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.

The Evolution of an Exhibit

            There is a perception by many museum visitors that museum exhibits are static, unchanging, frozen in time. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Museum exhibits can evolve! The end point of a museum exhibit, or what a visitor sees, is only a small part of the journey. In this article I would like to highlight the process and the transformative steps our most recent exhibit Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism has undergone.

The Big Idea

            The process of creating the Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism exhibit was atypical due to the fact that the postcards idea had already been exhibited in the past. The decision to refurbish the exhibit was an interesting one. Usually exhibits do not revisit the same theme and if they do, a significant amount of time must have already

passed. Upon revisiting the subject matter it was revealed that we could create some incredibly interesting storylines that the first exhibit did not touch upon.       

            The original exhibit was called: Seminoles Look Back: Our People in Postcards and was featured in the later part of 2005 and most of 2006. In the original curatorial statement it was revealed that since the museum has such an extensive collection of postcards (over 600) they only had time to scratch the surface of this interesting topic. Most of the original exhibit dealt with the craft and history of postcards, the photographers who captured the original images and the tribal members who were most prominently featured in postcards of the time period. The exhibit also displayed historical dress from the museum’s permanent collection which was actually depicted in the postcards. In many ways this exhibit was successful and it effectively displayed a segment of the museums collection with great historical value.

The Re-creation

            When re-creating a previously well done and popular exhibit it is extremely important not to fall into a few traps, for example: How do we create new and fresh storylines when using previously exhibited material?…and…How can we change the exhibit design and layout to make it even more exciting than the last? The first thing we had to do was revisit the previous exhibit and ask ourselves what subjects did the previous exhibit not cover. This involved sifting through the postcards used in the exhibit, then going back through the postcards we had in the collection. The long and somewhat tedious process eventually started to reveal an obvious theme.

            Most of the postcards depicted Seminoles in tourist camps which were popular in the early to mid part of the 20th century. Building upon the tourist camp idea, we took it a step further to examine how Seminole identity was being portrayed, revealed and changed through the medium of postcards. When examining the literature of the time period, what also becomes apparent is that there was some definitive perceptions of Seminoles and American Indians in general placed upon them by the popular culture of early 20th century America. Most often, depictions of American Indians at this time was unflattering, an unfortunate circumstance of minority relations with the population at large. On the flip side, the tourist camps provided an economic opportunity for the Seminoles. Over time, Seminole entrepreneurs purchased, owned and promoted their own tourist camps. Today the Seminole Tribe of Florida enjoys economic success and political independence. These roots stem from the experiences, struggles and opportunities of the tourist camps.

            Exhibit design and layout is also a key factor in attracting the visitor’s attention. To enhance the postcards theme we have incorporated details that we hope will appeal to the visitor. All text panels and labels will be styled in the likeness of either a postcard or a postage related theme. The actual postcards will be displayed on the wall in a scrapbook like collage. Adding color to postcards was a key selling point back in the early part of the 20th century. We wanted to do the same with the exhibit and create a colorful environment by adding banners and color to the exhibit walls. Visitor interaction is an incredibly important aspect to any exhibition. We have created a fun photo opportunity with a life size postcard. Visitiors can get their pictures taken and we hope they will friend us on Facebook and post their pictures to our site.  We have also created a visitor feedback area in which the visitor can make comments. The exhibit poses a question in the beginning: “How did the tourist camps effect Seminole identity?” Visitors are then asked to think about this question while touring the gallery. At the end the same question is posed. The intent is to get the visitor to formulate and comment on their conclusions at the feedback area.


Have Exhibit, Will Travel

            A branch of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s exhibits division is called STEP, an acronym for Seminole Traveling Exhibits Program. We are very excited about this program and it will allow us to create exhibits, available for rent to the museum public nationally. Sharing the Seminole story is vital and STEP allows us to share with a much wider museum audience. One of the intentions of Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism is to first, exhibit at our museum and secondly, transform it into a traveling exhibition. This also has posed some challenges when trying to develop, such as: When creating components, how do we take into account the rigors of travel?…and…How do we make this exhibit appeal to a wider audience?

            Considering the first issue, when developing this exhibit for travel we had to be flexible in the design elements. We also had to be flexible in the sense that some sensitive artifacts, included in the showing at our museum, could not be included into the traveling exhibit due to conservation concerns. This needed to be taken into account when creating the storylines. The goal was not to lose intent when an artifact had to be removed from the exhibit for travel. We also had to be able to tailor the exhibit spatially to meet other institutional needs. The exhibit is presented in sections and not in chronological progression. Telling the story in sections rather than sequentially allows other museums to be able to change the order of the sections or even subtract a section and not lose the original intent of the exhibit.

            The second issue we had to consider is that we had to broaden our storylines just a bit to be able to meet a wider audience. The exhibit is still focused on the Seminole Tribe of Florida. However, the social situations, opportunities, and obstacles the Seminoles faced are a microcosm of what Native Americans also faced during this time period. For any exhibit to be a successful traveling exhibit it has to be accessible to all audiences and fit in a myriad of institutions.

            The evolution of an exhibit is an exciting and a dynamic process! We hope you visit us and experience Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism. If you do, think about the journey the exhibit has taken to get to its present state. Who knows, it might even come to a museum near you!

Traditional Arts at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

Pedro Zepeda

I am Pedro Zepeda and I am the Traditional Arts Coordinator here at the Ah-tah-thi-ki Museum. I am also a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. I am very proud to be working for the museum preserving the traditional arts of our people. My duties as Traditional Arts Coordinator are three-fold. First, I spend much of my time here at the museum doing demonstrations for the general public such as wood carving, beadwork, and basket weaving. Secondly, I give presentations to civic groups and other public venues on Seminole traditional arts. Lastly, and I feel most importantly, is holding classes and teaching other tribal members how to create these traditional arts. I teach many of the classes I facilitate, but often time I will use other Seminole artists who are highly skilled in one or more particular arts.

Pedro Zepeda teaching a class

Most recently I finished a one-on-one class with William Cypress, who now resides on the Big Cypress Reservation. He learned how to craft stickball sticks for our traditional game of stickball, from collecting the green wood, to bending the hoops of the sticks. He said that enjoyed the experience, and always had an idea of how the sticks are carved, but learned a lot from making them first hand. Other classes on sweet grass baskets and moccasins have also proved to be successful.

There has been a small but influential Seminole Renaissance among the tribe. Tribal members have taken an interest in both contemporary and traditional arts. Recent Seminole artists have had their arts displayed in various fine art galleries across South Florida. The growth of native art is exciting and slowly becoming more popular and collectible as art and not just a native craft. Many wonderful art works have also been produced mixing traditional and contemporary materials and ideas.

Although some of the traditional arts have change little over time, many others have. Seminoles have always been an adaptive people changing as needed with the times, and the Seminoles are no exception to that today. Even 150 years ago Seminole were using European metal tools to create canoes and stickball sticks. So today it is no surprise to see Seminoles using chainsaws and plastic clamps alongside hatchets and drawknives. I have always liked to say that we are modern by tradition, and so it remains today.

Tribal Historic Preservation Office: Collections Division

The Tribal Historic Preservation Office’s Collection Section plays many roles in the preservation and care of the Seminole Tribe’s archaeological collections.  From carefully cleaning artifacts as they come in from the field, to cataloging and housing the objects through archival methods, the Collections Section works hard to uphold the highest standards of safeguarding the archaeological collections. 

Left: Katy Gregory, Right: Kate Redente working in the conservation lab.

One of the most important aspects of the Collections Section is the lab.  The lab is where most of the work takes place including the cleaning, sorting, identifying, cataloging, and accessioning of the objects.  Below is an explanation of the life of an object once it enters the lab.

Most of the objects come from the archaeological excavations done by the Tribal Archaeology Section and primarily consist of animal bone and ceramic fragments.  Once excavated, the objects are brought back from the field to the lab.  Depending on the material and type of object, it is gently cleaned in order to remove any excess dirt and sand.  Cleaning is done to prevent future damage and deterioration to an object.  However, it is important to know that not all objects are cleaned especially if the historic or cultural integrity of an object could be affected or destroyed.  Most of the time cleaning can be done by using a soft bristled toothbrush and distilled water.   

After the objects have been cleaned, they are left to dry on the drying racks.  It takes about a day or two for the objects to completely dry. 

Once the objects are dry, they are carefully sorted into like groups and cataloged.  Each group of objects receives a unique number which helps to identify the object as well as link the objects to their records.  Keeping track of each individual object is important and helps keep the collection organized and as well as allow for easy research access. 

Object Sorting

The final stage of preparing the object for storage is to place the objects into archival bags.  Each bag has an identification tag which is also printed on archival paper.  However, because some objects are too fragile to house in bags, custom boxes and supports are sometimes made to help prevent damage and deterioration.

The Collections Section is excited to be a part of the preservation of the archaeological collections.  It is great to be able to preserve these objects so that we might have a better understanding of the past!

Postcards and Perceptions: Exhibit Installation

Hello, my name is Stephen Ast and I am the Exhibits Coordinator here at the museum. My position entails a number of different duties and responsibilities, but right now I am here to tell you about one of my main duties, which is exhibit installation.

Stephen Ast working on Postcards and Perceptions

Currently we are in the middle of installing our upcoming exhibit Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism, which opens here on February 12th. Installation of our new exhibit begins with the de-installation of our previous exhibit, The Randle/Sheffield Collection. Once all the photographs were taken down and had conditions reports done on them by the Collections teams and returned, the real work of installation was able to being. The first step for this exhibit was to completely strip the Mila-walls, this included all the black vinyl that had been on the walls for over 2 years. Mila-walls are an interlocking, modular wall system that allows us to arrange the gallery differently for each exhibit. They are fully paintable and patchable and this will be the first time since I have been here that we have been able to change the color. Currently, we are at a mid-way point in our installation. The walls were rearranged and painting is half way done, thanks to our Exhibits Manager Greg Palumbo. While he has been painting away in the gallery I have been in the lab mounting and framing all the postcards for the show.

Please keep in mind that while installation began for this show on January 19th, preparing for installation and the creation of the show began over a year ago. All artifacts, archival materials, text panels, labels and any other visual collateral that are part of the show have been picked out, inspected, designed and ordered well before installation begins. For example, I turned in all the text panels, banners and labels that I designed to our printer at the end of December to make sure they were ready with enough time to fix any problems, because no matter how much we plan there are always last minute issues. Last week we received all the printed material and it looks terrific, but there were a few minor things that needed to be changed. Luckily we planned for the extra time and will have everything in time to put it on the walls. And even to get the text panels to the printer took months of editing and design work. Overall, there is so much prep work before installation begins that every department within the museum contributes something and we would not be able to do our job with out their help, especially the Curator, Registrar, Conservator and Researcher.

From this point on there are still a number of things left to be done. The walls will be adjusted further, and then they will be painted. Following that, all cases will be moved in to the gallery, as well as all artifacts and text panels. Cases will be cleaned and filled while the two dimensional artifacts and panels are laid out and hung. These final weeks will be hectic and busy but they are the most exciting part of my job. So please, come out and enjoy our new exhibit Postcards and Perception: Culture as Tourism. I truly think it will be one of the most exciting exhibits we have ever done and I hope after you see it that you agree. Thank you.