The cat’s in the cradle and the wolf is at the door. That’s bad news in fairy tales, but happy developments for The Marco Island Historical Museum.
The pre-Columbian era Key Marco Cat on loan to the museum built for it will officially be here until 2026, thanks to unusual five-year loan extension by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. It is, say Marco officials, the longest period the Key Marco Cat has been on loan to any other institution. The original stay had been only for two years, 2019-2021.
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Further, the University of Pennsylvania Penn Museum, which lent the artifacts currently on exhibition with the cat, will swap them out for an even larger collection of 16 items. Centuries-old wolf, pelican and deer wooden figureheads thought to be created by the island’s native Calusa people will come with 13 other artifacts, thanks to a $16,000 loan agreement between Collier County and that museum.
The figureheads will exhibited on a rotating one-year basis, beginning with the wolf, in June. The 13 other smaller items are on Marco through 2024, a county report states. Among them are a shell gorget, or throat piece; a wooden human figurine; a knife handle thought to have been carved from an antler, and various utility items.
The loan agreement was approved May 11 by Collier County commissioners. The county owns the museum; the Marco Island Historical Society operates and maintains it.
“Isn’t it exciting?” asked Pat Rutledge, executive director of the Marco Island Historical Society, who already knows the answer.
What makes the loan of these items so significant, she said, is that they have been critical in teaching young museum professionals in dealing with historical artifacts and the depth of observation in analysis. (A Penn Museum-assigned analysis of the deer figurehead coming here in 2024 is in the museum’s November 2017 Expedition magazine.)
“If you think about it on a larger stage, it plays a huge role in the education of our future professionals,” she said. “The Marco Island Historical Society and the historical museum are so proud to bring this to our community for this length of time.”
The new artifacts add more context to the milieu of the prestigious Key Marco cat statue, one of the rare artifacts of that time in near-pristine condition. It, and the objects from the Penn Museum, are from an archeological dig on Key Marco in 1896. Led by Frank Hamilton Cushing, that dig uncovered a trove of Calusa ceremonial items, tools and architectural remnants that exist in few other American cultures that old.
Marco museum was built for this
Austin Bell, curator of collections, said having the 13 items, plus the rotation of wooden figureheads, through 2024 brings authentic objects, which no duplicate can match, to the museum. Having a fully secured and climate-controlled venue has made all the difference, he said.
“We made so much of an investment in museum making sure it was primarily safe and secure for artifacts the first time around that we are able to confidently to ask for more,” he said. The museum will rotate out some of its own items to make room for the additional Penn Museum ones.
Bell has his favorites, but in some cases, he says no one knows their purposes:
- A wooden atlatl, customized by carving of a rabbit at the end. It is one of the only known pre-Columbian examples of the spear-throwing weapon, Bell said. “Because of the fact it’s such a long, delicate piece, it’s amazing it’s in such good condition,” he said.
- A polished tortoise shell rectangle with several swimming dolphins carved into it. “Cushing thought it was a game piece,” Bell said. But several other blank tortoise shell pieces, without carvings, were also found at the dig, and other theories suggest they were used to gauge the weave for effective fishing nets. “Or they were other game pieces,” Bell said.
- A small statue of a human figure, its purpose unknown, according to Bell, but its expression formidable.
There’s history yet unlocked
Part of the attraction of the 1896 discoveries is that they and the Calusa people are, in a term, mystery-rich. The purpose, and even the identity, of some of its statuary is not complete, according to Bell.
The snarling wolf head that is coming, for example, is an artistically vivid head with movable ears and open jaws. It may have been used for a ceremonial procession, as Jesuits from an earlier missionary expedition, wrote about these figureheads. But whether it is a wolf or a savage dog is still in question, Bell said.
The Key Marco cat figure, the royalty of it all, is one of those mysteries. Half-human, half-feline, it sits on its haunches, eternally waiting.
Its anticipation has been rewarded at the Marco museum with visitors from all over the U.S. and 25 other countries. And despite closure for nearly an entire year during the COVID-19 pandemic, it had 50,000 visitors by February. With the expanded exhibition, Bell and Rutledge are betting there are many more still to come.
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.
When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.
Where: 180 S. Heathwood Drive, Marco Island
Information: themihs.info or 239-389-6447
FYI: The original artifacts lent by the Penn Museum leave at the end of May; the new, larger collection opens in June at a date yet unspecified