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


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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!


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.


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.

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 ( ), 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.


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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Facing the Digital Future: Bringing Oral History into the 21st Century

By Stephen Bridenstine, Oral History Coordinator

Deep within the archives at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum there exists a special collection that is neither printed page nor Indian craft. It does not take up endless shelves of space but rather sits neatly in one small corner. And its value lies not in the physical objects themselves but rather in the precious information held within. It is the Oral History Collection.

As the new Oral History Coordinator, I inherited the responsibility to care for this collection, one of the most unique resources here at the Museum. Over eighty years, Seminole Tribal citizens, outside researchers, and Museum employees created an archive that reaches back to the earliest days of Seminole history. It is a collection that tells many stories, in many languages, in many different ways. And every month that goes by, it grows just a little bit more.


Rows of CD and DVD boxes are the most common sight within the collection

While the Oral History Collection is indeed a rich cultural treasure, as an archive it presents some unique and daunting challenges. Take for example the diversity of its physical forms. At least five different recording formats including micro cassettes, U-matic tapes, and MiniDVs exist in the collection, each the go-to format from decades past. What they all have in common, however, is their shared reliance on magnetic tape, a thin plastic strip coated with a magnetized layer built for practicality but not for longevity. Even under perfect archival conditions, these items slowly degrade putting the cultural heritage of the Seminole Tribe at risk. This prompted the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum to invest in the costly and time consuming process of digitization, completed in 2012. But with one problem solved, another soon arose.

In our increasingly digital world, nearly everyone has experienced the frustration of a scratched DVD, a failing hard drive, or a broken iPod. But the cost to replace a Hollywood film or musical hit is nothing compared to the literally irreplaceable treasures in the Oral History Collection. How do we then ensure the survival of a now completely digital collection still subject to hardware failures and technological obsolescence? And just as importantly, how do we make this collection open and accessible to the Seminole community without compromising its integrity?


The source material for a new all-digital collection

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is currently working with Seminole IT and several outside vendors to find the best solution to both these problems. While most data storage is moving onto the internet these days, questions of security and sovereignty unique to this collection and the Seminole Tribe prevent a similar transition. The recordings are simply too precious to send off into the information super highway. Likewise, maintaining a digital collection within the Tribe facilitates the second goal.

Imagine any Tribal citizen being able to walk into a Reservation library, sitting down at a computer, and having the entire Oral History Collection just a click away. A tribal YouTube, if you will, exclusively about and for citizens of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. It is a lofty goal but one that would pay dividends for decades to come.

This is the future for audiovisual collections everywhere. Taking the jumbled mass of media from 200 years of creative endeavors and transforming it into a streamlined, accessible, digital archive. While the Oral History Collection here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum has restricted access, the methods and models we have employed can be applied to archives anywhere.

To learn more about our project or for general inquiries, please contact Oral History Coordinator Stephen Bridenstine at 863-902-1113 ext. 12213 or