Exhibits, Collaboration, and the Museum as the Third Space

Greetings, name is Saul and my title within the museum is Curator of Exhibits. But for anybody who has experience within the museum world knows that titles can be somewhat misleading. It might be more appropriate to list my title as Collaborator of Exhibits!

Greetings, name is Saul and my title within the museum is Curator of Exhibits. But for anybody who has experience within the museum world knows that titles can be somewhat misleading. It might be more appropriate to list my title as Collaborator of Exhibits! Throughout my professional career I have always tried to strive for collaboration. This approach incorporates the best of what museum professionals and partners have to offer.

 Collaboration is especially important when building exhibits. While, we have our own internal exhibits team, I consider all departments within the museum as contributors to the team. This concept is important for two reasons. First, it is essential to have most, if not all departments represented within a museum exhibit. Obviously collections and education elements are key, but aspects such as oral history, research coordination, marketing, development, traditional arts, and community outreach are also essential. Second, the more people involved in the development and ultimately the final product of an exhibit the better. When individuals feel that they have an important stake in the process the outcome will be that much stronger.

 Tribal museums are unique in the sense that most often they are located within and are an integral part of the tribal community. It is our job as employees of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to tap into and tailor our activities at the Museum to reflect and/or incorporate many tribal partners internally (Seminole Tribe) and externally (Native America). I feel that we meet this priority in numerous aspects of our museum projects. However, it is imperative that we do better! One Museum wide plan that we are working on is the Interpretive Plan, which I think has incredible potential for building internal tribal partners. Through this plan we are creating ideas to build an even stronger base of Tribal support and involvement when developing exhibits and programs. Another collaborative program that I am excited about is STEP (Seminole Travelling Exhibits Program). One of our goals is to share STEP with other tribal museums in a reciprocal or low cost manner. This is extremely important for building external collaborative relationships with other tribal museums across the country.

 I would also like to take a moment to comment on the changing face of museums, especially tribal museums in the 21st century. I first heard of the theoretical idea of museums and libraries as being a “Third Place” during a keynote address by the great museum thinker Elaine Heumann Gurian during a recent Florida Association of Museums conference. Elaine described this concept as neither work nor home, the Third Place is a neutral community space, where people come together voluntarily and informally in ways that level social inequities and promote community engagement and social connection. She cited Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community as the inspiration behind Third Place, and can be directly related to the idea of museums as civic space in her book Civilizing the Museum: The Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian. Both writings seek to explain the critical importance of these Third Spaces within a community and how socially engaged places strive to positively improve social relationships. I feel that the museum industry should trend towards the Third Place concept in the future, especially since all communities are becoming more fractionalized due to technological advancements. It will be important for museums to become increasingly active in the social engagement arena and to become the best alternative in the tech vs. human interaction divide. I believe emerging and established tribal museums are in a unique position to become Third Places. I also believe that entrenched and quite possibly dated notions of what museums are can be transformed to meet new and challenging concepts such as Third Place. However, as I stated before, it is imperative that we as museum professionals and institutional leaders have the wherewithal to incorporate new ideas and think outside the box!

Thanks for letting me bend your ear!

Food for thought:

“What would happen if we almost for the sake of argument said it is neither a library nor a museum, but it is a third place. Not just a third place, but a third force if you will. I think our institutions inevitably are going to be forces as well as places.”
Harold Skramstad, President Emeritus
(Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village)
(from Pastore 2009)

“Many subtle, interrelated, and essentially unexamined ingredients allow museums to play an enhanced role in the building of community and our collective civic life.” (Elaine Heumann Gurian 2001)

Join Us:

The Randle/ Sheffield Collection: Life Along the Tamiami Trail in the 1940’s and 1950‘s, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Big Cypress, July 17th 2009-January 18th 2010

Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Big Cypress February 12th 2010-November 28th 2010

The Oral History Program Hits the Road…

I left Florida bound for the Oral History Association Conference in Louisville Kentucky where I presented a paper called “Native American Oral Tradition v. Oral History: Dispelling Myths, Saving Language, Non-traditional Methods, and Unlikely Interpretations.”

I left Florida bound for the Oral History Association Conference in Louisville Kentucky where I presented a paper called “Native American Oral Tradition v. Oral History: Dispelling Myths, Saving Language, Non-traditional Methods, and Unlikely Interpretations.”  My paper highlighted some of the distinctions between oral history and oral traditions.  The paper was well received and opened the door for future discussions about how Native Americans define Oral History.

I then flew right from Kentucky to Portland, Oregon for the Tribal Archives Libraries and Museums (TALM) conference.  I taught back to back 4 hour workshops- Oral History for Beginners and Intermediate to Advanced Oral History.  The room was jam packed with people from Tribes all over the country and their employees.  Everyone was so enthusiastic to learn about Oral History and how to start a program, develop projects, use the latest technology, interview techniques, and much more. 

Elizabeth Lowman presenting at TALM 2009
Elizabeth Lowman presenting at TALM 2009

Some of the biggest concerns other Tribes had was collections access, language, and technology.  Participants talked about problems they were all facing with collections management, technological advances, and ethics.  In the end, participants walked away from the workshop with better understanding of Oral History, methods, technology, and everyone made connections with other people. 

Pedro Zepeda, the Museum’s Traditional Art Coordinator, and I are presenting about using oral histories in museums and Traditional Arts later on in the conference.  We look forward to assisting other Tribes as they grow and develop their own programs.  Another plus of attending the conference is looking forward to learning and being inspired by the work of other Tribes as well.

Introducing our Membership program….

Hello, I am Mary Birch-Hanson and I am the Membership Coordinator for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. I have been with the Museum for nearly three years. It has been a fun and interesting adventure, learning about the Museum and beginning to learn about Seminole history and culture.

Hello, I am Mary Birch-Hanson and I am the Membership Coordinator for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. I have been with the Museum for nearly three years. It has been a fun and interesting adventure, learning about the Museum and beginning to learn about Seminole history and culture.

Over the past year, we have been working on enhancing and developing our Museum membership opportunities, after researching what other museums offer and forming partnerships with several reciprocal membership programs. This month we are launching our first large scale membership drive. In fact, the direct mail package is at the printer as I write this post. We are all excited and admittedly a bit nervous! We are excited, because the Museum tells such an important story from the perspective of the Seminoles in a beautiful setting. And nervous, because the economy has made us all think seriously about the money we spend on what may be considered non-essential items.

In the effort, I have learned a great deal about working with copywriters, print designers, printers… as well as selecting who we should mail to, and not to mention the good folks at the United States Post Office. So now we wait…to see how you will respond.

In addition, I have been working to secure Native American artists/vendors from around the United States for our 12th annual American Indian Arts Celebration (AIAC) November 6, 7 & 8. We will have delicious food and an incredible program of Native American music, culture and dance. I do not think you could possibly find a more beautiful setting to enjoy the best of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and other Native peoples all for just $9, or FREE if you are an Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum member. 

Would you like to join the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum?  We have memberships available at several levels.  Email me at marybirch-hanson@semtribe.com for specific information.

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!

Welcome to the Exhibits Division

Hello from the Exhibits Team. My name is Greg Palumbo and I am the Exhibits Manager here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki. This is my first blog and I have to say I feel like we are off to a good start, introductions are out of the way and we can dig in to what we do to build exhibits.

Hello from the Exhibits Team. My name is Greg Palumbo and I am the Exhibits Manager here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki. This is my first blog and I have to say I feel like we are off to a good start, introductions are out of the way and we can dig in to what we do to build exhibits. Along with myself, Stephen Ast is our Exhibits Coordinator and the boss around here is Saul Drake our Curator of Exhibits. While we have a structure for the paperwork side of things we really work as a team to develop engrossing exhibits that will make you want to come to the museum and learn something. As a team we develop themes along with the Interpretive Planning Committee for the topic we want to interpret, and we fill the exhibit with the help of the collections staff (whom you heard from in our first blog post, check it out if you missed it).

Ok I skimmed over a lot of stuff there, right? Let’s hit some bullets; Interpretive Planning Committee, that’s a group of people including exhibits, education, outreach, Tribal Members, and collections, which develop themes and storylines for the museum. Our staff’s structure; Saul is at the top as our Curator, he decides what topics we are covering, what needs to be researched, chooses artifacts that will be used, and writes up the text. Under Saul is myself as the Exhibits Manager, I design the physical layout, decide how things will be mounted and protected, create the schedule for install and deinstall, make sure we are falling within our budget on construction costs, and generally make things look good. Under me is Stephen as the Exhibits Coordinator, his responsibilities include assisting me with the install and deinstall of the exhibits, coordinating all of our traveling exhibits both incoming and outgoing, the necessary roll of a graphic designer, and he is in charge of making sure our labels are all correct as well as printing them up. On top of all of that Stephen is also in charge of making sure general maintenance is carried out on all of our exhibits. For a small staff we cover a lot of ground. That was just a quick listing of our responsibilities; there are many more facets to each and a hundred little things in between.

Often times the Exhibits Division, and this is true for many museums, is seen as the more artistic and less pragmatic side of what a museum does. However, over the last several decades the practice of Interpretation has become much more the ability to marry the artistic with the scientific. Our goal is to create an interesting experience for our visitor that engages them and leaves them a little more knowledgeable and a little more likely to take a moment to think about how they are affected from day to day by what they have learned; whether that be correcting misinformation about the Seminole Tribe, or changing something they might do that would impact the Everglades’ ecosystem.

Right now we are working on some really interesting exhibits for the next year. The one I am looking forward to the most is a militaria exhibit focusing on the Seminole Wars. It will be one of the largest and best collections of guns from this period in South Florida. Another one that is coming up quickly is an exhibit of postcards at our Okalee facility. Now if you have been a fan of the museum for a while you will remember an exhibit a few years back called Postcards: Our People Look Back. That exhibit focused on the people who took the photos that would become postcards in the tourist trade. Our new exhibit will be focusing on the topics that the postcards cover and the people in the photographs. It will also have nearly six times more postcards than the old exhibit. In the next week or so I will be working very hard to get the layout set for “Postcards” and we will be settling on a name for the exhibit. If everything goes well the next post from me will be during the install of that exhibit.

Well there you have it, first post from the Exhibit Division, hope you didn’t find it too long winded and that maybe you learned a little about how the stuff you see in a museum gets there, if you didn’t and have questions let me know, and if you thought I was a bag of wind… keep that one to yourself. Sho-na-Bish!