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Extra Credit: Two Indian museums earn prestigious accreditation

WASHINGTON – Two Native American museums have made it through years of intense scrutiny and paperwork to become accredited by a well-respected, independent and autonomous body of museum professionals.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, both received accreditation from the American Association of Museums in April.

According to AAM, just four percent of the nation’s nearly 17,500 museums have received similar honors. Receiving the status from the organization is meant to recognize a museum’s commitment to excellence, accountability, the highest professional standards and continued institutional advancement. Every accredited museum must meet national standards of stewardship of its historic and cultural resources.

Leadership and staff of both museums were delighted upon learning the news.

“We’re very pleased,” said Kevin Gover, the Pawnee/Comanche director of NMAI. The museum, which opened in the fall of 2004, is billed as an institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of Native peoples of the Western hemisphere.

Gover added that while NMAI isn’t any different as a result of the accreditation, he is hopeful that the AAM is forever changed in a way that may lead it to recognize the contributions of more tribal museums in the future.

He said it took many years of work by NMAI staff to get the accrediting organization’s leaders to appreciate the museum’s unique approach to conservation and curation. A case in point: NMAI leaders believe that items in their collection should be used to celebrate the ongoing vibrancy of Native cultures, whereas many traditional museum leaders believe their items should be preserved above all else.

It was a sticking point at first, but AAM eventually came around, deeming NMAI’s approach as worthy.

“What I’m really happy about is that it’s not controversial now,” Gover said. “It is accepted practice in the museum world. … the mainstream is moving closer to us.”

Tina Osceola, executive director of the Seminole’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki (which means “a place to learn”) Museum, said that her staff, too, was overjoyed to receive the accreditation.

“It is extremely exciting for us as a tribe because we were able to break through a lot of barriers with this certification and seal of approval. This puts us in a position where the museum industry really can’t come together and talk about best practices and standards without now inviting tribes to the table.”

The Seminole museum is the first tribally-governed museum in the U.S. to receive official certification from the AAM. It took four long years to receive the designation, during which the museum underwent a demanding process of self study and peer assessment.

Osceola said that it was tough going at times, especially because tribal museums have long been overlooked by the larger museum community.

“When the tribe first decided to pursue AAM accreditation, we knew we wanted to prove to both the world and the members of our tribe that our museum could stand alongside the most respected institutions in the country.”

The museum, located on the Big Cypress reservation in Florida, has four main galleries with rotating exhibits that highlight various aspects of Seminole life and culture. Opened in 1997, it’s made up of three buildings with more than 5,000-square-feet of exhibition space and a mile long nature trail with a “living village,” all of which sit within a 62-acre Cypress dome.

Osceola hopes that gaining accreditation will help the museum attract not just monetary donations, but more artifacts and archival materials. At the same time, she wants the institution to gain even more visibility.

She said getting accreditation was difficult and long, “but museums are supposed to be forever, so what’s four years in the scheme of things?”

While Gover believes NMAI and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum have much to be proud of, he said that accreditation won’t be a desired route for every tribal museum – nor does he believe it should be.

“Many tribal museums have objectives that are very different than what we try to do at NMAI,” Gover said. “There’s really no need for them to apply for accreditation.”

He noted with a chuckle that NMAI was going to keep its doors open whether or not it achieved accreditation from AAM.

For tribes that are interested in going the accrediting route, leaders with NMAI and the Seminole museum said they are more than willing to provide guidance.