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New THPO building to open as museum preps for overhaul

BIG CYPRESS — When Paul Backhouse started working at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) in Big Cypress in 2007, it had just been set up.

The Tribe had hired one staff member and an electrician.

THPO has been run out of a modular structure since then – sort of a prefab building, trailer type thing – that was only meant to be used for about five years.

Backhouse’s staff has expanded over the years – now at 16 – and the need for a bigger and more accessible building has increased as well.

Backhouse is the senior director of the Heritage and Environment Resources Office, also known as HERO.

The new two-story, 20-000-square-foot THPO building in Big Cypress is nearing completion. (Photo Damon Scott)

He and Tribal leadership have long wanted a place more comfortable for Tribal members to come to in order to meet with staff and participate in THPO programs.

The vision is coming to fruition this year. A new, two-story, 20,000-square-foot THPO building is almost complete.

It’s located between the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the existing curatorial building. It gives the program room to grow and to forge ahead on the Tribe’s many goals.

“The fundamental difference is it’s somewhere for the community to be,” Backhouse said. “What we’re trying to do with this new building is have it so the community feels like it’s theirs. So the interior design choices are built exactly on that.”

The lobby area will be open and welcoming – Daniel Tommie of Big Cypress is carving a canoe to be placed in it as well.

There are multiple open areas in other places, among offices, a conference room, kitchen/break area, storage, new landscaping and dedicated parking.

There will be a new outdoor boardwalk built between the THPO and museum.

Paul Backhouse, left, and Juan Cancel, right, meet with a contractor outside the new THPO building. (Photo Damon Scott)

One of the stairwells is painted by Tribal graffiti artist Wilson Bowers of Big Cypress.

“We want to make this somewhere that’s inviting and feels alive,” Backhouse said. “Somewhere that’s relevant not just to this generation [of Tribal members], but to future generations.”

Backhouse said he and Tribal leadership also wanted a space where Tribal members can see their modern history in action.

“We want to open up so they feel like they can come in, work with the team here and look for careers in this field. That’s our aim – to have more Tribal people working on the reservation and to eventually have a completely Tribal staff doing this program. That is the shift and [the new] building represents a big step in that evolution.”

The THPO works on a variety of projects across the state. They keep tabs on what the Army Corp of Engineers is doing with the Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP), including its proposed massive water storage projects that directly affect Tribal lands.

Those proposed projects have implications for flooding and the Tribe’s cultural and burial sites.

The THPO handles issues regarding Seminole remains – such as those discovered in downtown Tampa due to its gentrification.

“We’re trying to very respectfully deal with what came out of the ground there and get them back in the ground nearby as fast as humanly possible. It’s got to be in the same place or as close as possible. We’re taking all the precautions to make sure the remains are never messed with again,” Backhouse said.

THPO also handles environmental resource management, mapping, archeology work, surveys and more.

Backhouse said a grand opening community event is scheduled for Oct. 23.

This rendering shows a multimedia tunnel that will feature real-time social media posts as you enter or exit the museum. (Photo Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

Museum 2.0

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum celebrated its 22nd anniversary this year, and Backhouse said it’s not only come a long way since 1997, but is due for an overhaul.

He said the museum’s exhibits as they exist today sometimes appear as if Seminole history only took place from 1890 to 1900.

“The new redesign allows us to tell the whole story. That’s super important, because at the moment there are a lot of people trying to make the argument that Seminoles haven’t always been from Florida, that they came from somewhere else,” Backhouse said. “It’s absolutely not true. The Tribe understands its history and it goes back thousands of years in Florida.”

Backhouse said the overhaul will allow a visitor to see a more comprehensive history, or have the choice to access certain subjects in more bitesize chunks – like Seminole cooking or a particular war.

The physical flow of the floor plan will be better, too, he said.

The museum’s exhibit teams have been working closely with the Tribal community to get feedback. Backhouse said that process should be done by the end of the summer.

“Toward the end of 2020 we’ll close the museum and begin the actual installation and it’ll take about six months. By 2021 you should see the whole redesign. It’s amazing and exciting,” he said.

A particularly cool aspect, Backhouse said, is that as a museum visitor leaves, they’ll go through a tunnel to the outside boardwalk through an electronic system that is taking real time feeds from social media projected along the walls.

“You can see live updates from the Tribe – things the Tribe is doing now. Everyone thinks the Tribe’s not here anymore. It is, and it’s alive,” he said.

“We can help to educate people that the Tribe’s not just a casino. The Tribe’s got history; it’s got culture. That’s what gets us jazzed up here. It’s a labor of love. We love doing what we do.”

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at