De Soto discovery opens a new world
Published: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 9:58 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 9:58 a.m.
Buried treasure will be uncovered, finally, this coming weekend.
On Saturday, the Appleton Museum will debut its long-awaited "New World Treasures" exhibit featuring coins, weapons and beads left behind in Marion County by Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto nearly half a millennium ago. They were wrested from the soil near Orange Lake over the past few years.
The display includes evidence of a lost 17th-century Spanish mission uncovered not far from where De Soto and his men camped in Marion County in 1539. Its prize is a cache of more than 100 Spanish coins, the largest find of such coinage from that time period found on American soil.
It opens as the museum itself undergoes a significant renovation in the entrance lobby: A pair of "Gone with the Wind"-worthy marble staircases to the upper floor will be built during the coming months. The project begins Monday, meaning visitors need to enter through the east-side Rotunda Gallery.
The De Soto exhibit runs through the end of the year.
The display of artifacts found by archaeologist Ashley White and his family on their ranch near Citra was scheduled initially to open last September, but was delayed after White said he found some exciting new items to enhance the exhibit — discoveries that include arrowheads for crossbow bolts and marble-size lead balls used in the earliest firearms.
"And I thought it was important to include some about native Indian cultures living in the area at the time of De Soto and before," White said recently. Items are likely to include relics found on the site of various cultures — Alachua, Ocmulgee, Cades Pond and Deptford — going back to 800 B.C.
But mostly the exhibit focuses on De Soto and his march through the area in 1539, as well as the items from the mission of San Buenaventura de Potano built decades later near where the conquistador camped. It's believed the De Soto site is the location of the community of early Indians called Potano.
"This is the first time we've seen a whole collection of De Soto artifacts," White said last summer. "This is now the oldest New World exhibition, even older than the De Soto site in Tallahassee."
A juggling act
It is a fact of life that for something new to come in, something old has to go — and what is leaving the Appleton are medieval Persian ceramics that have been on display since June 2011. The ceramics were a surprise find in the museum's storage vaults.
"I was surprised by the depth and quality of these pieces," said Walter Meyer, a guest curator who researched and assembled the display when it opened nearly two years ago. "And they were already here."
Last week, a pair of specialists from U.S. Art, a Massachusetts-based company specializing in moving art around the country and world, arrived at the Appleton to pack up the Persian pieces for delivery to the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh.
"They give us the dimension of what piece and we figure out what goes into which box," said J.R. Gilbert, the U.S. Art foreman. Other exhibits he has helped ship include items from the Titanic, dinosaurs and the collection of Salvador Dali's surrealist art.
Here, he and a companion hand cut custom nests in cushioning closed-cell foam to protect each item during the ride up North.
Most of these pieces are hundreds of years old.
The Persian ceramics display is the first exhibit consisting of Appleton-only pieces to travel out of state, said Ruth Grim, the Appleton's curator of exhibits. It is scheduled to open in Pittsburgh on Feb. 23.
It has been Grim's task to not only make those arrangements, but to oversee the installation of the "New World Treasures" exhibit in its place at the same time as two other "temporary" exhibits were being installed elsewhere in the museum.
The Appleton hosts some 16 to 18 short-time exhibitions every year.
"At any given time I'm juggling two exhibits," Grim said. "Right now it's three … four if you count the exhibit that's going out the door."
Or more. Other exhibits that opened recently include "Rebels with a Cause: American Impressionist Women from the Huntsville (Ala.) Museum of Art," "Appleton in Bloom," "Art on the Move" and "Chick Schwartz: Cedar Key Artist."
Each exhibit includes myriad details that demand attention — design placement, determining the right color for the walls, hunting down and buying the right fabric to complement the tiny multi-hued medieval Italian beads De Soto brought from Europe to Florida.
Grim said she found a tan-colored fabric "that's between raw silk and suede" that should enhance the vivid blues of the beads as well as the coins found at the De Soto site.
"This was a royal expedition," she said. "Even though these pieces have come out of the ground and are simple-looking objects, we don't want to give them a homespun, earthy look."
The objective is to bestow all regal reverence due objects nearly 500 years old.
"That's part of what the curator/designer does," Grim added — and what she has been doing at the Appleton since coming here in 2009.
"This is my art," she said.
Across town at Phillips Printing, art director Tom Kowtko put finishing touches on programs and the placards to be displayed with the array of artifacts, telling their stories. A few weeks ago postcards announcing the exhibit were printed and mailed.
Kowtko has been handling the Appleton's printing for seven years.
"It's exciting," he said. "They'll come to me with an idea, sometimes needing our assistance to see it. That's always my favorite part, to come up with the feel of it."
The puzzle is assembled
In many ways, any museum exhibit is like a puzzle. Individual pieces are crafted, walls are painted. For "Rebels With a Cause," for instance, the gallery in the Edith-Marie Appleton wing went from stark white to rich maroons and sand.
With paintings, it is fairly easy: Measure their width, determine how many can go on any one wall and hang them 60 inches above the floor. Coordinating identification cards are hung beside each piece.
But an exhibit like "New World Treasures" is more of a historical display with smaller items. This requires draped display stands, photo enlargements and description placards that tell the story of Potano, De Soto, the mission and the discovery of it all.
Grim; Registrar David Reuter, who makes sure every item that is supposed to be included is there; and Chief Preparator Paul Arthur, who actually places the items in the displays, are set to begin assembling the "New World Treasures" puzzle on Monday.
White said he hopes swords and an arquebus — a medieval forerunner of today's rifle carried by the conquistadors — can be pulled out of the museum's stores to add to the display of the crossbow bolt points and lead shot.
"The De Soto exhibit is going to be a different kind of exhibit for us," Grim said. "We normally don't work with such small pieces."
Arranging it all should take maybe a day, two at the most. "We don't want all those little pieces hanging around," she said.
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