Let’s Ask the Pros

Hello, readers. It’s been a while since I have contributed to the Museum’s blog, but alas here I find myself pounding away at the keyboard yet again, this time with a request. You may have noticed recently that we have been making a concerted effort in the Collections Office to engage our readers in conversations that will benefit us and hopefully, by default, make it easier for us to record the Tribe’s history. This time I am in need of some advice from the museum professionals who may be reading about policies (I can already feel your eyes glazing over and ready to open another tab).  


Lately, I’ve been working on a project that will hopefully establish a more meaningful relationship between the Collections Office of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the diverse and disparate Seminole communities that we serve. We are trying to establish a sustainable dialog with Tribal Members to gather opinions and suggestions on how they would like to utilize our collections. In other words, we are trying to find ways of making our collections more accessible to the Tribe, which is challenging considering the distances between all the reservations (we are in Big Cypress).

We’ve received some good feedback from other museums and cultural centers in the field and we already deal with broader museum/community related topics by other internal means. For example we have recently formed a Museum Advisory Council (MAC), composed entirely of Tribal Members of varying backgrounds and ages, whom we ask for advice on a number of general museological and ethical issues. Eventually our goal is to create a task force similar to the MAC but whose focus will be on advising us strictly on collection matters.

Senior tours are one offering that is beneficial to the communities and the Collections Office

So here is where I need a little help. If you have had any experience with community collaboration involving Native people and collections departments, in any context, either positive or negative, please let us know. In our ongoing mission of serving our host community we are always looking for new ideas and thoughts from our readers. If you have anything to add to the dialogue please chime in below or you can reach me by email at jonathanmcmahon@semtribe.com.


Lessons from Denver

The Denver Art Museum (DAM as it is affectionately known) has recently reopened their Native American Art section after a seven-month closure.  Why?  So they could attribute the names of actual makers to the pieces they made.  Could a slow and steady movement be catching on?  Are we finally moving away from the old methods of ethnographic presentation or simple art historical approaches to displaying Native art?  Will I have to find something else to harp on during my blogs?  One would hope so.


Let’s shift focus on what others are doing and talk a little about our own identification projects here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.  Seminole material culture has certainly not been spared from the scourge of ethnographic collection and display.  Hundreds if not thousands of objects in our own collection have incomplete records of who made certain items.  Even many of the faces within the hundreds of postcards in our collection are nameless while the non-Indian photographers are celebrated as noble recorders of history.  It’s time to take the anonymity out of the Museum whenever it’s possible. 


Here at the Museum we try to attribute the names of the makers and owners of the object in our collections.  We also make a point of identifying the people in historical pictures.  This has not always been the case as shoddy collection practices were prevalent until relatively recently.  That’s why we are making the addition of artist/maker names to as many objects as we can in the Permanent Artifact Collection (dolls, baskets, beadwork, ect.) a priority.  During the next few years we also plan on researching and writing biographies of the Seminole artists in our Fine Art Collection.

Osceola Wearing an American Flag by Seminole artist, Noah Billie.

I think we are off to a good start but we have a long way to go before we can claim any real accomplishment.  Through our community contacts we were able to get some Tribal seniors to visit the Museum and identify the makers of some of our ethnographic collections, such as dolls and baskets.  In August of 2009 the museum took possession of the Boehmer Collection of Photographs.  This collection of photographs may be one of largest visual records of the Seminole Tribe from the 1930s thru the 1960s.  While many of the people in the photos were identified before we received them there were a few faces researchers and our staff couldn’t recognize.  The community was again helpful in identifying their friends and relatives.

Collections staff meets with Tribal elders to identify individuals in photographs during an advisory tour in April of 2010.

Of course the best way to ensure these kinds of things occur is by ensuring Tribal members are involved in every aspect of their museum.  I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always hold fast to those ideals but in the last two years the Museum has begun to cultivate community with Tribal members so we can gather as much information as possible on the rich and vibrant Seminole culture by connecting the past with a contemporary population of Seminoles.  I would personally like to see more museums take a proactive approach by applying these principles.  Together with other members of the international museum network we can move our organizations to new levels of distinction while gaining credibility amongst the communities we claim to represent.


Jonathan McMahon

Art vs. Artifact: How nomenclature defines our value of Indian culture

Jon McMahon here, back with another attempt to bring a little museum theory out of the academy.  Hopefully without causing a major exodus from our fanbase.  In my last entry I mentioned that museums have been extremely influential in how people view Native peoples.  Now I’m going give you one example of how they have done that, for better or worse.  Back in my school days I needed to understand how certain museums chose to display their objects by distinguishing the differences between two major types of museums since the art history approach displays and interprets objects very differently than museums with an anthropological perspective.  Here’s a little look into what museum types like us think about when presenting Native art.

The “art vs. artifact” distinction has been made for decades amongst art historians and anthropologists. The basic arguments lie in the biography of an object and how it is displayed and interpreted to the public. In general, anthropologists (like me for example) would argue an object that has no contextual explanation or provenience has lost its meaning and the life of it and its maker are lost to the world. An art historian would be more likely to appreciate the object for its aesthetic value, an emotion elicited from the work, monetary value, or if it makes some kind of sweeping philosophical statement about its subject or even the observer. Putting these objects into a sociocultural context, the anthropological method is more holistic than the classical art history models since it incorporates all aspects and avenues of culture in its practice, often including the art history model (– COUGH- says the anthropologist – COUGH-).  Objects with artist information accompanying them, or in diorama type settings to show them in the context of the culture are two very different ways of understanding or learning in the visitor’s mind.  Maybe a hybrid of the two is in order?

“Tradition: Art of the Seminole was an example of an art exhibition with some interpretation.”

These kinds of influences have shaped the way observers see and interpret art since they have been indoctrinated into the notions that non-Western people create art that is different from “fine” Western art. One needs only to ask a museum patron what kinds of qualities make non-Western art appealing. Many will give you answers like “primitive art is unchanging” or “it reminds me of the universal qualities we all possess but are afraid to show.”  These racist notions imply that the people who created these objects are somehow not in control of themselves or are similar to Western children or the mentally deranged.  In the past, when museums have embraced these kinds of values, even in an ironic parody, it has rarely ended well.  I’ll avoid mentioning any names here.

“Unconquered Imagination was our last attempt at hosting a contemporary art exhibit.”

So basically, the whole debate is convoluted and may be impossible to answer to everyone’s satisfaction. Many museums have negotiated this by including elements of both approaches in their displays with some success. The Native American displays at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the Denver Art Museum (DAM) are good examples. By displaying Western objects as art and non-Western objects as artifacts people made the derogatory distinctions based on their own ethnocentric biases. On the other hand, by displaying Western and non-Western objects together you risk losing the original context of the traditional object and artist intent is lost, therefore rendering the object devoid of its original power and purpose. I prefer a mixed approach to presenting Seminole culture. Like I’ve said before, sometimes museums get it wrong and when we do we get it really wrong (see my blog dated June 8, 2010).  For example I am not a fan of dioramas since they often portray Native Americans, including Seminoles, as frozen in the past.  But I would like to see more contemporary and modern art installations in our galleries to show that Seminoles are a living, vibrant people who express themselves in ways beyond the stereotypes of the “museum Indian.” 

In the coming years we have a number of things planned that should be crowd pleasers and fulfill our mission of bringing more contemporary art into the limelight. Naturally these are all issues our interpretive plan committee will take to the Seminole communities but I am curious as to what our readers think.  How would you choose to display Native art in a place like the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum?

A Place to Learn in the Post-Colonial Era

…non-Natives, including curators and other scholars, cannot themselves adequately represent the views of others and should no longer try. What they can do however is report on those views and provide better opportunities for people to represent themselves within the established museum context, through collaboration, joint curatorships, commissioned programs and exhibitions, and other forms of, empowerment.

Michael Ames 1992

The task of writing this week’s blog has fallen on me, Jonathan McMahon, the content guy.  So, for my first foray into our electronic institution I wanted take a moment to be a little reflective; not just on the museum, but also my experiences in the museum field.  Sit back, relax if you can, and read a little on the cultural history that led to the birth of the Ah-Ta-Thi-Ki Museum.

Now allow me to pontificate for a bit.  None of this is new for most of you but here’s a little refresher.  For almost 500 years, the indigenous peoples of the Americas suffered at the hands of colonizing Western powers.  Two continents and hundreds of islands in the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the Pacific were home to countless cultures in the Americas before the disease, greed, and religion of the European empire builders came to seek their fortunes.  Travelers began collecting American Indian objects as examples of material culture, which were used to paint a mental image that often either villainized or romanticized native peoples.

So of course museums came to the rescue, right?  WRONG!  Museums were the worst offenders.  They were places where glorified cabinets of curiosity became the trophy houses of the elite “gentleman explorers” of Western states.   The early museums portrayed “culture” as a coherent, monolithic, and static system that paid insufficient attention to the way ideas and meanings were rooted in relations of power and the practical tasks of daily life.  Chances are your favorite museums were (or maybe still are) guilty of these.  Few museums were representing cultural descendants in a contemporary context, instead focusing on their historic and prehistoric past, which in turn supported negative stereotypes and misconceptions which manifest themselves in the outdated and racist notions of “authenticity” and “primitivism” as Phillip Cash Cash argued in 2001:

Traditional Arts Coordinator and Tribal Member, Pedro Zepeda, shares knowledge of his Seminole culture at the Ringling College or Art and Design.

At sites where cultures intersect, such as museums, the mobilization of meaning and ritual expression often loom larger than life when originating cultures assert claims of authenticity and authority over objects.  More often than not, these indigenous claims are counter hegemonic since they often arise out of lived cultural realities that exist outside the boundaries of the museum. As a result, the exclusive domains of property, representation, and control that constitute the common, everyday functions of the museum are directly challenged, thus calling into question traditional museum policies and practice.

Feeling guilty?  Don’t.  Even though the European colonizers dictated the cultural narrative and the colonized cultures were all too often sidelined as others told their story things are changing.  In recent decades a new tide surged onto America’s shores when indigenous people began speaking out and writing their stories, their histories, in their own words.  It was during this post-colonial period when Billy Cypress began his mission to create a museum for the unconquered but still marginalized Seminole Tribe of Florida.  This museum became the only one to feature the Florida Seminole voice above all others.  As the Tribe’s fortunes have shifted in an era when political and public opinion is shaped by biased sensationalism, it continues to be of the utmost importance for the Tribe to tell their own story. 

I am the first to admit that even this museum has been responsible of a few missteps (lacking contemporary Seminole views, less focus on modern and contemporary Native art, celebrating the exploitation of the Tribe by non-Native scholars and artists) but recent progress has been made in the forward momentum and improvement of our institution.  In the last few months the Interpretive Plan Committee has been meeting with Seminole Tribal advisory groups in an attempt to resolve these issues. 

The late Billy Cypress (right) reviews construction plans for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

As a non-Native employee, it is my duty to help facilitate the mission of the Tribe’s former museum director and help the Seminole Tribe tell its own story.  Whether I am performing a boring task such as looking something up in a book to include in a text panel, or loftier projects such as organizing meetings within the various Seminole communities to determine our exhibit and program topics, I am but a humble and temporary employee of the tribe because, as some dead white guy once said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  Let’s just hope the right people are telling the story.