Museum Milestones

Tallahassee Museum and the Museum of Florida History celebrate big anniversariesMuseum MilestonesTwo Local Museums Celebrate the Past and Look to the Future

By Erica Bailey 

It’s a year of celebration as two local museums mark significant birthdays: The Tallahassee Museum now is 50 years old, while the Museum of Florida History has been in existence for 30 years.

While each continues to provide valuable learning tools for children and adults alike, this year they’re bringing in special exhibits to commemorate their anniversaries. As they look to their pasts and fondly remember their beginnings, each museum also turns an eye toward the future – with the hope of celebrating many more milestones.

The Junior – Make That Tallahassee – Museum
It all started 50 years ago with 10 acres and an idea to educate children about nature and the wildlife around them. But that original concept has evolved into so much more. Russell Dawes, executive director and chief executive officer of the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science, credits the grass-roots support that started the facility with its continued success over the past half-century.

“Our founding in ’57 began with some interested individuals, teachers (who) felt that Tallahassee needed a place where children could go to learn in a hands-on way about the world,” he said. “They reached out to everyone … There really was no large philanthropy behind them – they were just a lot of passionate people who wanted to do something for the community.”

In 1958, the then-named Tallahassee Junior Museum opened with exhibits and programs at the McMillan House in downtown Tallahassee.

“Because we had … university connections and people who (liked) to travel, they kind of tagged into people’s personal collections and experiences,” Dawes said. “That was sort of the acorn that the oak tree grew from.”

With a home base established, the founders began looking for a permanent location. They had very specific ideas about what they wanted – a large space in an environmental setting.

What they found was the museum’s original 10 acres on the shore of Lake Bradford.

“This ended up being one of the favorite sites, (and) some of the people who were doing the search put their own money down to hold the property until they could garner the support to make it happen,” Dawes said. “Once they acquired the site, they then began a building drive, and the main building complex (was completed). One of the neat things about it was they decided to hold an architectural design competition to design the buildings.”

Finding the site was the impetus for the Tallahassee Museum’s success. Many of the earlier exhibits highlighted global history, but as time went by, the focus shifted to a more local emphasis. In the 1970s, the focus shifted again when the Museum of Florida History was established and the two facilities complemented one another. Now, the Tallahassee Museum deals with the 1800s and beyond.

“We revised our mission to what it is today – interpreting the natural, cultural history of the Big Bend region,” Dawes said.

One of the biggest – and most contested – changes was the name change from Junior Museum to Tallahassee Museum. For many outsiders, “junior” meant children were the primary audience. In fact, children could spend their summers learning with various summer camp programs. They also could take part in “Critter Classes” to learn about the local wildlife.

But, while children still can participate in these events, the additions made over the last 50 years speak to a wider audience. They were part of the trend seen both locally and nationally that revealed “junior” museums were disappearing.

“Over about a 10-year period, there were quiet questions being asked about our name,” Dawes said. “In 1992, we changed it to the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science.

It opened up tremendously new funding and mission opportunities for us. It has served us extremely well, even though there still exists some confusion in the local market.”

People of all ages can enjoy the historic buildings – the Bellevue Plantation House, Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, the Concord Schoolhouse and the B.O. Wood Turpentine Commissary – that highlight Southern living; view the wildlife exhibits where Florida panthers, black bears, bobcats, river otters, red wolves and other native animals can be seen in their habitats; check out the informative educational programs; and enjoy the natural beauty of nature with trails that wind through the 52 acres of the Tallahassee Museum.

This year, the museum will celebrate its Golden Jubilee at Ayavalla Plantation on Nov. 10, and the Phipps Gallery will feature the 50-year history of the Tallahassee Museum until Sept. 30.

Museum of Florida History Turns 30
On May 20, 1977, the Museum of Florida History, located in the R.A. Gray Building in downtown Tallahassee, opened its doors with a mission to present the history of Florida. That charge has stood the test of time and now is what drives the museum forward. Jeana Brunson, director of the museum, has been a part of the effort since 1986, serving for the last six years in the director’s chair.

 “We may take a different particular historical focus and do different programs – different types of presentation techniques that are up to date in the museum world – but as far as representing the whole history of the state and looking at Florida’s history broadly, our mission to promote Florida history on a statewide basis has been
continuous,” she said.

The Florida Legislature originally chartered the museum in 1967 to be the official state history museum.

“We actually grew out of the Florida State Museum in Gainesville,” Brunson said. “Their focus turned more toward natural history at some point, and the Legislature established us to be the museum of Florida history.”

With a groundbreaking for the R.A. Gray Building in 1973, the Museum of Florida History began collecting artifacts for its first exhibits. Many of the artifacts housed there have been in a museum setting since the early part of the 20th century. One of the first exhibits was the mastodon skeleton that has become such an iconic symbol for the museum.

Having the museum in our own back yard has helped attract field-tripping schoolchildren from across the state. Nowadays, the number of exhibits and programs has increased, as has the number of people visiting the Museum of Florida History. Last year, it hosted more than 59,000 visitors.

One of the more successful programs has been the traveling exhibits. With them, the museum has had the opportunity to share some of its most popular exhibits with other museums in Florida and across the nation. For example, the museum recently had an alligator exhibit go as far away as a zoo in Michigan.

“They’re available for people outside of Florida to show … things like alligators,” Brunson said.

“We’ve expanded our programs and exhibits considerably and done a lot of new permanent exhibits, as well as hosting many traveling and temporary exhibits,” Brunson said. Some of the more popular permanent exhibits look at Florida’s first peoples and what role the state played during the Civil War and World War II. Meanwhile, many of the traveling exhibits that have come to the Museum of Florida History have covered a wider range of topics, including the Napoleon exhibit in 2006.  

Keeping up to date with Florida’s ever-changing history is part of the museum’s future. Expanding the number of permanent exhibits and hosting more temporary ones plays a large part in what is being decided now. The museum is planning to build four new permanent exhibits that cover the time from first European contact to Florida becoming a U.S. territory. Since the museum depends so much on the public and its continual support, the next phase for the Museum of Florida History is to ask for input from its audience.

“When people come, we want them to be involved in planning our permanent exhibits,” Brunson said. “We’ve put some of the illustrations, some of our conceptual sketches, up in the gallery, and we’re hoping what people will do is give us feedback … so that it best meets the needs of our audience. You can actually go in and see what we’re planning to do and comment on it.”      

These exhibits are scheduled to be completed by 2013, a significant year that marks the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Florida.

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