Austin Bell, curator of the Marco Island Historical Museum, recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where he met with a curator of the Smithsonian Institution to talk about bringing the Key Marco Cat back to the island for a display at the museum.

Bell saw the fragile Calusa sculpture and photographed it.

"When the woman picked up the box containing the Marco Cat, I thought about all the places I had seen it over the years, in books, artwork, jewelry, signs, replicas like outside the museum," said Bell. "Seeing the Key Marco Cat in person was more emotional than I thought it would be. I mean, it's only 6 inches tall, but it commands such respect. It means so much to so many people. It was surreal to see it face to face. I just feel fortunate to be tasked with pursuing it on loan – talk about a meaningful pursuit."

In order to obtain the sculpture and other valuable artifacts from the Smithsonian, Marco Island Historical Society members will have to meet strict standards, Bell said. The $1 million the Historical Society hopes to raise over the next three years is required to secure the sculpture to display locally.

"That will be expensive, so we might as well make it worth our while," said Bell.

Museum officials explained that the fragile sculpture will be installed in a new case. All materials inside the case, including the air, paint, fabric, and glue, must be tested for gases that might leech into the wood and damage the artifact. Plans are to hire a professional conservator to do the tests and tell them if the case they now have is suitable.

The Smithsonian owns the artifacts collected by Frank Hamilton Cushing in 1896. During that time, Cushing was curator for the Bureau of American Ethnology at the University Pennsylvania and heard about artifacts being excavated in Southwest Florida. In order to get permission for him to go on the expedition, he agreed to split the items between the University of Pennsylvania and the Smithsonian Institution.

"Our grand opening of the new exhibit, 'The Calusa Era, Paradise Found, 6,000 years of people on Marco Island,' was the real impetus for us to announce our fundraising campaign," said Pat Rutledge, president of the Marco Island Historical Society. "That was the beginning of telling the story and where the museum is headed."

Currently a preliminary loan application is in process and will go to the Smithsonian once officials have thoroughly addressed each item on the agenda.

"We are not rushing the application as we are committed to doing things the right way," said Bell.

Even after the application goes out, approval could take six months to a year before the artifacts arrive.

"That is why we are fundraising now so at the earliest opportunity the application receives approval the funds will also be available," said Bell.

The last time the Cat was on Marco Island was in 1999-2000, when it came on loan to a local bank. More than 35,000 people came to see it. The loan was for five months, but Rutledge and Bell are hoping for a much longer loan for not only the Marco Cat, but also a wood-carved deer head, mask and pelican. Having these priceless artifacts at the museum will be an asset to the community, said Rutledge.

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