Florida’s Museums: World-Class to Eclectic, and Everything in Between
By Dan Norman
When you think of the great state of Florida, what readily comes to mind?
Sunshine? Got it, in abundance. After all, this is the Sunshine State. Beautiful sandy beaches? For sure. Up and down and all around, 825 miles of them. Amazing water sports, including fishing, diving, and snorkeling? No doubt. Outstanding dining, including some of the best restaurants in the country and all the great local eateries? Yum and yum.
Anybody think “museums?”
Probably not. And that’s a shame, because Florida has a plethora of them, from large and world-class (offering extensive permanent collections and temporary exhibits) to small and magically eclectic and everything in between.
So, if you’re planning a trip to Florida or you live here and are going to a different part of the state, you might want to schedule some time to visit one. Or more.
A great place to start for information on all the museums Florida has to offer is the Florida Association of Museums. It has a database of more than 400 museums that includes information on their exhibits and collections. The database is updated frequently with new museums and new information. You can search it with a phrase, type of museum, region, city or zip code.
Many of Florida’s museums have virtual tours, online activities, guided tours, apps and some have audio tours you can capture on a cell phone. Check the website for any museum you want to visit for more information. Many museums offer programs above and beyond what you can see inside.
Here’s a select, alphabetized compendium of some of the museums in South, Central and North Florida. There are, of course, many more museums in the state. Again, please go to the Florida Association of Museums website, using the link above, for much more information about museums near where you will be.
EDISON AND FORD WINTER ESTATES
Good friends Thomas Edison and Henry Ford wound up living in side-by-side homes along the Caloosahatchee River in Southwest Florida. Now, visitors can enjoy a museum and 20 acres of historical homes and beautiful gardens on that site. The museum contains exhibits about Edison’s life and his signature achievement, electric lighting, and the legacy of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company (including several of his cars). The properties that can be viewed are the Edison Main House, the Edison Guest House, the Edison Caretaker’s House, Edison’s Study and Henry Ford’s Winter Estate. Edison’s main house was one the first prefabricated houses in the country. He had it shipped from New England and assembled on the property. Edison Ford, as this complex is known, is a National Historic Site and one of the most-visited home sites in the country.
Of note: In 1928, Edison, Ford and Harvey Firestone built a laboratory on the grounds, the purpose of which was to develop a source of rubber that could be grown quickly in case there was a foreign supply shortage. Edison studied more than 17,000 plant samples before deciding Goldenrod was the best option. You’ll feel like you’re in the lab just as it was back in the day. It includes a chemical processing area, machine shop, grinding room, dark room and an office.
Address: 2350 McGregor Boulevard, Fort Myers, 33901
FLAGLER MUSEUM AT WHITEHALL
Henry Morrison Flagler was one of the founders of Standard Oil. After that career, Flagler spent the remainder of his life developing Florida, including the Florida East Coast Railroad. No one was more influential in our state’s history than he. In 1902, Flagler presented his wife a wedding gift of a mansion called Whitehall – 100,000 square feet and 75 rooms of Gilded Age opulence. It is now a National Historic Landmark and many of the rooms have been restored to their original condition. Visitors can see many of the rooms, including the grand hall, library, music room, courtyard, billiard room, dining room, drawing room, master bedroom, master bathroom, guest bedrooms and a servant’s room. This museum has attracted about 100,000 visitors each year.
Of note: Henry Flagler’s Railcar No. 91 sits in the Flagler Kenan Pavilion. It has been restored to its original 1912 appearance, when Flagler traveled along his railroad to celebrate the completion of the St. Augustine-to-Key West railway.
Address: One Whitehall Way, Palm Beach, 33480
JEWISH MUSEUM OF FLORIDA
Part of the museum’s mission statement is “To advance the understanding and appreciation of Jewish culture, preserve and share the history and stories of Jewish life in Florida…” A visit to the two historic buildings that comprise this museum (they were synagogues for the first Jewish congregation in Miami Beach) shows how the museum is living up to that promise. Its history dates back to 1763. Some of the more than 100,000 items include still images (photographs, negatives slides and microfilm), textiles, and works of art, books and religious objects.
Of note: Make sure to check out the architecture of the primary building. It includes 77 colorful stained-glass windows, eight Art Deco chandeliers, decorative exterior relief panels and a copper Moorish dome.
Address: 301 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, 33139
MUSEUM OF DISCOVERY & SCIENCE
It has a much-deserved reputation for its outstanding children’s programs, but there’s plenty to enjoy for people of all ages. It has about 300 interactive permanent exhibits and three different traveling exhibits each year. Some of the permanent exhibits include The Discovery Center (for children six years old and under), an Everglades Airboat Adventure (without leaving the museum), Florida Ecoscapes, Prehistoric Florida, Otters at Play, a Science Park, Storm Center (with a hurricane simulator), To Fly (with three cockpit simulators) and the Dinosaur Boneyard. The museum also has a two-story IMAX Theater that features first run Hollywood movies and hour-long science-oriented documentaries.
Of note: The 52-foot Great Gravity Clock is located in the museum’s Grand Atrium. This unique timepiece is the biggest kinetic energy sculpture in Florida and is one of only three in the world. (The other two are in Mexico and Japan). Balls representing hours, 10 minutes and individual minutes take three separate paths rolling down the structure and wind up telling the time.
Address: 401 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale, 33312
NORTON MUSEUM OF ART
The Norton has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the impressive museums in the Southeast, thanks to its permanent collections and eclectic array of temporary exhibitions. The permanent art collections are American, Chinese, Contemporary, European and Photography. The American collection has about 1,000 pieces dating from the 18th century to 1960. Some of the painters represented include George Bellows, Charles Burchfield, Charles Demuth, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, John Marin Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Motherwell and Charles Sheeler. Sculptors include Paul Manship, Theodore Roszak and William Zorich. The Chinese collection has 700 objects, some dating back 5,000 years. Some of the artists in the European collection are Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
Of note: In the Chinese collection, check out the 3,200-year-old cast bronze wine ewer in the form of a dragon, which is a composite of a tiger, bear, elephant, bird and antelope.
Address: 1450 South Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, 33401
VIZCAYA MUSEUM AND GARDENS
You can easily spend a day, if not more, exploring the wonders this oasis of an estate has to offer. Visitors can view about 38,000 square feet (of the 45,000) and 34 decorated and restored rooms (out of 54) in the Main House. Vizcaya was conceived with an 18th century Italian villa in mind and was built between 1914 and 1922 by industrialist James Deering. It is set right on Biscayne Bay and is surrounded by beautiful gardens, in which you will see fountains, grottos, statues, busts and vases.
Of note: First – and it’s easy to miss – there’s the swimming pool grotto, which is tucked between the Vizcaya Café and Shop and Orchidarium on the north side of the Main House. Second, there’s the 1922 daily work diary of Frank Landon McGinnis, the estate’s manager in the 1920s. While you can’t actually look at the book, its pages have been digitized and you can go online to savor the information it contains about Miami history and daily life in South Florida in that time period.
Address: 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami, 33129
· Ah-Tha-Thi-Ki Museum (Seminole history and art), Clewiston.
· Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, Sanibel Island.
· Elliott Museum (classic cars and motorcycles, baseball memorabilia), Stuart.
· Historic Smallwood Store Museum (Old Florida history), Chokoloskee.
· History of Diving Museum, Islamorada.
· International Swimming Hall of Fame Museum, Fort Lauderdale.
· Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (treasure hunting), Key West.
· Old Dillard Museum (African-American culture, history and art, and Cannonball Adderley fans), Fort Lauderdale.
FLORIDA HOLOCAUST MUSEUM
The country’s fourth-largest Holocaust museum is dedicated to honoring the millions of people who died or suffered from the horrors wrought upon them by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, starting in the 1930s and running through World War II. The heart of the museum is its core permanent exhibition, titled “History, Heritage and Hope.” It features original artifacts, books, documents, photos, videos and oral testimonies, providing material evidence that tell the experiences of Holocaust survivors and liberators who wound up settling in Florida and other parts of the country. The final part of the exhibit shows other genocides and acts of hatred happening today. The museum also collects contemporary art created in response to the Holocaust.
Of note: It is difficult not to be moved by Boxcar #113 069-5, one of the few remaining boxcars of the type used by the Nazis to take Jews and other prisoners to killing complexes such as Treblinka and Auschwitz. The bare boxcars were packed with between 100 and 200 people, many of whom suffocated on the journey. Boxcar #113 069-5 sits in the “History, Heritage and Hope” exhibit on original tracks from the Treblinka camp.
Address: 55 5th Street South, St. Petersburg, 33701
JOHN AND MABLE RINGLING MUSEUM OF ART
The Ringling Museum of Art consists of four distinct museums on the grounds that are connected by pathways ringed by lush tropical vegetation. The four museums are: 1) The Ringling Museum of Art; 2) Ca’ d’Zan (a translation from the Italian for House of John), the impeccably restored mansion the Ringlings called home; 3) the Circus Museum, and 4) the Historic Asolo Theater. After you visit all four, you might shake your head in wonder over the eclectic collecting habits of the circus genius and his wife. In all, there are 21 galleries that contain paintings, sculpture, photographs, prints, drawings and decorative arts from around the world. The periods represented span from ancient times to the early 1920s. Peter Paul Rubens is the most represented artist in the museum, including his five world-famous tapestry cartoons. The Wisconsin (named after Ringling’s home state) is the 65-ton, 79-foot-long railroad observation car that Ringling used from 1905 to 1917 to travel with his circus. The Secret Garden, located just in front of and to the right of the mansion, contains the graves of John and Mable and his sister. If you visit on his birthday (he was born May 31, 1866), you just might see a cigar on his grave, placed there by students of nearby New College.
Of note: There’s a collection of 12 tiny but richly-colored and detailed lithograph trade cards that were the inspiration for early tobacco-product baseball cards.
Address: 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, 34243
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX
Space, the Final Frontier. With apologies to Trekkies, this is the real deal. You’ll get a hands-on, comprehensive look and understanding of our nation’s space exploration endeavors. Here are just some of the exhibits you can see and experience: Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, Race to the Moon, Exploring The Moon, the Lunar Theater, Apollo Treasures Gallery, Hubble Space Telescope Theater, Space Shuttle Atlantis, Astronaut Training Simulators, Shuttle Launch Experience, the Mars Rover Vehicle Navigator, and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Of note: In the Apollo 8 Firing Room, you can experience the thrill of the space race with the launch of both Apollo 8 and the first crewed Saturn 5 mission. Planet Play is for kids ages 2-12 where they can climb through a space wormhole and walk on Saturn’s rings.
Address: Space Commerce Way, Merritt Island, 32593
MORSE MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART
Tiffany lovers, this one’s for you. The Morse is said to contain the most comprehensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany works in the world. It includes pieces in every medium Tiffany explored, including paintings, leaded glass windows, mosaics, blown glass, jewels, marble, stone, pottery, furniture, lamps, enamel and photographs. The museum also has three other impressive permanent collections: American Decorative Art and Sculpture, Painting and Graphic Arts, and one called European and Miscellaneous. The American collection contains leaded glass windows by Tiffany contemporaries John LaFarge, Arthur Nash, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Of note: Tiffany exhibited a chapel interior at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It includes 16 mosaic columns and a half-ton, 10-by-8-foot electrified chandelier in the shape of a cross, a marble and white glass mosaic altar and a dome-shaped baptismal font.
Address: 445 North Park Avenue, Winter Park, 32789
SALVADOR DALI MUSEUM
The Dali has a permanent collection of about 2,400 of the artist’s works, including 300 of his oils. The other 2,100 works include sculptures, prints, photographs, textiles, posters, drawings, book illustrations, and an extensive archive of documents. The museum features work from his entire career, through his surrealist and classic periods. You can explore the museum for free anytime and from anywhere with the Dali Museum App, but the in-person experience certainly gives you a better idea of how he became one of the most innovative and influential artists in history. The Dali also offers an impressive array of changing exhibits.
Of note: First, there’s the building itself. Known as The Enigma, it is a true work of art that includes 1,062 triangular glass panels. Also, check out the award-winning Dali Lives, which uses artificial intelligence to give visitors the chance to learn about Dali’s life from the artist himself.
Address: One Dali Boulevard, St. Petersburg, 33701
ZORA NEALE HURSTON NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
Hundreds of communities founded by African Americans were established throughout the South. Not many survived, but Eatonville thrived and became the first of these communities to become incorporated with an all-black government. It also became the home of Zora Neale Hurston, the world-famous writer, folklorist and anthropologist. The museum’s permanent collections and rotating exhibits are centered on artists of African descent. It also includes a lot of information about the town’s amazing history.
Of note: The Zora Neale Hurston Trail contains 16 historic sites and 10 markers with Hurston’s writings. You can walk it or drive it and an explanatory brochure is available at the museum.
Address: 344 East Kennedy Boulevard, Eatonville, 32751
Phone: 407-647-3307 or 800-704-1920
· Civilian Conservation Corps Museum (Depression Era history), Sebring.
· Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, Ocala.
· Fantasy of Flight (vintage aircraft), Polk City.
· Maitland Telephone Museum, Maitland.
· Mulberry Phosphate Museum, Mulberry.
· Olde Mill House Gallery and Printing Museum, Homosassa
· UDT-SEAL Museum (Navy Underwater Demolition Teams and SEALS), Fort Pierce.
CASTILLO DE SAN MARCOS NATIONAL MONUMENT
This fortress is the oldest still-standing structure in Florida. The Spanish started construction in 1672 and it appears now much as it looked when finished in 1756. Views of the city and the water from the four bastions give attendees a sense of how the fort defended St. Augustine for more than 300 years. Each of the rooms that are available for viewing contains panels that tell the about life in the fort at various times in its history: construction and design, the first Spanish period, the British period, the second Spanish period, the influence of religion, the American occupation, the soldiers’ life, and the artillery complex. The huge courtyard was where almost all residents of the city came for protection when the city was under siege. Please note that the fort was built for warfare, not tourists. Surfaces are uneven and there are no safety rails, so heed the many warnings to be careful, especially on the gundeck.
Of note: National Park Service personnel and volunteers in costume give interpretations about the history of the fort and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to visit when they shoot their muskets and fire off the cannons.
Address: 1 Castillo Drive South, St. Augustine, 32804
Chicago Publisher Otto Lightner believed everybody should collect something. He lived up to that – repeatedly. His extraordinary, eclectic collection is now permanently housed at the former sumptuous Alcazar Hotel, built by railroad tycoon Henry M. Flagler in 1888. Some 20,000 objects festoon the museum, including fine art, folk art, decorative art, and natural history. Most of the objects date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You’ll see Tiffany stained glass windows, antique furniture, artifacts and period costumes that depict daily life back then. And, as they say, so much more, thanks to Lightner’s delightful collecting hobby.
Of note: There are music machines from that time period that are played twice a day (11 a.m. and 2 p.m.). Colorful and whimsical hooked rugs, made of any available scrap material (such as flax, hemp, linen and imported Indian jute) are also on display. One proclaims:
Inlaws are rodents in human guise
Who eat me out of cakes & pies
Oer hill & vale & rivers & ruts
They gather for dinner
I hate their guts
Address: 75 King Street, St. Augustine, 32804
MEEK-EATON BLACK ARCHIVES RESEARCH CENTER & MUSEUM
The Center contains approximately 500,000 individual archival records and some 5,000 museum artifacts, making it one of the preeminent regional, national and international research centers for studies about African-American culture and history. There are manuscripts, journals, magazines, photographs, newspapers and rare books. Individuals from many professions and businesses, as well as religious, civic and social groups donated the majority of the material for the 25 collections.
Of note: All 25 of the collections are worthy of your time, but two of better-known people included are legendary Florida A & M coach Jake Gaither (The Black College Football collection) and former U.S. Congresswoman Carrie Meek (African Americans in Congress collection).
Address: Florida A&M University, 445 Gamble Street, Tallahassee, 32307
MUSEUM OF FLORIDA HISTORY
Almost 47,000 artifacts of all kinds are spread out over 27,000 square feet of space, most of which is devoted to Florida history from 1513 to 1860. “Florida’s First People” illuminates the diverse culture of native groups, such as the Timucua, Apalachee and Calusa Indians. It includes a beautiful diorama of a Timucua village on what is now the St. Johns River. “Forever Changed” takes you up to 1860 and includes Florida under Spanish and British rule (Spain twice) and how Florida became a U.S. Territory and ultimately a state. It includes a reproduced version of a typical Spanish ship that was getting ready to travel to La Florida. The other permanent exhibits are Florida Shipwrecks, Florida in the Civil War, At the Crossroads, and Early 1900s: Forestry and Agriculture and Florida Remembers World War II.
Of note: At a different location, but still part of the museum, is The Knott House Museum, a two-story antebellum mansion that has been restored to its 1928 appearance when the Knotts moved in.
Address: Both are in Tallahassee. The main museum is at 500 South Bronough Street, 32399 and the Knott House is at 301 East Park Avenue, 32301.
Web: museumoffloridahistory.com for both
Phone: 850-245-6400 for the main museum and 850-922-2459 for the Knott House
MUSEUM OF SCIENCE & HISTORY
MOSH specializes in educational, interactive and hands-on exhibits. This might lead you think it’s mostly for kids, but there’s plenty for people of all ages to enjoy. The Core exhibits include: Health in Motion: Discover What Moves You, Atlantic Tails: Coastal Creatures of Northeast Florida, JEA Powerplay: Understanding Our Energy Sources, Florida Naturalist Center (with live critters), Currents of Time: A History of Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, Hixon Native Plant Courtyard, Kidspace (for children under five), Space Science Gallery, and Interpreting Northeast Florida: A Historic Mural.
Of note: There’s a life-size sculpture of a Right Wale in the Atlantic Tails exhibit and a planetarium in the Space Science Gallery. The above-mentioned mural, by Elmer Grey, is 35-foot-long oil on canvass that shows Timucua Indian, Spanish and St. Augustine scenes.
Address: 1025 Museum Circle, Jacksonville, 32207
NATIONAL NAVAL AVIATION MUSEUM
Plan to spend a lot of time at this 300,000-square-foot treasure that illustrates the history of Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation. It has some 4,000 artifacts and 150 beautifully restored aircraft, ranging from the F/A-18 Hornet all the way back to the Triad, the Navy’s first wood-and-wire plane. Just some of the highlights: Blue Angel Skyhawks hanging in the team’s signature diamond formation, a Blue Angels 4-D technology flight experience, a one-quarter scale replica of the USS Nimitz flight deck, a life-on-an-aircraft carrier exhibit, the USS Enterprise exhibit, the Skylab Command Module exhibit, two high-definition MaxFlight simulators (in which you can experience air-to-air combat, stunt flying and 360-degree pitch-and-roll technology) and cockpit simulators. In the latter, you can move the control stick and flip the switches on several aircraft, like the famous F-14 Tomcat or a hovering helicopter. Please be aware that due to security reasons, the U.S. Navy has deemed that only current or former military personnel with Department of Defense ID cards have access to the museum. However, they are allowed to escort 15 people, including non-military personnel, in with them.
Of note: Catch the IMAX Theater’s showing of the thrilling The Magic of Flight and other space exploration movies. Hard-core aviation aficionados will enjoy a bus tour of the restoration facility. The Underwater Treasures of Lake Michigan exhibit features two World War II training planes that were found at the bottom of the lake in the 1990s after spending decades under water.
Address: 1750 Radford Boulevard, Naval Air Station, Pensacola, 32508
Note: The National Naval Aviation Museum is open Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. to current Department of Defense (DoD) ID cardholders. Access to NAS Pensacola is limited to current Department of Defense (DoD) ID card holders (active-duty service members, retirees, and their families) and Veterans who possess a Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs that displays the Veteran’s eligibility status. DoD ID card holders can escort guests as part of the Trusted Traveler Program, but must remain with their guests at all times. Unless sponsored through the Trusted Traveler program, no civilians will be granted access onto the base until further notice, and thus will not be able to access the National Naval Aviation Museum. Call 850-452-8450 for answers to your questions about visiting the museum and attending Blue Angels practice air shows.
· Airforce Armament Museum, Eglin Air Force Base.
· Man in the Sea Museum (history of deep-sea diving), Panama City.
· Old Christ Church (oldest church in Florida still on its original site), Pensacola.
· Spanish Military Hospital Museum, St. Augustine.
· Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center, White Springs.