The Most Exciting Time of the Year

It’s that time of the year again.  No, not Christmas or any other major holiday, rather on June 1st our part of the country sees the start of hurricane season.  While this might not seem all that exciting to other portions of the country, down here in South Florida hurricane season is a time of year met with some anxiety.  In 2005, South Florida was hit with storm after storm, one of which plowed its way across the everglades causing extensive damage to the Big Cypress Reservation.  So what does this matter to those of us who work behind the scenes in the Collections Division of the Museum?  Besides creating hurricane kits and preparing our homes for the possibility of storms, the Collections Division staff also finds itself creating kits and preparing plans for the rescue and stabilization of the galleries and collection storage areas found at the Museum.  One of the main ways in which we prepare for the possibility of being impacted by a storm is to run training sessions, for example our Emergency Preparedness, Response and Salvage in Museum Collections workshop held in February 2010. 

            Besides going through training, Collections staff also needed to prepare kits in order to deal with any disasters that might occur.  Unlike the hurricane kits possibly kept in your home, our museum disaster kits contain items such as nitrile gloves, masks, caution tape, and many different absorbent materials that will help us deal with any water type disaster.  Our disaster kits are also kept in rolling carts that can be moved around the property and brought to the site of the disaster itself. 

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Emergency Cart

Another large part of hurricane preparedness is planning.  In 2005, when Hurricane Wilma cut across the everglades, portions of the roof were torn from the main Museum building.  This caused water to pour into the Museum, which in turn damaged some of mannequins currently on display.  Most of the damage was minor and quickly fixed, but Museum staff realized that if another category 5 storm would hit the Museum action had to be taken.  In conjunction with a mold mitigation project that occurred in 2007, the staff devised a plan to de-install all of the mannequins and artifacts currently on display in the 5500 square feet of gallery space.  After a months work of planning and testing, the staff can now de-install and secure the entire gallery in one day. 

Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Since the very active hurricane season of 2005, South Florida has not been hit by any hurricanes.  But a major mistake many South Florida residents fall into is the idea that since the past few years have seen no storms, we can become lax in our preparation and planning for this year’s season.  It is one of our major responsibilities as residents of this particular region to always be on watch and prepared for the next major storm.

Conservation Workshop: “Emergency Preparedness, Response and Salvage in Museum Collections.”

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was honored to host a museum workshop last week titled “Emergency Preparedness, Response and Salvage in Museum Collections.”  We invited two conservators to come down to the Hollywood reservation and teach the course at the Native Learning Center.  The instructors were MJ Davis, a paper conservator from Northern Vermont, and Barbara Moore, an object conservator from New Jersey.  Both of the instructors are members of the American Institute for Conservation’s Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT); which was formed after Hurricane Katrina when the conservation community realized that cultural collections that are unfortunately involved in disasters were not getting the attention needed for a successful recovery.  AIC-CERT offers free emergency response assistance to cultural organizations when a disaster has occurred.  If your historical site or cultural institution needs advice or emergency help, please call 202-661-8068.

MJ Davis and Barbara Moore explain which tools to use in a water recovery.

            The Emergency Preparedness workshop held by the museum was a two day workshop open to any museum or cultural institution employee in Florida.  The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum has annually held museum workshops to help bring together museum employees in the state and create a network of communication within the professional field. 

As we all know, Florida is threatened by numerous hurricanes and the resulting floods.  Unfortunately, there are few educational opportunities in the Southeast to teach museum employees how to handle disaster and emergency situations should they arise.  During the course of the workshop, the participants were taught what needs to be included in their institution’s emergency plan.  The lessons included how to work with first responders (fire, police, EMS, governmental aide), how to assess the document damage and how to prioritize, document, organize and carry out a salvage operation. 

Teams work to recover water damaged items.

            The course consisted of a day and a half of classroom lecture.  The sections included what should be in our own institutional emergency plans and covered risk assessment for natural disasters (hurricane, flood, blizzard, and fire), man made disasters (bomb threats, workplace violence, vandalism, arson), and internal disasters (building failure, pipe leaks).   We were also taught how different materials react to water or fire damage.  The materials highlighted were paper, books, textiles, paintings, photographs, electronic media, wood, furniture, leather, ceramics and glass.  The most exciting portion of the class was our actual salvage activity.  Groups of various “artifacts” were gathered from local yard sales, employees’ houses, and good will stores.  These artifacts were thrown into kiddie pools and allowed to soak for 6 hours before we staged a rescue operation on them.  This activity was a great way to provide hands on training as well as an understanding of both the rescue structure with its defined roles and how materials change when they are saturated with water.  We all enjoyed this activity and learned tremendous amounts about salvage of artifacts.  Let’s just hope that we never need to use these skills! 

All of the teams working on thier recovery efforts.

            For more information on this course, AIC-CERT, or conservation during disasters, please feel free to send me an email.   

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Conservator Corey Smith explaining what her team did.

Postcards and Perceptions: Community Oral History in Exhibit Development

This year the Exhibits Department revamped an old postcard exhibit, which is scheduled to open at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki on March 6th, 2010.  The original, and new, exhibit displayed postcards of the Seminole Tribe that were sold all over the country for decades.  The postcards often had politically incorrect text and sometimes inappropriate names as labels.  The flipside to the seemingly bad postcards was the glimpses into people’s lives and the documentation of times past.

One of the unfortunate problems with the postcards was that the people depicted in them were largely unidentified.  The lack of identification muffled the story of the people in the picture by not allowing them to tell their own story.  In an effort to remedy the situation, I took the postcards that are to be featured in the exhibit to every tribal senior center to have them identified.  I also took the postcards out to the community and brought them with me to interviews with people.

Community oral history in action at a "Seminole Storytellers" event

On one very lucky day, the Big Cypress Senior Center was hosting their annual Christmas party.  I was able to speak with seniors from Big Cypress, Hollywood, Brighton, Immokalee, Tampa, and the Miccosukee Tribe.  Additionally, the seniors also identified most of the pictures from the Randle-Sheffield Collection, which is a travelling exhibit from the South Florida Community College Museum of Florida Art and Culture and is currently featured in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki gallery.

There are two very memorable events that came from the Christmas party.  The first event was a chance encounter.  One postcard features the Brighton Day School.  In the picture, several children are lined up in front of the day school’s bus.  I recognized some of my friends from Brighton and joined their table.  I asked if they knew any of the children in the picture.  Much to my surprise everyone at the table had attended the Brighton Day School and they were all in the picture.  After labeling all of the children, they shared wonderful stories about the school and the school teachers- Mr. and Mrs. Boehmer.

The other event was with a senior in Big Cypress who had often refused interviews with me.  While flipping through the pictures she came to a page where her entire family had been photographed in the early Florida tourist attractions called Silver Springs and Tropical Hobbyland.  She identified several postcards and graciously told me about growing up in tourist camps that had Seminole camps such as Musa Isle, Tropical Hobbyland, and Silver Springs.

In the end, most of the people in the postcards were identified and many stories about the people were collected and shared.  The seniors from all of the reservations enjoyed the opportunity to look at the old postcards and talk about them and their experiences.  As an employee of the tribe, my times at the senior centers and in the community are the times I cherish the most.  Often, I unexpectedly learn something about myself or my life from one of the seniors.  In the end, the entire staff at the museum pulled together to bring the community, and our museum visitors, an exhibit that will truly be an experience.

"Seminole Storytellers" event at the ceremonial grounds at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism is scheduled for a soft opening  on February 12th, 2010 and there is a opening reception on March 6th, 2010 at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum located on the Big Cypress Reservation.  For more information, contact the museum directly at 863-902-1113.  The exhibit will also feature an audio tour where museum guests will get to hear the stories behind the postcards from the people depicted in them.

Conserving the Past

Hello, my name is Corey Smith and I am the conservator here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. We are extremely lucky to have a conservation position at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, because most museums of our size do not have the ability to have this position. Since one of the main goals of our museum is to preserve Seminole Cultural Heritage, conservation is an important component to have at the museum.

Hello, my name is Corey Smith and I am the conservator here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  We are extremely lucky to have a conservation position at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, because most museums of our size do not have the ability to have this position.  Since one of the main goals of our museum is to preserve Seminole Cultural Heritage, conservation is an important component to have at the museum.   
Corey in the Lab
Corey Smith treating one of our historic canoes.

When I speak of conservation, I am referring to art conservation not environmental conservation, which is a very common misunderstanding. Although I do like trees quite a bit and the wildlife out here on the Big Cypress Reservation is incredible (more on this later), my job at the museum involves object and textile conservation.  Conservation, in the most general terms, is the process of stabilizing artifacts through examination, documentation, and treatment of the artifact’s internal conditions (the chemical composition and physical structure) and external conditions (the museum environment and storage conditions). 

Most materials on earth will return to dust at some point.  It is my job as a conservator to slow this process down and preserve the original material of an artifact as it exists today.  Many factors, both natural and those created by humans, can cause an artifact to deteriorate.  Insect damage, pollution, accidents and extremes in light levels, temperature or humidity can accelerate deterioration.  The conservator must recognize these issues and minimize the effects that they have upon the collection within their care. 

The field of conservation is often associated with or confused with the practice of restoration, and I think it is important to point out the differences between the two.  Conservation is the act of preserving and stabilizing the original material of an artifact.  Restoration is the act of adding or subtracting elements of an artifact in order to make it look like it did at an earlier point in time.  The illusion of an earlier time may be enhanced by changing the surface quality of the artifact or adding additional elements to create a “whole” piece of art.  There are times when my conservation treatments involve elements of restoration, but this only occurs after lengths have been taken to stabilize, identify and separate the original components and conservation treatments never involve the destruction of original material.  As we have all learned from the various antique-themed television shows, restoration can commonly devalue an artifact.  Conservation on the other hand does not devalue a piece of art, because it is not damaging any of the original components of the artifact.  Often conservation can enhance the value of the artifact because it adds to the prolonged life of the piece.

I am excited to be able to use this blog to explain conservation treatments that are going on at our museum.  Visitors to the museum can see the conservation lab through the observation hallway on our boardwalk.  Sometimes we feel a bit like animals in a zoo on exhibition, but it is a great opportunity for our visitors to see the museum work that happens behind the scenes.  There is also a small exhibit in the observation hallway featuring tools and equipment that I often use in conservation treatments.  It was in this observation hallway my very first week of work here that I realized that our museum was not going to be like any museum I have worked in before.  As I was sitting at the table in front of the hallway I looked up to see a large bobcat trying to come in through the observation hallway exterior door.  The bobcat had been peacefully walking on the boardwalk through the swamp when the sound of visitors frightened him and he was trying to run away but had come up against the glass door.  As I watched he leaped off of the boardwalk onto an adjacent tree and jumped to the ground.  Since that point I have seen bears, bobcats, snakes, turtles, and other creatures out on the boardwalk.  In fact this morning we created a screen cover to help protect three small eggs of a pond turtle that were buried in front of the curatorial building.  Hopefully in 80 to 150 days they will hatch and we will have baby turtles here at the museum!
Turtle laying eggs
Turtle laying eggs outside of our Curatorial Building

The Oral History Program: Preserving the History of the Seminoles in Their Own Words

My name is Elizabeth Lowman and I am the Oral History Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. I feel that my job is one of the most essential parts of the museum. In most native cultures, history, tradition, and culture are passed down in an oral tradition.

My name is Elizabeth Lowman and I am the Oral History Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  I feel that my job is one of the most essential parts of the museum.  In most native cultures, history, tradition, and culture are passed down in an oral tradition.  The oral tradition is so strong in native cultures that there is no written equivalent for most native languages, but linguists are working on changing that.  Linguists study languages and in the case of indigenous languages, they help to develop a written alphabet and lesson plans to teach the language to people that are not speakers.  As I’m not a linguist, my job is to collect and preserve the precious words of the Seminole people so that future generations of Seminole people can learn their history from the people that lived it.  Furthermore, many of the interviews provide interpretive material for the exhibits and publications that our thousands of visitors read and learn Seminole History from.

Here at the museum we mainly work on collecting life story interviews from Tribal Members.  A life story interview is a small glimpse into a person’s life, as told by them.  We also have several subject-based interviews in queue that typically culminate into exhibit and provenance material.  Many Tribal Members also talk about traditions and manners that were passed down to them from the previous generation.  They also talk about the history of their people as it was experienced by their ancestors and themselves.  A book on the subject of Seminole history does the topic very little justice.  The words of the people that lived the history are unscripted, unrehearsed, real, powerful, and meaningful.

In the coming months the program is planning on partnering up with a company called Randforce to assist in the digital indexing of the Oral History Collection.  The software will enable Tribal Members to search the collection with keywords and then listen to that part of the interview that includes the subject.  The true emotion and meaning of the words are best conveyed to Tribal Members when they can be heard, not read.

Elizabeth Lowman, Oral History Coordinator, recording an artifact Q and A session.
Elizabeth Lowman, Oral History Coordinator, recording an artifact Q and A session.

Behind the scenes, the Oral History Program follows the Oral History Association standards and the American Association of Museums standards.  All items related to the Oral History Program are stored and maintained in the best conditions and at the highest standards.  The program utilizes many different pieces of equipment.  The preference for audio recording is a Marantz PMD 671.  Additionally, two smaller handheld recorders are used for interviews done outside of the office or a controlled environment.  We also use a broadcast quality high definition video camera.  But the process does not end once the interview is recorded.  The interviews are then brought back to the museum and burned onto archival gold CDs or DVDs and regular CDs or DVDs.  The CDs and DVDs are then housed, or kept, in polypropylene cases in acid-free boxes.  The interviews are kept in a secure location within the museum.

Dealing with older media has been the largest challenge for the Oral History Collection.  All Oral History digitization is done in the museum because the collection is very culturally sensitive.  This process also requires several pieces of electrical equipment.  I am currently using a Tascam 202Mk IV with the Marantz to digitize older audio cassette tapes.  The recorder hooks up to the cassette deck through a cable and then the audio is saved onto a compact flash memory card.  The interview is uploaded to the computer and burned to disks the same way new interviews are.  I use an Ion VCR2PC to digitize older VHS tapes.  The older VHS and BETA tapes are stored in the same conditions as the newer CDs and DVDs.

Access to the collections is always a major topic of discussion.  Access to the Oral History Collection is kept to Tribal Members only.  There are several reasons for this decision.  First of all, a narrator (the person being interviewed) signs an informed consent document called a deed of gift.  The narrator always has the option of restricting their interview.  Many Tribal Members choose to restrict their interviews to Tribal Members only.  Some stories are private and some content is best kept within the Tribe.  Other interviews are signed off as open access.  Museum staff can use these interviews to develop content for exhibits and publications.

I look forward to posting more about the program and fascinating history of the Seminole people.  If you have questions, feel free to ask!