BIG CYPRESS — When the Seminole Tribe opened the doors of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in 1997 to commemorate the Tribe’s federal recognition, nobody imagined the museum would transcend to the status it claims today.
The museum, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, has transformed into a nationally accredited affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. With halls filled with artifacts, intricate displays and lesser-known facts about the Tribe, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki has become more than a tourist attraction, but a historical treasure.
To honor this story and the goals met in the past two decades, the museum held a celebration Aug. 19. Museum staff, community members and Tribal leadership gathered to learn about the museum’s history and see what plans are in store, all while listening to live music, enjoying catered food and seeing the story of the unconquered Seminoles unfold throughout the museum.
Clifford Murphy, folk and traditional arts director for the National Endowment of the Arts, said that attending the 20th anniversary for the museum is a remarkable opportunity. He said that the upkeep of the facilities and preservation of artifacts is commendable and is a great example of how to safeguard heritage in a community.
“In order to know where we’re going we need to know where we’ve come from,” he said. “We can’t know where we come from if we don’t have institutions and individuals who are enabling that to happen, like this museum and the leadership here.”
The museum contains hundreds of thousands of objects that preserve the Seminole culture, according to Paul Backhouse, director of the museum and the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, all of which help connect visitors to the Tribe’s roots and share the unwritten Seminole story.
“In a world that’s increasingly homogenized, the Seminole Tribe has stood for its cultural integrity and identity throughout,” he said. “The culture, the language and the traditions of the tribe are still going strong. … [The museum is] an opportunity for the tribe to tell the story the way they want the story told.”
Future plans for the museum will include a more in-depth look at the Tribe’s history. Upon entering the museum, guests will learn about trading posts and tourist camps, Seminole crafts, arts and expression, cattle and rodeo, removal and resistance, obtaining sovereignty, the Seminole Wars, present-day Seminole culture and more. The layout will also feature a more modern look and more artifacts and exhibits.
Sandy Shaughnessy, director of cultural affairs at the Florida Department of State, said that the 20th anniversary is a well-deserved celebration.
“We have to protect [heritage] for our future generations, just like our ancestors did,” Shaughnessy said. “What is history without the arts and what are the arts without history; it’s a progression of storytelling and passing it down.”
Backhouse said some of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s most notable accomplishments are the museum’s representation of defending sovereignty, visitor diversity and the museum’s accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums, which was certified in 2009.
“In 1997 [the museum] was just an idea and today it is an accredited museum and one of the leading museums in the country,” Backhouse explained. “It led Indian Country into a new era of how they’re perceived by colonial folks who wanted to write their history for them. The tribes wanted to write their own history. … We have the opportunity to show people the Seminole story of where the Tribe came from, where they’re going and what their identity is today.”