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


Museum Membership Happenings

It’s summertime here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  We are preparing for summer camp kids, family vacation groups and you. 

For those of you that have been our friends for a year or more, and live or visit Southeast Florida in June, be on the lookout for BAMM.  What is BAMM you ask?  It’s the Broward Attractions and Museums Month.  As a member of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum or any of the other 17 participating organizations you can visit all in June FREE…What a deal!  Check out www.BAMMinfo.org for additional information.

Next time you visit Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, look for our red shouldered hawk (south Florida pale adult) and his new mate.  They have built a nest right outside our curatorial building.  We have asked for ideas for names, have any suggestions?  Find us on facebook or email GregPalumbo@semtribe.com .

Our Tribal Historic Preservation Office is hosting another season of their archaeological field school.  University students will work directly with our THPO staff using ground penetrating radar (GPR), digging the site, processing artifacts in the lab and participating in a Chickee survey.  The site under study is potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

We also have, Tools Of War, our newest exhibit which looks at the changing technology of weapons and how these advancements shaped the Seminole Wars.  This exhibit features great items from our collection, including weaponry from 1817 -1858. 

Another current exhibit, From Surviving to Thriving: An Everglades Economy is also available for your viewing.  It is a chronological look at how the geographical area commonly known as the Everglades, has sustained the Seminole Tribe of Florida from the mid 1800’s to the present.  Learn how some of the deliberate attempts to change the Everglades have impacted the ecology of South Florida and how they have affected the Tribe in both positive and negative ways.

Our Museum Store also has new merchandise relating to the Tools of War exhibit.  In addition to a catalog of the exhibit, we have: sword letter openers in brass, gorgets of brass and silver plate, and decorative wooden canteens similar to artifacts from our collects.  We are especially proud of our Bandolier Bag jewelry.  It was designed based on details form Osceola’s bag as well as other exhibit items.  Remember that members of the museum receive a 15% discount on all purchases!

Beginning Memorial Day, May 30, 2011 and running through Labor Day, September 5, 2011, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will offer free admission to active-duty military and their immediate family members (military ID holder and five immediate family members). Active duty military includes: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and active duty National Guard and Reserve members.  To learn more about Blue Star Families, visit http://www.bluestarfam.org.

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is proud to participate in Blue Star Museums; in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, and more than 1,300 museums across America. Leadership support has been provided by MetLife Foundation through Blue Star Families.  The complete list of participating museums is available at http://www.arts.gov/bluestarmuseums.

To enhance your Museum experience we offer free tours on most days, check the calendar on our website for times & days.

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum members are always admitted free.  If you would like Museum membership information, please email marybirch-hanson@semtribe.com or call 954.364.5205.

I look forward to seeing you at the Museum. 

Mary Birch-Hanson

Membership Coordinator

What Inspires a Great Exhibit?

By: Greg Palumbo

Over the last week I took a vacation to Washington DC. In a city with some of the world’s best museums it’s hard for an exhibit designer to stop thinking about how they can incorporate new elements into their own exhibits.  As a Tribal employee, it was important that I made a stop to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). I even got a behind the scenes tour from a very accommodating Collections Manager, Gail Joice.  But one of the most inspiring places I visited on my trip is sort of a hidden gem of the Smithsonian museums, the National Postal Museum. 

As I walked though the NMAI it was clear that there was a deep commitment to native peoples in the exhibits. This, I believe, was the intent from the onset of the museum, and it shows in a very appropriate way.  Native co-curators are showcased in the exhibit areas and helped tell their stories. Each exhibit space was somewhat different from each other and reflected the individualities of the Tribes.  The concept of community co-curation is something that we here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will be bringing to our rotating gallery space in the years to come. This will allow the different communities within the Seminole Tribe of Florida to in the development of the exhibits that will tell their stories.  We are also in the process of developing a more consistent advisory committee for both the museum as a whole and for the Interpretive Planning Committee (for those unfamiliar, this committee helps to develop a lot of the programming in the museum).   

Another inspiring element that struck me, and will influence my future exhibit designing was in the “Our Lives Exhibition” gallery.  The exhibit in this gallery features the inclusion of a modern art piece which was seamlessly integrated within the middle of what is essentially a history exhibit.  I say essentially a history exhibit, because nothing at NMAI falls neatly into traditional museum boxes.  The concept of many voices and many hands developing the exhibits in a more community based way lets NMAI push the norms of museum design.  Art mixed with history, with a dash of anthropological explanation, a community center vibe, all make for a vibrant museum that is alive with energy.  The “Our Lives Exhibition” gallery uses the idea of a storm swirling around, encompassing the native world.  From contact, to daily life, to legal battles, these struggles take the form of a hurricane spinning its way around the gallery, but in the middle is a conceptual art piece by Edward Poitras (Saulteaux/Metis) entitled “Eye of the Storm” the label reads,

“This is a place of stillness, a space in time where Indians regrouped, adopting elements of the storm to keep their cultures alive.  The piece features evidence of Native survivance: seeds of corn, cardinal direction markers, pages from the Biblical book of Revelation, and the hat similar to one worn by Wovoka (ca. 1858-1932)… Storms come and go, but life continues.  There is regeneration and renewal, rebirth and rebuilding – always and forever.  Native history is not over it continues as yet unwritten.”

“Eye of the Storm” Edward Poitras (Saulteaux/Metis)

This piece was impactful even without the explanation above and the feeling of a still, reflective space in the middle of a tempest of information and overwhelming abundance of artifacts, exhibited on a scale intended to overwhelm, created a powerful experience as a visitor, an experience that I will not soon forget.  For professionals, we hope that moments like these will instill in the visitor a drive to learn more and understand the subject matter after they have left the space, even if they don’t retain all of the information written in the text. 

Another experience I had in DC, that I will not soon forget, was my visit to the National Postal Museum.  Tucked next to booming Union Station, this museum tends to be overlooked by visitors. However, it is well known in the exhibit world that this is a place that is getting things right.  When you walk into the museum you’re greeted by the all too common security check and then what I think might be one of the only failings in the museum. When you enter the beautiful old post office with grand architecture, you have to be guided by the security guard around the corner to actually enter the museum, which is then past a small information desk and down an escalator.  After talking to some staff, I know that this is something which is being addressed in the next two years and there will be more of a museum presence in the old post office.  However, once you are in the museum you are in for a treat. 

National Postal Museum Main GalleryStamp Collection Display at NPM


The NPM features exhibits that lead you in and out of beautiful immersive environments, interactive elements that even we most senior of kids can have fun exploring, and hierarchical text panels that allow the visitor to get the quick facts and move on or read more in depth when they find something that sparks their interest.  Many elements in this museum can be held up as examples of how things should be done. One element in particular is the way that the museum has identified their audience and reflects it in the exhibit spaces.  The more difficult concepts for younger people to understand (i.e. legal issues, development of the early mail systems, route management) are dealt with in interactive immersive elements that allow the visitor to make discoveries and learn at their own pace while making sure the major themes and concepts are conveyed.  Meanwhile the NPM also knows that they are recognized mainly for the post offices icons such as their mailboxes, trucks, and most of all their postmen and women, and they don’t bury the lead.  As you come down the escalator you enter an atrium that houses the trucks, trains, planes, stagecoach, mailboxes, and postal worker statues that everyone immediately recognizes as postal.  But we can’t forget the largest revenue stream for the post office and how millions of people interact with the post office… stamp collecting.  The NPM has made sure that they dedicated ample space to this pursuit with an area geared toward the youngest stamp collectors in a fun design gallery, to the most serious who can go through dozens of collections racks to view stamps from all over the world.  The NPM also doesn’t forget what every stamp collector wants to know the most either. How can I get more?  The NPM has a special gift shop just for the collectors where they can purchase stamps right from a teller in a classic style old post office counter. 

Stamp Collection Display at NPM


       As someone who is an exhibit designer and who loves museums I didn’t have any allusions that my vacation wouldn’t involve some work.  But with terrific institutions such as those of the Smithsonian I don’t mind punching the clock.  While the National Museum of the American Indian is a must see for any fan of this blog, try to carve out a little time in your DC trip to stop in to the National Postal Museum and see what’s new, you won’t regret either stop. 

GregPalumbo@semtribe.com , Exhibits Manager

Archaeological field school on the Big Cypress Reservation

This coming May, the Florida Gulf Coast University will be teaming up the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to host an archaeological field school on the Big Cypress Reservation. An archaeology field school is an archaeology dig that is organized to train the next generation of archaeologists.

"Moriah Joy and Ryan Hesse at the Field School Site."

This year, students will be learning how to excavate at the Waxy Hadjo’s Landing Site. Originally discovered in 2001 by Willard Steele, the site shows remnants of multiple periods in time. The site’s occupation spans from prehistoric (where a mammoth skeleton was found in the area a few years back!) all the way to the nineteenth century where there is believed to be remnants of a Seminole Village, to modern times where it is still used as a cow pasture. Many exotic materials were found during this survey, showing evidence of the importance of this geographic point at where people and trade goods often passed through. We are hoping to focus our research on evaluating the Waxy Hadjo’s Landing Site for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and will look to engage Tribal members with outreach throughout the project.

Students will be participating with the THPO as part of the Council Approved THPO Internship Program.  The THPO’s staff will also play a major role in the field school and will be very instrumental in the execution of the project. Such members include, most notably Dr. Paul Backhouse, Juan Cancel, Cori McClarran and Ryan Hesse.

This year’s field school is full; however, if you are interested in future field schools or other opportunities with the THPO, please contact:

Tribal Historic Preservation Office   

34725 West Boundary Road

Clewiston, FL 33440

(863) 983-6549 telephone

(863) 902-1117 fax


The “NEW” Environmental Standards for Museums

A recent article in the American Association of Museum’s magazine Museum discussed the somewhat thorny issue of conservation standards in the environmental conditions for modern museums.  Titled “Crack Warp Shrink Flake:  A New Look at Conservation Standards,” the article covers the problems and damage that can occur when humidity and temperature levels are not kept at certain levels within museums.  Now a casual reader to our blog might ask oneself why these standards are under question.  Most visitors to museums, and especially to the collection storage areas of those facilities, will notice how the temperature at most facilities resides somewhere around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (+ 2), while the humidity stays at around 50% (+ 5), relative humidity.  These figures, 50/70, are the general levels most museums strive for within their facilities.  The article in Museum goes into the history of how these figures were devised as well as if these figures are in fact relevant. 

                As to how the figures of 50/70 were devised Pamela Hatchfield, the author of the article, traces that bit of history back to the turn of the last century and the evolution of modern day indoor environmental controls.  Beginning with the textile industry, and eventually adopted by the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston in 1905, the museum industry stipulated that all facilities should be able to establish parameters of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in order to keep the relative humidity at least as high as 50%.  Just 20 years later, most museums in the U.S. were attempting to operate at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  These levels were further shown as being beneficial to museum collections during World War II when the collection of the National Gallery in London were kept in a stone quarry whose levels remained at 58 % relative humidity and 63 degree Fahrenheit.  The objects kept in this location where noted as having little to no flaking and cracking, while when the objects were returned to the uncontrolled galleries in London, damage was immediately observed. 

                By the late 1970s the levels of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (+ 2) and 50% (+ 5) relative humidity were held to rigid specifications in the museum field, with no compromise being given to environmental conditions outside the facilities or types of objects within the collection.  These levels, as noted earlier, are good general rules of thumb for general museum collections.  But it is well known among most museum professionals that certain types of objects within the collections, specifically negatives and photographs, can be kept at much lower relative humidity levels.  Also items that are used to a dry environment, such as a desert, would not handle an immediate introduction to the much more humid level of 50% relative humidity. 

So with these issues, along with others in mind, conservation experts have been asked to reassess the levels of 50/70 to ensure they are the best for the objects we have been entrusted to look after.  Culminating with a report issued by the American Institution of Conservation in June 2010, the most recent interim standards have established that most cultural institutions should strive for a set point in the range of 45-55% relative humidity (+ 5), with a total annual range of 40% minimum to 60% maximum and a temperature range of 59-77 degrees Fahrenheit.  These levels, as one can see, are much more relaxed and try to take into account the ranges most of us see within our facilities.  Another main point stressed in the report is that at all major fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity must be minimized, as this is event that causes the most stress to the objects themselves.  The report also acknowledges that some cultural materials require different conditions to ensure their preservation and that loan requirements between institutions should be determined in consultation with conservation professionals.

Ultimately these guidelines, which are considered interim and could ultimately change, have acknowledged the fact that most institutions have collections that contain and wide variety of objects.  Because of this environmental conditions must be tailored to reflect both the material types and the environment they reside in, in order to ensure that they will be preserved for the future.

For further information concerning this topic, and other select articles from the American Association of Museum’s magazine Museum, please refer to the following link: http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn.cfm.