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?


Processing a New Donation: The Boehmer Collection

In honor of  American Archives Month the staff at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum would like highlight once again one of our most exciting collections in our permanent archival collection.  So please read and enjoy!

The archives here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum house over 6,000 items including books, documents, maps, letters, newspapers, postcards, photographs, and much more.  A recent acquisition to the museum is going to raise that number of items by at least 3,000 more.  In August of 2009 the museum received the Boehmer Collection of Photographs.  This unique and unprecedented collection of photographs is quite possibly the most exhaustive record of the Seminole Tribe for the time period of the 1930s thru the 1960s. 

William and Edith Boehmer arrived at the Brighton Reservation in 1938.  William Boehmer had been hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the teacher at the new Brighton Indian Day School.  Edith Boehmer’s official title was that of school housekeeper; however she also assisted her husband in the school teaching and worked on other community projects, including the establishment of the Seminole Arts Guild on the Brighton Reservation.  The school was built as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Indian Division and officially opened on January 9, 1939.  The students were taught the usual courses of English, math, and sciences as well as poultry husbandry, gardening, homemaking, and cattle raising.  Enrolment was small in the beginning and attendance was spotty but by 1954 when the school closed they had 100 percent enrollment and about 95 percent attendance. 

            As well as working as the school teacher and working on community development projects William Boehmer was a hobby photographer.  Over the twenty-eight year time period that the Boehmers worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Brighton Reservation (1938-1966), William took over a thousand photographs documenting the Seminole Indians.  Because he worked on the Brighton Reservation the majority of the photographs were taken there, however he did travel to the other reservations and there are photographs taken on the Big Cypress Reservation and other areas as well.  Boehmer photographed every aspect of life on the reservation including the school children and school activities, Field Days, working cattle, attending a fair in Tampa, and many others.  This collection of Seminole photographs is unique because it captured everyday activities, taken by a man who knew the people and was involved in the events taking place.  The stories and histories documented in this collection can not be found anywhere else. 

The binders containing the donation of Boehmer photographs

            The original negatives and a set of 8×10 prints are held by the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institute.  Another set of the 8×10 prints are held here in the Archives of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  One of the things that make this collection so extraordinary is the information that accompanied it.  Each photograph has an associated index card that provides a researcher with information of location, date, event, activity, or people in the photograph.  As well as creating individual index cards for each photograph the Boehmer’s also created subject file cards.  These cards list a specific person or event and will tell the researcher which photographs to look at to find the person or event.  The level of information provided to us with the photographs is incredibly rare and creates a wealth of never before realized research possibilities. 

Original index card from Boehmer Collection

             The cataloging of this wonderful collection is currently underway.  Each photograph is assigned its own individual number and it is being properly housed in archival materials.  As well as cataloging the photographs, each index card will also be cataloged and properly housed to ensure that there is no chance for any of this wealth of information to be lost.  Due to the fact that this collection is “in-process,” it is not currently available to the public.  As soon as the extensive undertaking of cataloging and housing is complete, this collection will be available to the public for research. 

Original subject card from Boehmer Collection

As of October 2010 the Boehmer Collection has been completely re-housed in archivally safe material.  Portions of this collection can now be viewed on a restricted basis.  If anyone would like to make an appointment to view are other archival collections please feel free to contact Tara Backhouse, Museum Registrar, at or Robin Bauer Kilgo, Collections Officer, at

Chaos in the vault!

Chaos in the vault!

What do you think when you see this picture?  Some might think, “Wow, what medical hazard has be-fallen this room”, while others might think, “That’s a heck of a lot of plastic and tape”.  In actuality, it’s something that would strike fear in the hearts of most staff who work in the collections of a museum.  That’s right, painting in the vault.  Specifically the ceiling of the vault.  For the past year or so those of us working in the collection storage areas of the Museum had noticed some of the paint on the ceiling of the vault flaking up.  After assuring ourselves through inspection of the ceiling that no leaks were present, it was discovered that certain impurities of the original poured concrete ceilings were working their way out the concrete and causing the paint to flake up.  While the impurities weren’t harming the structural integrity of the vault, it looked quite bad and paint was falling onto the upper shelving of the vault.  So after considering several aspects of the Museum (current tour schedule, room usage among others) it was decided that August would be the best time for the painting to commence.  So once that was figured out we can go ahead and start breaking out the paint brushes right?  Wrong.  What next commenced was about a two months worth of planning.  This planning included, figuring out how to tent certain shelves so that objects could be left in place but with protective covering, deciding what objects should be moved from the vault for their safety, where to move those objects to, as well as what is the best kind of paint to use in the vault so that the fumes coming from the paint wouldn’t harm objects left in the storage area.  Now, knowing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I can say we’ve almost completed this project with no causalities (either human or artifact).  All of the objects left in the vault are fine, the vault itself was painted and thoroughly cleaned, and next week we plan on moving all of the objects that were moved into the vault back into their normal resting places.  Ultimately I can say that our collection staff did a great job in the planning and execution of this process but, as I’ve told them many times throughout this process, let’s hope we never have to do it again!

The Research Library in Progress – Please Excuse Our Confusion

This blog is written by Tara Backhouse, Registrar

So, have you ever been confused in a library?  You know, you want a specific book and all you have is a string of numbers and letters that don’t make sense, and that’s supposed to help you find the book?  Instead, it makes you wander around and randomly scan the shelves in the vain hope of just coming across the book you seek?  Well, that’s the kind of confusion I plan on bringing to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Research Library!  Seriously, those confusing call numbers are actually tried-and-true descriptive systems that make logical sense if you get to know them, and they do make locating a book much easier than other forms of library organization.  For instance, the Research Library at the Museum has over 5000 books, magazines, journals, and newspapers.  Currently, these materials are organized in a mixture of ways.  Some are organized by type:  newspapers and magazines are together, journals are together.  Some are organized by subject matter:  reference books are together, books on the museum profession are together.  However, most of the books are organized alphabetically, by author.  This means you have to know the author in order to find a book.  If you only know the title, then you have to look up the title in our database in order to find the author.  If you want to browse a particular subject, you are generally out of luck.  In a library organized by traditional call numbers, books are generally grouped by subject matter.  This makes browsing much easier!

We welcome all kinds of patrons to the Research Library! Even these mannequins from the gallery got in on the action, although we sense they are experience some confusion about the organization of the library…..

My name is Tara Backhouse, and I’m the Registrar at the Museum.  Part of my job is to spearhead the re-organization of the Research Library in order to make it more accessible to our patrons.  This is a multi-year process that was begun in early 2010.  First, we are covering the books with polyethylene covers, in order to protect the books during use, and to provide a surface for affixing spine labels to the books.  Next we assign Library of Congress call numbers to every book in the collection.  This is the number that will be on the spine label of each book.  After that, the books will be re-organized according to Library of Congress shelving standards.  Then the library will be browse-able, and more accessible to the researchers and staff members who use it.  Finally, the library database will be made accessible through our website. 

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Research Library collection contains material on Seminole history, but also on Native American history in general, Florida history and archaeology, and Museum Studies.  The Library is open to the public, but it is open by appointment only.  Only one appointment for research can be made at a time.  In this way, every researcher gets the personal service of a library staff member.  Having the library database online should make it easier for researchers to investigate our collection before they get here.  It should also show researchers that making a trip to the Big Cypress Reservation is worth their time.  If you would like to make an appointment to do research in our library, just email me at, in order to set up an appointment.  We will remain open during the re-organization process!

Creation of a slant board

Adaptability and flexibility are crucial when you are working a museum that is short on space, so when it became apparent that we needed a larger support for photographing textiles Greg Palumbo, the exhibits coordinator, jumped to action to help me make a removable and adjustable photographic slant board.  Photographic documentation is an important step in conservation treatments, because it is essential to have pictures of an artifact’s condition so that you can help to identify any future changes that might occur.  It is much easier to see changes that have occurred in photographs than to id changes through a written condition description.

The photography copy stand set up in the dark room.

                When the curatorial building, where the conservation lab is located, was built in 2004 museums were still using black and white photographic film and color slide film to record the condition of artifacts.  In the last six years however museums have gone the way of our family photos and migrated entirely to digital photography.  The “dark room” off the back of the conservation lab has been converted into a photo studio, but due to the small size of the room we can only photograph small artifacts that will fit onto the copy stand or can be photographed at a very close range.  The beautifully colored patchwork textiles in our collection are much too large for this set up and needed to be laid down on the floor on top of gray photo paper in order to achieve acceptable photographs.  This is where the idea of our new slant board came into being!

Katy Gregory and Corey Smith covering the slant board with grey material.

                Slant boards are extremely useful because they can be fixed at a slant equal to that of the camera, which is attached to the top of a large tripod.  This will create photographs that are square and without distortion or a “keystone” effect (just stand to the side of a table and take a photograph of a framed piece of art laid out on it in order to see what I mean).  If textiles are placed on top of paper on the floor, the camera would have to be mounted directly above the artifact in order for the photographs to be properly squared off.  In reality the camera needs to be mounted on a tripod in order to minimize the vibrations and create the clearest and crispest images.  A tripod will also help you reduce the blur in your personal photographs, but they can be heavy to carry around.  A tripod that stands on the floor, like the one we have here at the museum, cannot be mounted directly over the artifact because the legs would cast funny shadows in the image.   A slant board is the best way to fix this problem. 

The slant board photography set up in the conservation lab.

                Greg used sheets of coroplast (an inert plastic corrugated board) on a wooden frame to make the base of the slant board.  We covered the frame with a medium grey felt stapled to the back of the base.  I always choose to take my conservation photography on a grey background because it is a good middle tone and it does not throw off the color or light contrasts in the rest of the photograph.  The D-hooks installed on the top of the board can hook onto a number of screws on wall that are arranged to give different levels of slant.  Now it is all set up to take photographs of a number of new acquisition patchwork textiles that recently came into the collection.  For more information on these textiles see Robin Kilgo’s upcoming article in the AQ (“Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Quarterly”) publication!

For more information, contact Corey Smith at