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Visitor surge at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki credited to hard work at home

Beletso Baskets04BIG CYPRESS — If numbers tell all, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, the first tribal-owned and governed museum to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, is a popular destination for visitors.

According to data compiled by Museum staff, the visit count for January 2015 over January 2014 alone is up 38 percent. Additionally, an early estimate for 2015 shows potential for doubling expectations.

“My goal for the entire year was to increase (visits) by 5 percent, but we’re already up 10 percent,” said Carrie Dilley, the Museum’s visitor services and development manager. “The front of the house is invested and excited.”

In December 2014, “the front” underwent mild restructuring changes that placed guided tours, the welcome desk, the gift shop and the orientation theater under the visitor services umbrella.

Dilley said staff members like Joy Murphy, who coordinates intense educational programs, and Reinaldo Becerra, who provides homegrown bird of prey lectures, are focused on attracting visitors and encouraging them to return with more guests.

Welcome desk personnel are friendlier and more outgoing. Staff managers take time throughout the day to walk through the Museum exhibits, greet guests and answer questions.

“We want to make sure that we share in an educational way what brings the Seminole story to life,” Dilley said.

On March 12, more than a dozen adult tourists joined an afternoon reception for student artists from the “Kaleidoscope: Ahfachkee School K-12 Art Exhibit” simply because they were there.

“It’s fantastic for the Ahfachkee students to see some random visitors interested not just in their artwork but in them as individuals,” said Rebecca Fell, curator of exhibits.

The next day, more than 40 students from Spanish River Christian School received a guided tour of the Museum and the 60-acre cypress dome campus, which includes the clan pavilion and the Seminole village.

“What’s fun and interesting is learning so much. It’s pretty cool how the Seminole Tribe lived back then,” said fifth-grader Steven Schenk.

Museum collections manager Tara Backhouse said recent enhancements to the mile-long boardwalk that snakes through the property makes touring the facility grounds more inviting and interactive.

The amphitheater, at the base of the boardwalk, was reroofed and restaged. Animal and plant information signs have been erected. Becerra’s bird show area, at the ceremonial grounds, is now covered. A formerly meandering segment of the walk was straightened to shorten the distance to the village.

Alligators, panthers and other wildlife that cross through the area naturally are sometimes visible, but Tribal members and Museum employees are scheduled to work in the village as weather and tribal commitments permit.

A wooden welcome sign handmade by artist Jeremiah Hall and new fiberglass statues of an alligator, bird and hunter further boost the friendly atmosphere.

“It used to be that visitors might not feel they could walk into the village, watch the artists work or speak with them, but we are doing a better job of getting the message out,” Backhouse said.

Village artists include Hall, Lorraine Cypress, Patsy Billie, Linda Frank, Linda Beletso, Lorraine Posada and Lenora Roberts. Wood carvings, beads, dolls and baskets made by the artists and other Tribe members are always available for purchase.

Dilley also credited multi-departmental cooperation for the rise in tourist visits.

For example, Florida Seminole Tourism’s promotional coordinator Melissa Sherman personally delivers brochures and discount cards for Seminole attractions at hotel concierge desks throughout Florida; maintains memberships in Chamber of Commerce organizations for chamber online and event presence; and works promotional booths at trade shows, conferences and regional events year-round.

Social media and the Internet also play an important role. The Museum and Florida Seminole Tourism websites and Facebook pages are typically updated daily.

On March 18, the Museum’s Facebook page showed photos of Victor Billie, of Big Cypress, carving a totem pole in the cypress dome. Tourism’s Facebook page showed a film crew riding a swamp buggy through Billie Swamp Safari, just a mile away.

“When film crews contact us we always try to sell the Museum and Billie Swamp Safari as a site location for the free exposure,” Sherman said in an email.

Dilley said the staff strives to balance customer service, commitment to Tribal members and their professional obligation to preserve the history and culture of the Tribe.

“Our thinking is always about how we can provide an excellent experience,” Dilley said.