By Natalie Strom
Austin Bell is no stranger to the history and culture of the Calusa Indians that once inhabited Marco Island. This makes him the perfect fit as the new Curator of Collections at the Marco Island Historical Museum. Hired by the Marco Island Historical Society, Bell’s first project is no small task.
“The Marco Island Historical Society has so many volunteers, and many of them have regular jobs, too,” explains Bell. “There’s some progress to be made here, and that’s why they decided to hire a professional to manage the collections.”
Born and raised in Royal Palm Beach, Bell is a true Floridian who even spent his undergrad and graduate years at University of Florida. “Being from Florida, I love learning about its history, especially the Calusa because it was something that was never taught to me,” Bell explains. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology, a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies and over a year’s time spent in archaeological fieldwork, Bell has certainly become well versed with the Calusa Indian lifestyle.
His first task is to master and organize the Calusa collection at the museum – a rather daunting task. Recent archaeological digs in the Caxambas area have unearthed thousands of ancient artifacts.
“The big idea is to show visitors that people have been living on Marco Island for thousands of years,” explains Bell. That starts with the Calusa exhibit, something that was started but sort of stopped dead in its tracks without the proper vision. “My first step is to develop a hierarchy on how to tell the story,” adds Bell. Major changes like this take time, however. Bell expects to see some changes shaping up in 2014. As things develop, he will be the point person to organize artifacts, communicate with design companies, determine layouts and work with the MIHS board and other outside influences.
Bill Marquardt would be one such influence. A mentor to both Bell and the museum, Marquardt has been aiding in the ideas and creation of the Calusa exhibit from afar. Located at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Bell worked closely with Marquardt, learning much from him about the ancient Indian civilization that is the Calusa.
Having only begun on June 3, Bell is excited to get to work. “My parents say this is the perfect job for me. Ever since I was a kid, we would go on vacation and I would collect things, label them and make displays. It’s kind of nerdy.” But really kind of neat. Bell has been preparing for this job his entire life.
And the location isn’t bad either. “I love Marco so far. The people are so passionate about their local history. I’m excited to be a part of that and bring something to the community that they can be proud of. Working with the Collier Museums and the Marco Island Historical Society, I’m just a small part of a much larger team,” says Bell.
The Marco Island Historical Museum is free to visit. Located at 180 S. Heathwood Drive, it is open Tuesday through Saturday and may be reached by phone at 239-642-1440 or 239-389-6447 or on the web at www.themihs.com.
Q&A with the Curator Austin Bell freely admits his knowledge of Marco’s “recent” history is not nearly as polished as his knowlegde of the Calusa and Archaeic Indians.
He also admits that his first visit to Marco was when he came to accept his new position. Coastal Breeze decided to test his knowledge anyway with a short ten question quiz.
Here’s how he fared:
Q: When did Captian Bill Collier first establish himself on Marco Island?
A: “1871?” WRONG: The answer is 1870.
Q: Where were the two major clam factories located on Marco?
A: “I have no idea.” WRONG: The answer is where the present day Snook Inn is located and in the hills of Caxambas (The Estates).
Q: Why is the elementary school named after Tommie Barfield?
A: “Because he was important??” BIG WRONG!: Tommie Barfield was a woman and was highly influential in early Marco politics as well as the first schools on Marco.
Q: What was the name of the corporation that developed Marco Island?
Q: In rather recent history, when did Marco become a city?
A: “Fifteen years ago.”
Q: Who were the first to settle in areas of Marco?
A: “The Archaeic Indians.”
Q: When was the Marco Island Historical Museum built?
A: “I know that it opened in 2010.”
Q: Of the two bridges to get to Marco, which was the first?
A: “The bridge on 92.”
Q: What type of bridge was it?
A: “A swing bridge.”
Q: When was the Marco Cat discovered?
“Seven out of ten isn’t bad,” stated this reporter. “That’s a C-,” Austin responded with some dismay. Have no fear, Austin. You will soon learn all there is to know of Marco’s rich and diverse history.