By Robin Croskery Howard, Conservator, and Tara Backhouse, Collections Manager
The Seminole Tribe has always been proud of its museum. Nestled in front of a beautiful cypress dome in the heart of Big Cypress, it has protected Seminole history and shared the Seminole story for nearly 23 years. We’re lucky to have amazing community-based exhibits created all those years ago. But there comes a time that even a fantastic museum endeavors to undertake updates so that it can become even better. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is currently working on designing new gallery layouts, not only because our exhibits are over 20 years old, but also because we see an opportunity to tell a more complete Seminole story to all visitors.
Not only will we start telling the story thousands of years ago, we will continue to tell the story of the present and everything in between. From traditional lifeways, the Seminole War, STOF government, and Seminole art, our intent is to provide a comprehensive experience for our visitors. Part of this plan includes displaying more of the historic objects in the museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) collections. Our visitors will now be able to see objects they have most likely never seen before.
Objects chosen for the museum’s redesign represent a large cross-section of the collections. These objects will reveal a more holistic look at Seminole culture and traditions than what is currently represented in the Museum’s permanent gallery spaces. Planned areas such as “Our Grandmothers’ Grandmothers,” “Strength and Survival,” and “Being Seminole Today” provide an opportunity to delve into a larger variety of topics and highlight objects in both the THPO and museum collections.
The THPO’s collection will primarily be highlighted in “Our Grandmothers’ Grandmothers.” The archaeological collection featured in this area includes pottery sherds, fish hooks, pounders, scrapers, and a bone pin. Mixed amongst these items will be collection items from the museum including turbans and beaded turban fobs, a ceramic Safki jar, woodworking tools and palmetto baskets. Altogether, these related objects carry the story from a previous moment in Seminole history toward the present.
The majority of the objects that the museum places on exhibit after the redesign are considered structurally stable, meaning that they will hold up to long periods of exhibition without degrading or falling apart. However, some of the objects slated for exhibition will require conservation efforts to ensure that they are structurally stable and at their best for exhibition. For example, a leather belt worn by a U.S. soldier during the Seminole War period is not currently ready for any sort of exhibition. Though the leather is still relatively supple, it is distorted from years of being stored rolled up prior to coming to the museum. Before exhibition, the belt will need to undergo several treatments to flatten the object and attempt to remove staining that could prove detrimental to the continued museum-use life of the object.
Previously treated objects occasionally need more work. A sash that underwent some conservation in 2011 now needs a bit more attention. There are a few areas of the backing wool textile that have developed holes large enough to make the baldric structurally unsuitable for exhibition. Using another textile, these holes will be mended in such a way that strengthens the overall object.
Another object that will undergo some level of conservation is a license plate from 1968-69. It is one of the earliest Florida ‘Seminole Indian’ license plates and has a moderate amount of rust damage. Before exhibition, the object will need to have as much of this rust removed and/or converted into a stable form of iron that will prevent further rust damage from occurring while keeping the original surface paint of the object. These treatments will help stabilize these objects so that they can continue to tell the Seminole story over a long period of time.
This is just a small piece of what the museum believes will be an amazing redesign; there is so much more to see. Currently, the original exhibits remain intact at the museum and will be there for some time and we continue to welcome the community’s input. The museum wants the new exhibits to reflect the many community voices as the original installations, and we appreciate your valuable feedback. Please contact us if you want to see the plans and how they will help us tell more of the Tribe’s history, culture, and life at the museum. We can be reached at Museum@semtribe.com.