Exhibiting the Unexpected: 15 Unconventional Florida Museums to Visit
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
One museum floats on the water. Another offers a replica of Osama Bin Laden’s compound. From sex and seashells to pioneers and pirates, Florida hosts a full range of surprising museums dedicated to the undeniably original and unusual.
Along with world-class art and history, Florida’s 500 museums showcase drag racing, air conditioning, traveling circuses, surfing and Navy SEALS, among other unconventional topics.
“Every little town has an off-the-beaten path museum,” said Malinda J. Horton, executive director of the Florida Association of Museums. “We’re always viewed as a younger state without a long history, but we have a lot to offer.”
Here are 15 memorable museums around the state that will keep you entertained, educated and enthralled.
International Independent Showmen’s Museum / Riverview
The traveling carnivals, carousels, theater troupes and medicine shows that traversed America in the 19th and early 20th centuries can still be found under the big top of this Riverview warehouse museum, which features a sprawling collection of vintage wagons, games, rides and costumes. Step right up to view pictorial histories of sideshow exhibits and characters, along with a 1950 Allan Herschell American Beauty Carousel and a 1903 Conderman Ferris Wheel. The two-story museum is just outside of Tampa and Gibsonton, where carnival owners, workers and ride operators still gather in the winter to order new rides, games, prizes and signs at the International Independent Showmen’s Association trade show.
6938 Riverview Drive, Riverview, 813-671-3503
Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum / Sanibel
Beachcombing is the local obsession in Sanibel and Captiva islands, where bending over in the “Sanibel stoop” is the low-tide trolling stance of choice for seashell seekers. A trip to the Bailey-Matthews –where a new aquarium gallery features living mollusks and touch pools – completes the experience. A resource for scientists, students, and research institutions, the Gulf Coast museum has study guides and collection kits that are used in 2,000 museums and schools nationwide. Exhibits showcase art and craft forms that use shells, including cameos and sailors’ valentines. There’s also a children’s learning lab with displays, shell games and live tank demonstrations.
3075 Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel, 239-395-2233.
National Navy SEAL Museum / Fort Pierce
In St. Lucie County, just outside of Fort Pierce, this museum’s motto is, “If you got any closer you would have to enlist.” Dedicated to the secret world of Naval special warfare, it occupies the training grounds of the Frogmen, the original Navy combat divers. Exhibits include a model of Osama Bin Laden’s compound, an obstacle course, an outdoor collection of Desert Storm vehicles, unique weaponry, and the lifeboat where Capt. Richard Phillips stayed when he was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009.
3300 N. Highway A1A, North Hutchinson Island, 772-595-5845.
James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art / St. Petersburg
A private “best of the west” art collection of stellar works by contemporary American West artists became a St. Petersburg cultural treasure in 2018, when St. Pete residents Tom and Mary James opened the James Museum to showcase their purchased curated paintings, sculptures and jewelry. The museum adds another jewel in the city’s chain of eclectic art museums, which includes the Salvador Dali Museum and The Chihuly Collection. The serene space, built to resemble a sandstone canyon, spotlights hundreds of works in oil, ink and stone that portray American Western history, Indian cultures and wildlife, along with Native Concho Belts, necklaces, bracelets and rings.
150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-892-4200.
Naomi Wilzig Erotic Art Museum / Miami Beach
You won’t find giggling teenagers roaming the 20 rooms of erotic art in this one-of-a-kind Miami Beach museum, but that’s only because you have to be at least 18 years old to enter. Founder Naomi Wilzig authored five books on erotic art and history, purchasing this building in the heart of South Beach to hold her sex-inspired collection when it became too large for her home. Here you’ll find a one-ton bed carved with the Kama Sutra, dominatrix Barbie dolls, and action-packed art from Pre-Columbian to Roman to modern times.
1205 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305-532-9336.
American Victory Ship and Museum / Tampa
One of only four fully-operational World War II ships in the country, the American Victory is a floating, nine-deck maritime museum in Tampa on the National Register of Historic Places. Climb aboard to explore the three-level cargo holds, radio and gyro rooms, hospital, galley, steering stations, flying bridge, mess halls, lifeboats and Captain’s quarters. Also on exhibit are uniforms, medals and photos.
705 Channelside Dr., Tampa, 813-228-8766.
Have a need for speed? “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ drag racing legacy and race-car design innovations are so renowned that his record-breaking, hand-fabricated “Swamp Rat” car is enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. In this expansive Ocala museum dedicated to Garlits and the sport of drag racing, almost 300 racing cars are on display, including history-making dragsters, funny cars, motorcycles and other exciting racing vehicles.
13700 S.W. 16th Ave., Ocala, 352-245-8661.
Florida Surf Museum / Cocoa Beach
Next door to Ron Jon Surf Shop (and two blocks from the beach) in Cocoa Beach, this shoebox-sized museum shares the hometown of surf superman Kelly Slater. Along with tracking the local legend’s rise to greatness, the surf haven celebrates the surfing history and culture of the entire state of Florida. Exhibits showcase longboards, shortboards, the synergy between surfers and skateboarders, bellyboarding and “Florida Women of the Waves,” among other groovy topics.
4275 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, 321-720-8033.
St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum / St. Augustine
A treasure trove of pirate artifacts in a historic pirate port, St. Augustine’s pirate museum offers 48 exhibit areas that transport visitors to the Golden Age of Piracy. You’ll find Blackbeard’s blunderbuss weapon and pieces of gold retrieved from his warship, an authentic Jolly Roger flag, and pirate Thomas Tew’s original treasure chest, the only known authentic pirate treasure chest in the world.
12 S. Castillo Dr., St. Augustine, 877-467-5863.
John Gorrie State Museum / Apalachicola
Floridians love their air conditioning, so it’s no surprise there’s a museum in Apalachicola dedicated to the man whose pioneering work chilled our lives for the better. To cool his recovering malaria and yellow fever patients in the 1850s, Dr. John Gorrie found a way to use compressed air and condensation to make ice, then ran a fan across the ice to keep his infirmary cool. There’s a replica of Gorrie’s ice-making machine, along with re-created sickrooms, at John Gorrie Museum State Park, also home to Dr. Gorrie’s gravesite and a monument built to honor him as the father of refrigeration and air conditioning.
46 6th St., Apalachicola, 850-653-9347.
Fort Lauderdale Antique Car Museum / Fort Lauderdale
More than 22 stunning Packard automobiles – all in perfect working order and dating from 1900 into the 1950s – are on display in this elegant, 1920s-era showroom. There are also thousands of pieces of historical memorabilia, from hood ornaments and old gas station signs to horns and gear-shift knobs. You don’t have to be a car buff to be dazzled.
1527 SW 1st Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-779-7300.
World’s Smallest Police Station / Carrabelle
Dial into history at this phone booth, which “housed” Carrabelle’s police force in the 1960s, when police used it to get out of the rain to take calls. No longer in use, the blue booth on U.S. Highway 98 across the street from the Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce/Franklin County Visitor Center at 105 St. James Ave. remains an offbeat attraction in the Panhandle town of 2,778. It’s been featured on “Real People,” Ripley’s Believe It or Not” and “The Johnny Carson Show.”
U.S. Highway 98, Carrabelle.
History of Diving Museum / Islamorada
You don’t have to wear your fins and mask to dive into one of the world’s largest collections of diving helmets, armored suits, diving accessories, photos, books, films and other international memorabilia tracing mankind’s underwater adventures. Opened to the public in 2005, the Islamorada museum grew from the personal collection of founders Joe and Sally Bauer. It is dedicated to diving throughout the ages, from early breath-holding through SCUBA, with a special emphasis on South Florida’s role. The unique exhibits cover underwater photography, deep sea exploration, helping the disadvantaged to dive, diving’s most famous depictions in pop culture, and coral reef restoration, among other topics. There’s also an extensive reference library of diving-related material and a speaker series.
82990 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, 305-664-9737.
Titanic/The Artifact Exhibition / Orlando
Part theater, part museum, the Titanic in Orlando recreates parts of the doomed ship, including her grand staircase, a first-class cabin and the Verandah café. There’s a haunting two-ton slab from her hull, along with teak deck chairs, cookware, boarding cards and hundreds of other artifacts recovered from the wreck site. You can even book a two-hour dinner gala.
7324 International Dr., Orlando, 407-248-1166.
A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery / Fort Pierce
Fort Pierce is considered the home of the Florida Highwaymen, a group of 26 Black landscape artists who sold their paintings door-to-door from the mid-1950s through the 1980s. This one-of-a-kind museum is where you can find the nation’s largest collection of works by their mentor, the late Albert Ernest “Bean” Backus, the Dean of Florida’s landscape painters. A self-taught artist and native son of Florida, Backus created iconic images of the state’s glades, beaches and rivers. More than two dozen artists in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame trace their beginnings to his studio and “Indian River School” style. Along with his original works, you’ll find a revolving gallery of contemporary pieces and paintings from the original Highwaymen artists. A gift shop sells reproductions of Backus paintings.
500 N. Indian River Dr., Fort Pierce, 772-465-0630.
Search for Florida museums by museum type, city or region on the Florida Association of Museums’ website here.