In the Loop
Alumni News : Sep 7, 2017

Museum Studies alumnus acquires significant North American artifact on loan at Marco Island Historical Museum

By Marshall Carpenter

Curator of Collections for the Marco Island Historical Museum Austin Bell (MA Museum Studies ‘12)  recently succeeded in what has been both a career-long endeavor for him and a prominent acquisition for the museum: receiving the Key Marco Cat on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

When Bell originally joined the museum in 2013, he said it had empty exhibit halls and a collection in disarray. In the four years that followed, he oversaw the opening of four permanent exhibits (one of which won the 2015 Award for Museum Excellence from the Florida Association of Museums), as well as major improvements to the care and storage of the museum’s collections.

The acquisition of the Key Marco Cat was an achievement unlike any other he’d accomplished.

“Securing the Key Marco Cat on loan is an exciting milestone for our stakeholders--the realization of a dream decades in the making,” Bell said. “It will raise the profile of our museum to unprecedented heights and likely drive visitation to record numbers during its stay.”

Bell added that while this alone constituted a major achievement for him and the museum, “The true significance of this loan is its implicit affirmation that we, the Marco Island Historical Museum, are now equipped to handle it.”

Though this has been the highlight of his career as a curator, Bell explained that his experience working with the Marco Island Historical Museum has been a wonderful one throughout.

“Each day seems to bring something new and exciting,” he said. “I’ve learned to embrace the unexpected.”

While challenging, Bell noted that the experience has also brought him a deep sense of fulfillment: “Any time I am feeling particularly stressed out, I wander into the exhibit gallery and observe museum visitors experiencing and enjoying Marco Island’s history. It reminds me of the true reward of working in museums.”

Bell credited much of his success as a curator to his time in the Museum Studies Program.

“The University of Florida’s Museum Studies program struck a great balance in its approach,” Bell said. “It provided an ideal blend of theory and practice that has served me well in my current position. Lofty ideals and expectations can often be met with harsh reality when starting your museum career.”

While the acquisition of the Key Marco Cat has been an exciting accomplishment for Bell, he has no intention of slowing down as a curator.

“A specific goal I have for the Marco Island Historical Museum is to develop more participatory exhibit elements for visitors of all ages,” he said. “We’d like visitors to not only take something with them to remember the exhibit by, but also leave something of their own creation to be curated as part of the exhibit. With a talented and dedicated team behind this project, I am excited to see it come to fruition by the end of 2018.”