Curating Tribal Collections

Case Study: Curating Tribal Collections

by Elizabeth Lowman and Robin Kilgo

Collections with cultural sensitivities face many problems with the decisions surrounding dissemination and curation. With tribal collections, the content is culturally sensitive for many reasons, which will be covered in this essay. Some tribal collections are in the unique position to be considered proprietary; therefore, the respective tribe has complete control over dissemination and curation of their collections. This essay will cover the collections philosophies of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, the tribal governing authority, and the Seminole Tribe’s Oral History Collection.

In the early 1990s, the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum began interviewing tribal elders to develop content for the museum’s permanent exhibits. The early meeting notes explain that the interviews were to be used for the exhibits only. The program re-kindled in 2007 and the program moved to a “tribal member only” philosophy when it came to unfettered access to the oral history collection. The decision to limit access to the oral history collection was not reached by museum administration alone; tribal members and the tribal council decided to keep the oral history collection restricted for several reasons.

First, information about tribes in general has been misconstrued in the past by academics, independent researchers, and the press. The Seminole Tribe has gone to great lengths to insulate themselves from misinformation, attacks, and general release of their culturally sensitive information. For example, in order for an outsider to gain access to a tribal member for an interview, they must first go through a rigorous legal process with the tribe’s legal department. The tribal council also does not want personal information about tribal members used to jeopardize their many political and business interests.

Second, the tribe solely owns the collection and funds its collection, care, housing, and dissemination. Due to the museum’s proprietary nature, there are no stipulations set forth by grants, boards, or otherwise, which force the tribe to publish interviews or even provide access to them. Even with grants, specific language can be used limiting access to the public (tribal members) the museum or tribe serves.

The cultural properties the tribe seeks to protect are multi-dimensional and perhaps stifled by centuries of historians and anthropologists instilling a “right to know for the good of the field” attitude in scholars. Many parts of tribal oral traditions and history encompass religion, traditions, customs, genealogy, private family and clan information, personal relationships, and language. Reservations are close-knit communities made up of extended families and clans; therefore, most of the familial information discussed in oral history interviews affects an entire community, not just individuals and their immediate circle.

Furthermore, the tribe views their traditions, customs, and religious practices as something that is not suitable for unregulated release to the public. While some scholars believe this information is vital for the study of a group or its history, the tribe believes the public can glean enough information from the tidbits they choose to release. The Seminole Tribe of Florida also vehemently protects access to the Miccosukee language. Anthropologists argue that language is a factor which defines a group and their identity. As the last remaining speakers of the Miccosukee language, the tribe limits access to this part of their identity.

The best way for information to be disseminated is through the use of exhibits, audio tours, and other mediums the tribe views as suitable. Once released on the Internet, the original source has no control of how the interviews are used, presented, edited, or interpreted. Many institutions do not consider the possible ramifications of international release, but the tribe is not willing to expose themselves to the possibility of problems. Most of the museum’s exhibits contain ancillary information from various oral history interviews and less-formal input directly from tribal members. Information is also released from oral histories in the form of audio tours, podcasts, and small features on the museum’s Microsoft Touchtable. These small snippets provide the public with vital information, but also allow the tribe to have complete control over the information released to the public.

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s oral history collection is arguably the most restricted collection in the museum, but the restrictive nature of the collection has its place in the museum’s collections philosophy. The museum has three defined audiences and they are listed in their order of importance: the Seminole Tribe of Florida, other tribal peoples, and the general public.

When considering the restrictions placed upon of the oral history collection within the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, one must first examine the governing authority structure of the museum itself. The museum is administered by two distinct levels of governing authority, known as the effective and the ultimate governing authorities. The ultimate governing authority is the elected tribal council of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. This body is a council voted in by the tribal members every four years. The council consists of a chairman and representatives from the six distinct reservations that make up the Seminole Tribe of Florida. It is this group that approves or rejects any major piece of policy that might deal with the management and access of all of the permanent collections owned by the museum.

The tribal council is recognized as having ultimate authority over the management of the museum and it’s various collections, but early on it was recognized that a more immediate level of governing authority be identified to deal with the day-to-day operations of the museum. This level of authority, the effective authority, is identified within our structure as being the Chief Historic Resources Officer (CHRO). The CHRO is a tribal council-appointed position that handles the operational side of the museum. It is this level that the staff at the museum can speak to directly when it comes to the adherence and procedural side of policies that have been approved by Tribal Council.

Multiple levels of governing authority, while seemingly problematic, have given the museum the ability to get answers to questions of restrictions and access to the oral history collection rather quickly. Most inquiries can be handled on the effective level of authority. But if a challenging issue is put forth to staff, the path to the tribal council can be reached without major diversion. The key aspect of any governing authority structure is to make sure that organization is accepted both in practice and approved policy.

Once the governing authority surrounding the management of the collection is accepted by the institution, the needs and wants of each collection must be ascertained. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum currently has seven unique collections. The collections include: permanent archival, permanent artifact, general reference photography, audio/visual, education, research library, and the oral history collection. Of these collections, four are considered accessioned: archival, artifact, research library and oral history. The remaining are non-accessioned collections, whose level of care and access is less strident than the accessioned collections.

The four accessioned collections are kept to a higher level of management than the other collections mainly due to their importance to the tribe. Our research library contains published materials discussing both the history of the tribe and southeastern Native Americans. The permanent archival collection contains the historical written record of the tribal history, though mainly told through the eyes of the white settlers of Florida. In consideration of the strong material culture of the tribe, the permanent artifact collection also holds an important part in the structure of the collections. The remaining accessioned collection, the oral history collection, possibly holds the most important place in the collections of the museum. For a people whose history was– and continues to be– orally-based, the preservation and management of this collection is tantamount. In planning for the future of the collections of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, each must be given an equal weight for the role they will play. The combination of these four collections, published works, the written historical record, material culture produced by tribal members, and oral traditions all contribute to a cohesive picture of the history and culture of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Citation for Article


Lowman, E. & Kilgo, R. (2012). Case study: curating tribal collections. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


Lowman, Elizabeth and Robin Kilgo. “Case Study: Curating Tribal Collections,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,

This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation.

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