WHITTIER, N.C. – Michael Abram’s interest in collecting began when he was in the second grade and began collecting postage stamps while growing up in Indiana.
He then got interested in collecting coins and natural historic items. His collection grew so large when he was a sophomore in high school that he created a museum in his backyard in a two-room house his dad had purchased and moved.
“I put in all these different collections I had – seashells, rocks, minerals, dinosaur models, antiques, stamps, coins – and we took people on tours of it,” he said.
In 1973, Michael and his new wife, Sue, started to Florida from Bloomington, Indiana, for their honeymoon they made a planned stop in Cherokee, North Carolina. After spending time there they agreed to spend the rest of their honeymoon in Cherokee, and that was the genesis of the Cherokee art and cultural collection started by the couple. While there they searched for items to collect and take home to Indiana.
About two years later, after graduating college, they returned to Cherokee to live.
“That’s when the collection really started to take off. It just has continued to grow and grow,” Abram said. “We’ve never stopped collecting. The goal we set was to collect pieces from all three Cherokee factions – Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian and United Keetoowah Band – and bring the nation back together by their art and not politics.”
He said the couple creates exhibits that focuses on one of the three tribes and has created exhibits that includes a mixture of artworks from all three tribes. They also had a museum in Cherokee from 1983 to 2010. After it closed, the vast collection was placed in seven different storage areas, and the collection is routinely monitored by Abrams to ensure the pieces are doing well.
“There are just thousands and thousands of pieces. Many of these are just one of a kind. We have beadwork, pottery, baskets, stone carvings, woodcarvings, dolls, paintings,” he, 75, said.
Some of the pieces have been used for reference by Cherokee artisans who want to learn how to make, for instance, a chunkey stone or pole. Various tribes played the chunkey game in which a disc-shaped stone was rolled and then sharpened poles were thrown at the stone after it stopped. The competitors who landed their poles closest to the stone scored points.
“Our museum moves at three times frames – past, present and future. Our motto is ‘Discover the Past by Way of the Present,’” he said.
He also said the museum uses nothing from an archeological site.
“We use modern-day pieces that are able to tell a story through the living Cherokees bringing out their history and culture through the pieces they create,” he said.
He said former CN Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller got to look at photos of his collection and appreciated the work he had done to put the collection together. At one point during a meeting at Mankiller’s home she asked the Abrams if they would be willing to sell the collection to the CN. Michael told her the collection was not for sale, but they continued to discuss the possibilities of bringing the collection to Oklahoma, though nothing was ever finalized.
“We had a really nice exchange,” he said.
The Abrams hope to find a location to again showcase their Cherokee collection. One possibility may be the establishment of a museum site in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Until then he said he is able to take some of the collection on the road for traveling exhibitions.
He said he’s created some award-winning traveling exhibits, some specific to a certain subject, time period or art type. A traveling exhibit titled “The Day in the Life of a Cherokee” that the Abrams set up at the Parthenon in Nashville set an opening night record for attendance, he said.
“I’ve done exhibits from 35 pieces to 635 pieces,” he said. “No two exhibits look alike that I do. I want to them to be all new and different.”
For information about the collection, call 334-707-0287.