opening she will awkwardly crawl out, dusty and a bit disheveled.

This wild haired little lady is me – keeper of the mannequins, light fixtures, and digital devices. Along with my other duties as painter, carpenter and art handler I vacuum clean the mannequins every month and assure that the light fixtures in the galleries are properly illuminating our displays. Visitors typically say in a startled tone, “I didn’t even know you were in there.” The less surprised visitors usually say, “I bet you see things no one else does.” It is true – even most of our other museum employees do not see the exhibits as I do. Behind alcoves, under acrylic sheets, on silk plants and over the shoulder of a mannequin I get to experience the exhibit in a unique way.

Below are pictures of the marvelous scenes I encounter during my treks inside the dioramas. I challenge you to identify from what vantage view these pictures were taken from in your next trip to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. And please, don’t be startled if you see me crawl out from under a chickee.

 

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