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Seminole art in Disney World

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s conservator Robin Croskery Howard preparing the boy’s bigshirt for display. (Photo courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

BIG CYPRESS — The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum continues to share the Seminole story at Disney’s Epcot theme park by loaning objects for the exhibit “Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art” located in the American Heritage Gallery at the front of the American Adventure pavilion. The exhibit that opened in 2018 represents 40 American Indian tribes and focuses on how ancestral craftsmanship inspires contemporary art. Seminole handiworks such as bandolier bags, sashes, and dolls have been on display for the park’s millions of annual visitors to learn about.
Twice a year, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum works with Epcot’s staff to swap out the objects, allowing us to share more of the collection and, therefore, more of the Seminole story. Rotating objects also ensures their safety by limiting the amount of time they are exposed to potentially damaging conditions such as dust and light.

In April, the museum’s conservator Robin Croskery Howard and registrar Chelsea Nielsen served as couriers, transporting six objects to rotate with the eight on display. They worked with Walt Disney Imagineering’s curator Deb Van Horn, who oversees “Creating Tradition” and other exhibits at Epcot. She helped install the four dolls, a dress, and a bigshirt that will be on display for the next six months.

The six objects are a mix from the past and present. The oldest object is an early 20th century female doll carved out of wood, which signals its age since dolls are no longer made of wood. Also now on display is a male doll from the 1930s that, unlike the female doll, is made of palmetto fiber. They are both wearing traditional clothing; the female a cape and skirt and the male a turban and bigshirt, which remains a common feature among Seminole dolls. What distinguishes these two from contemporary dolls are their noses, which dolls today tend to lack.

Next to the older dolls is one made by Minnie Doctor and another by Mabel Osceola dating to the late 1990s. Doctor’s palmetto fiber doll is a mother with a baby on her back, while Osceola’s palmetto fiber doll is a woman holding a pestle next to a mortar. She’s posed as if ready to grind corn to make the traditional food sofkee. Both dolls are dressed in traditional capes, skirts, and beaded necklaces, so though the dolls are contemporary they celebrate longstanding practices.

Accompanying the dolls in the display case is a boy’s bigshirt and a girl’s dress. The bigshirt dating to the 1950s has many rows of applique, a decorative detail that grew in popularity during the 20th century. Its vibrant blue fabric stands out next to the red fabric of the dress Annie Jim made in 1990. Part of the dress is cotton like the bigshirt, but it is also made of synthetic metallic fiber. This metal-coated plastic is a modern material that distinguishes the dress from earlier clothing. A continuity between the bigshirt and dress is patchwork. Colorful bands of patchwork remain popular features on clothing though new designs have arisen.

The objects now displayed in the Creating Traditions exhibit demonstrate how ancestral craftsmanship inspires contemporary art. They also show how styles have expanded and changed, making it clear to visitors that the vibrant Seminole culture thrives today. In six months, we will rotate the objects with ones that similarly celebrate past and present artisanship. We hope that the park’s millions of visitors will enjoy the beautiful pieces and be inspired to learn more about Seminole culture.

A map that uses lights and audio to highlight the seven regions across the United States that are represented in the exhibit by Indigenous art. (Photo courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)