Museum curator Austin Bell awarded consulting scholar at Penn museum

Lance Shearer
Austin Bell, curator of collections for the Marco Island Historical Society, with an exhibit telling the history of the historical society. Bell has been tapped for a consulting scholarship for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Like the Native Americans of the Glades period, the Muspa people who followed them, the Calusas who conquered the area, the early white settlers, and the Mackle brothers, Austin Bell migrated to Marco Island. Unlike all those others, he’s still here.

But Bell, the curator of collections at the Marco Island Historical Museum, and the author of two books on Marco history, will be departing the island. Only temporarily, though – Bell has been awarded a prestigious appointment as a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and will travel to Philadelphia to conduct research on the area’s early history.

To some extent, Bell can thank the Key Marco Cat, and the dramatic increase in interest in the island’s early heritage it has generated, for raising his profile in the world of historical museums. The Penn Museum, along with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, helped fund and organize the Frank Cushing expedition in 1896 that unearthed the cat, and many of the other artifacts found, including some currently on display in the Marco Island Historical Museum, come from the Philadelphia museum’s collection.

The cat seems to be under the watchful eye of archaeologist Frank Cushing, in its secure glass case. The return of the Key Marco Cat and associated artifacts became offical Saturday, with a celebration and ribbon cutting held at the Marco Island Historical Museum.

“This has been our busiest year by far” at the MIHM, said Bell. “We had record attendance last year, around 20,000, and we surpassed that by April. People have a fascination for the cat.” As well as the tremendous increase in visitation at the museum, he credited what you might call “Catmania” for an overall growth in visits to Marco Island.

“It really is an honor to be offered this appointment,” said Bell. “There are a lot of people in this state who have performed archaeological work who would be great – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Most consulting scholars are Ph.D.s.” Julian Siggers, the museum director who wrote the letter offering Bell the appointment, is one of those scholars.

“The title Consulting Scholar is reserved for appointments of recognized scholars … ” says Siggers’ letter. “I am very pleased to extend this offer to you, and especially to add you experience and expertise to our world-class institution.”  

Bell has a master of the arts in museum studies, as well as bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and classical studies, all from the University of Florida.

His work at the Penn Museum will entail pursuing his specialty of working with artifacts to keep them from decaying further. “All artifacts are deteriorating, even under ideal conditions,” he said. “What we are doing is extending the life of the artifact.”

In conjunction with his study, Bell is working on a third book, focusing on the history of the Key Marco Cat. If cats have nine lives, this one has had at least three so far – its original life after being carved by a Native American artist, its long sleep under the muck of Old Marco, and its life after being plucked from the earth by Cushing’s team.

The third book, which unlike the popular histories in his first two titles, will be a more scholarly, peer-reviewed volume, to be published by University Press of Florida.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the cat, like it was stuck in a drawer for the last 100 years,” he said. Bell is also working on a magazine article on preservation techniques and will present a talk later this summer in Philadelphia at the annual gathering of the American Association of State and Local Historians.

Far from leaving Marco Island, Austin Bell is becoming a new settler. He and his wife Erin recently moved onto the island and purchased a home – “one of the original Herb Savage-designed models,” so basically a museum piece itself – and are expecting their first child in October.

MIHS executive director (and past president) Pat Rutledge said Bell’s consulting scholar appointment is a feather in the cap of the museum. “It is such an honor for MIHS, and a validation of Austin and all he contributes. We’re very lucky to have a curator of his caliber,” she said.

“Austin has done a wonderful job for the Historical Society and the museum and continues to work very hard to make great contributions,” said MIHS president Mike O’Rourke. “And it’s really cool we can tell our own story, in the ‘Building a Dream’ exhibit.”

The museum is currently mounting the “Building a Dream: The 25-Year History of the Marco Island Historical Society,” in the Sandlin Gallery, with principal funding from the Island Country Club Charitable Foundation.

If you go

The Marco Island Historical Society

  • 180 S. Heathwood Dr. Marco Island
  • 239-252-1440 or 239-389-6447
  • Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.
  • Closed national holidays
  • Gift shop hours: 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.
  • Gift shop summer hours: 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.