By Brooke Morton

Locals are passionate about the Collier Museum at Government Center in Naples – so passionate, in fact, that they sometimes bring in exhibits of their own to share.

“People find things all the time in their backyards that they have to bring in,” says Naomi Goren, curator of education for the museum. She’s referring to the arrowheads, shell tools, pottery, bones and even a sword that locals have toted to the on-site archaeology lab, hoping for answers about the origins of the artifacts.

“It’s great because it generates interest in archaeology,” Goren says. She points out that the Florida museum, with five-acre grounds, is not in the business of appraisals, but focuses rather on historical education. Exhibits – including artifacts from the now-extinct Calusa people and a World War II Sherman tank – offer a look into much of Florida’s past that’s rare, if not impossible, to see now

For example, most people will never see a Florida panther. The George G. Huntoon Gallery, an example of a 1940s Florida home, contains more than 100 animals preserved through taxidermy, including the endangered cat. Outdoorsy types may happen upon a panther in places such as Big Cypress National Preserve, but what they encounter isn’t likely the original species; a 1995 program introduced Texas cougars to bolster the population. Naturalist Dr. Earl Baum is responsible for the collection, which also includes a pink flamingo, bald eagle, turkey and sea turtle.

How many Floridians will ever have a chance to explore a Calusa shell mound? Visitors will find a replica on site, built to showcase its cultural significance. The Calusa people made the mounds as places to bury the dead, display power or honor gods. Seeing the replica may also help visitors recognize a real shell mound found in nature, such as those on nearby Marco Island.

Those familiar with the Everglades have seen a chickee hut, the Seminole people’s signature open-air, palm-thatched structure. The local Seminole tribe gave the museum three chickees, which had been used for cooking, eating and sleeping. The museum has also been given examples of Seminole patchwork, the colorful stitching in which symbols for lightning, birds, broken arrows, crawfish, bones and more tell stories.

The museum grounds also provide an education in local flora and fauna. The Craighead Garden is habitat to 150 endemic trees, plants and flowers. These quiet spaces are ideal for spotting a gray fox, alligator or cottontail rabbit. The nearby orchid house showcases an ever-changing display of bromeliads native to the hammocks and the Everglades. Varieties include the hot pink and dusty brown Florida butterfly orchid and the crested fringe orchid, colored a bright safety orange.

The museum also has a Sherman tank, a Baldwin Locomotive Works logging train and a 1920s swamp buggy. The Naples Cottage, built in 1926 and relocated to the property, houses a collection of photographs from the community’s early days. City residents may recognize the former Naples Depot, the destination for the Orange Blossom Special train. The site is now another museum.

Note that visiting the Collier County Museum is a self-guided experience, except for groups of 10 or more who make reservations in advance. Guests set their own pace and linger longest at what most sparks curiosity. Everyone gravitates toward different lessons, and all can’t help but gain a deeper appreciation for the state’s treasured past.

When you go...

Where: Collier Museum, 3331 Tamiami Trail East
When:  Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Monday through Friday; closed on county and national holidays
Cost: Admission is free
Contact: Call 239-252-8476