Austin Bell, curator of collections for the Marco Island Historical Museum, has deepened the partnership between the Marco Island Historical Society and the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He has been given the position of Consulting Scholar to the university for a three-year period – specifically appointed to the American section of the university’s collection. The University of Pennsylvania has been in partnership with the Marco Island Historical Society (MIHS), along with the Smithsonian Institution, to bring important artifacts such as the Key Marco Cat back to the island for exhibition until 2021.
Bell has acted as the museum’s curator of collections for six years. “My primary responsibilities are overseeing the development and installation of exhibits both in the permanent gallery and the rotating gallery, as well as the care and preservation of the historical society’s collection,” Bell explains.
The offer to work for the University of Pennsylvania came through the aforementioned partnership to bring the artifacts back to Marco Island, which brought Bell to Philadelphia to conduct research on the various objects for the exhibit – as well as his own book on the history of the Key Marco Cat. “I made a research trip in February of this year to go through their archives to learn more about the history behind the artifacts,” Bell said, “In my time there looking around in the library and stumbling across information ultimately lead to myself, the curator and the editor of their magazine – Expedition Magazine – foraging through the basement in search of these old artifact molds and castings that I read about, which nobody had looked at in who knows how long, probably decades. We all realized that maybe I could help contribute information to their collection, as well as study these objects as part of my duties at the Marco Island Historical Society.” With millions of objects in the possession of Penn Museum, both on display and in storage, it is next to impossible to have people researching them all. Part of Bell’s duties are not only to shine a light on the artifacts from the island, but Florida at large, in hopes of widening the breadth of historical understanding not only for the university but for the Historical Society on Marco Island as well.
Bell reminisced on the similar experience he had coming into his role when he ended up being hired as MIHS’ curator six years ago. “As a graduate student of museum studies at the University of Florida, I finished school in December of 2012. Sometime immediately after I graduated, I was teaching an undergraduate course in anthropology and working part time at the Florida Museum of Natural History where I had worked for about five years. The folks that I worked for, including the curator, were fairly well connected with the people on Marco Island who had undergone an initiative to build the museum that’s here today,” he said, “It’s another matter of circumstance and I feel fortunate to be in the position to go back to Philadelphia and research their collections.”
In the years since he has been hired to work at the Marco Island Historical Museum the organization has expanded considerably on its archival facilities, activities and exhibits – something he notes many museums of a similar size don’t have an opportunity to do. “One of the best things about it is how everyone in the community cares about and is supportive of Marco Island’s history. None of what we’ve been able to do over the past six to seven years would have been possible without the support of the Marco Island community.
The new position also allows him more chances to study the history behind the famous Key Marco Cat, about which he is writing a book detailing its history as a “museum object” ever since being dug up in 1896. “A lot of people assume it’s just been a thing in a drawer for the past hundred years and wonder why it’s not on display here on Marco Island all the time. In fact, I’m finding that it has been on display or on loan for much more of its life as a museum object than it has been in storage” said Bell.
The acquisition of the Key Marco Cat was “something we’ve been striving for for years,” Bell said, calling it one of the most fulfilling moments of his career working for the MIHS. “To finally put those artifacts in place in a fully realized exhibit was a really satisfying experience … It’s a great opportunity to be affiliated with two of the great museums in our country. I just have a lot of fun doing this kind of work – I enjoy it – just being able to go look around in the collections of such an old museum with so much of its own history is a lot of fun.”