Shipwrecks, fishing lures, surfboards, gas masks — these items are museum-worthy on Florida's Space Coast.
By Diane Lacey Allen
If you think museums are for the elite and are full of art you don't understand, you haven't been to the Space Coast. With the Atlantic Ocean and wildlife refuges as neighbors, there are more than a handful of museums designed to give Picasso a rest. I'm talking about museums for real people — from surfers to surf casters. And you can visit several of them for less than the cost of a ticket to an average theme park.
Start from the south and follow the sea breeze along A1A to Sebastian Inlet State Park. There you will find the McLarty State Treasure Museum and learn the story of about 1,500 people who survived a 1715 hurricane that sank the Spanish Plate Fleet.
Along with a tale of battling mosquitoes and sand flies are displays of gold coins, stoneware and sword handles. Make sure you take the boardwalk to the bow-shaped observation deck. From there you can watch the waves that continue to hold secrets from the wrecks.
Just down the road from the McLarty and still within the park is the Sebastian Fishing Museum. The history of fishing in these parts is fleshed out with nets and scales — and a rowboat with a set of oars that symbolize the work ethic of early fishermen.
You have to drive by the tide chart to get to the north entrance of the museum and the board tells what kind of fish have been biting. Inside, the museum details a past dependent on mussels and ice making. And it illustrates it with lures, photos and audio tales.
If you prefer waves from a different perspective, head to Cocoa Beach for the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame and Museum. Located inside at the Cocoa Beach Surf Company, the museum tells the history of the sport through film clips, photos and trophies.
But it is the line of long boards that drives home the seriousness of the devoted along with a case full of products such as "Sex Wax" that surfers have used to gain an edge.
The Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville, though, is more about being a winner during wartime. The non-profit museum focuses on vintage warbirds as well as the less-known stories of groups such as the Flying Tigers, Tuskegee Airmen and women at war. There is a memorabilia hall with artifacts, exhibits, displays, uniforms, pictures, medals and other items as well as a display hangar that houses a majority of the vintage warbirds and the Restoration Hangar. You can even climb into a tight cockpit to get a feel for what it was like to be a pilot defending freedom.
The nearby American Police Hall of Fame & Museum, which is across from the Astronaut Hall of Fame, is also about showing rather than telling what it is like to put your life on the line.
Names run together on the seemingly endless semicircle of marble walls that honor the more than 8,000 law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty. A computer at the entrance of the memorial helps visitors find the location of a name or hometown on the wall. Even if you haven't lost a loved one, the deaths hit home as you walk past the tributes of teddy bears and flowers.
The police museum is less emotional and concerns the history of crime and criminals, from Bonnie and Clyde to modern-day drug smugglers. It gives visitors a chance to see a gas chamber, electric chair and jail cell.
There are examples of homemade weapons, bulletproof vests and tear-gas masks. You can also learn about fingerprints and get an idea of how night vision equipment aids law enforcement officers. Kids can try on uniforms and create their own badges.
But if you're not into police cars and prefer a more traditional learning setting, there is the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science in Cocoa. Judging by the line of schoolchildren winding through exhibits, this museum makes Florida's past an enjoyable history lession.
The museum offers a hands-on Imagination Center for young children. Approachable displays cover everything from an Indian campfire to an up-close look at a peace pipe. You can also walk by models of Florida's ecosystems, alligators, coral snakes and birds. But remember, this museum is on the Space Coast. So it comes alive. Just wander through the butterfly garden for a natural finish.