The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is known around the country for its representation of Seminole history. In its two newest exhibitions, the museum is going beyond the scope of history and instead is intertwining generations of culture.
The two exhibits, one by children at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton and the other by the museum’s village crafters, feature traditional arts and crafts by Tribal members; the PECS exhibit with work from nine students in kindergarten through eighth grade and the village crafters exhibit with work from adults, primarily elders.
Rebecca Fell, curator of exhibits, said that having the two exhibits side-by-side is a great way for people to see how Seminole cultures span across different generations. She said that having the two shows is particularly beneficial for the children, as they are able to see how significant the work they are doing really is.
“One of the things we wanted to share with the students was that their work is really great quality and here is some other work that is actually being sold by an older generation,” Fell said. “That just happened to be a nice segue between the two shows.”
Some of the work includes a beaded medallion necklace, a patchwork pillow, a woven basket with a beaded bear embellishment and baseball caps with patchwork on the brim. Fell explained that the traditional pieces alongside the new artistry are something that truly separates this exhibit from others the museum has opened.
Village crafters bring tradition to light
The village crafters are Tribal members who work for the museum part-time in a traditional village setup along the boardwalk. The crafters have been a part of the museum since it first opened in 1997.
Along with their creations, the exhibit features panels with the history of how village crafters got started.
Fell explained that Seminole crafters started selling their products after people began buying up land Seminoles were living on and turning them into tourist camps.
“Since the land was being overhunted and the Everglades were being drained at the time, [the Seminoles] had to adapt, which as we know the Seminoles were very good at,” Fell explained. “The women started selling their crafts and the skirts that they wore and that sort of thing to tourists to make money.”
The museum opened this particular exhibit as a way to celebrate the village crafters and to share a unique part of the Seminole story.
“We’re coming up on 21 years of history [at the museum] and their village has been a part of the museum since day one,” Fell said. “We just try to make sure we include everyone who’s been a part of it.”
Similar to that of the PECS students, the village crafters’ work uses beads, wood and patchwork. Many of the participants create traditional pieces while others integrate that tradition into more modern pieces, such as creating baseball caps with patchwork bills.
While the museum tried to get at least one object from everyone who has been part of the village crafters, not everyone had objects available. Fell said that the museum is displaying photos of those individuals instead as a way to honor their work.
“We try to feature everyone past and present in the exhibit one way or another,” Fell said. “We missed a few people because we just didn’t have a photo, have an object, or anyone we could think to ask who may have something, but with a show like that, for me, it’s celebrating what they did and saying ‘look at this awesome stuff.’ If a Tribal member comes up to me and says they weren’t featured, I’ll tell them to send me a photo and we’ll make sure they’re featured.”
PECS students keep tradition alive
While the work of village crafters is shown daily along the boardwalk, PECS students have their work featured in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum once a year. The museum usually acquires between 16 and 24 pieces from the students for an annual exhibit, but this year’s exhibit featured less because of Hurricane Irma. The hurricane’s arrival in September put many classes and opportunities to create pieces behind schedule. Through the school’s traditional arts program, students create woodworks, patchwork, beadwork and baskets. The museum tries to feature work from at least one student per grade every year.
Fell said that the students always produce exceptional creations.
“It’s a great show. What I’m always impressed by is the quality of work that those kids have and the skills they’re demonstrating,” she said. “Every year we have visitors come in and they’re looking and you’ll hear them say, ‘Those are really kids? Are you sure that was really done by a kindergartner?’ The work is that good. It’s something we can sell in the shop. The kids do a really great job.”
Museum promotes traditional engagement
Though the creators of these exhibits are different in age, the products are similar and the museum’s purpose for them is the same.
“It’s really an opportunity to show off community and celebrate community, to make people feel like this is their museum,” Fell said. “I think that’s one of the things we really strive for at this museum and one of the things that make us different from other museums is that we’re not trying to say ‘this is the history of the Seminole people,’ we’re saying, ‘look what’s going on right now, what’s happening today.’ We do want to share the history and the culture but we also want to give that extra piece of connection and we want to make sure the community feels that way.”
The museum hosts multiple exhibits every year that highlight various aspects of Seminole history and culture. Fell and other museum staff members plan each exhibit around feedback they receive from Tribal members. At every opportunity, Fell said that staff members ask people at events or even just those who are passing by what they are interested in, what people should be featured and what they feel is most important that visitors know about when visiting Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.
“We could just have a museum that just tells the history and have a lot of non-Seminole visitors come in and there’s a lot of value in that,” Fell said. “But I think the greater value for us is to make sure the community feels like they’re welcomed and that this is their museum.”
The PECS exhibit will be on display until Aug. 12 and the village crafters exhibit will be on display until Oct. 7. More information on these and other exhibits is available at ahtahthiki.com.