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.”

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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!

Behind the Scenes at a Museum: Collections-Style

To start out this blog I thought I would talk a bit about what us little known, and in many cases little seen, collection staff members do at the Museum.

Welcome to the inaugural post of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Blog. In this blog we hope to give all visitors a “behind the scenes” view of just what goes on at our Museum. This can span from new acquisitions that are brought into the Museums collections, to a new exhibit that might be in production, to some of the various special events the Museum puts on through its education and outreach programs.

To start out this blog I thought I would talk a bit about what us little known, and in many cases little seen, collection staff members do at the Museum. The collections at the Museum are managed by 6 staff members. The Museum itself has over 11,000 objects in its various collections, but only a small portion of the objects are on display at any time. In fact almost all museums who have collections keep most of them in specialized, and secured, storage areas. As the Museum Registrar, it is my main job to make sure that all objects owned by the Museum are stored properly and can be easily accessed if they are needed. At this point most visitors ask me about what happens to all of the objects that are left in storage. Are they left in a closed, darkened room, where no one is ever allowed to access them? (Visions of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark tend to come to mind at this point).

CollectionVault
Inside the vault at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki

Well this idea is partially true. All objects not currently on exhibit are kept in our secured collection areas. The collection areas are kept at a constant temperature (about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% humidity, a great thing in the middle of hot Florida summers) and all lights are turned off when no one is working in the storage area to help prevent light damage to the objects. But rather than never being accessed, the objects are constantly monitored by collection staff members for further signs of deterioration. If any major problems are noted, the object is transferred to our conservation lab where the on-staff conservator begins to stabilize the object. Objects are also pulled for study and viewing by both researchers, who of course make an appointment to view the objects, and Tribal members. Collection staff are also constantly ensuring that the objects are stored correctly and that all important information about them is reflected in our electronic database. So rather than being the closed off, inaccessible, place most visitors might think of when they get a glimpse of our storage, the collection areas are in fact some of the most active “behind the scenes” areas of the Museum.