From swashbucklers and treasure hunters to ancient peoples and modern discoveries, these 10 history museums in Florida highlight the Sunshine State’s surprising past.
By Gary McKechnie
Plymouth has its 1620 rock and Philadelphia the Spirit of ’76. But what about Florida? Well, how about European settlements that predate the United States by more than 200 years? Or prehistoric tribes that arrived around 10,000 B.C.? Find out when you explore these 10 extraordinary history museums in Florida that tell the state's story.
1. Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee
The gold standard of Florida’s historical museums. Among the rotating artifacts on exhibit connecting Florida’s past and present: a 12,000-year-old mastodon skeleton discovered in nearby Wakulla Springs, dugout canoes thousands of years old, gold and silver coins from a Spanish shipwreck, a replication of a Florida steamboat, and a “Tin Can Camper” from the 1920s. All this and roughly 45,000 additional treasures. museumoffloridahistory.com
2. Historic Pensacola Village and the T. T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum, Pensacola
At the purported site of Spain’s first New World settlement (1559-61), Historic Pensacola Village is, in essence, a museum without walls: a neighborhood filled with historic homes, a church and costumed interpreters demonstrating life in the late 18th century. The Spanish Renaissance Revival-style Wentworth Museum (formerly City Hall) is now home to fascinating exhibits highlighting the history of northwest Florida. historicpensacola.org
3. Indian Temple Mound & Museum, Fort Walton Beach
You could travel the world and never find anything like this: A temple mound in a quaint shopping district. Created by prehistoric Indians around 800 A.D., the mound is part of a fascinating museum complex showcasing more than 4,000 stone, bone, shell and clay pieces created as many as 10,000 years ago. In a word: Wow. fwb.org/museums
4. Amelia Island Museum of History, Fernandina Beach
The only city in America to have been ruled under eight flags, there’s quite a bit to cover, and this history museum of Florida does it perfectly with traveling presentations that enhance permanent exhibits on historic preservation, Spanish missions, a Timucuan village, the Civil War, Florida railroad, local history and legendary Floridians. ameliamuseum.org
5. St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, St. Augustine
Displayed in highly themed vignettes, this creative museum has the world’s largest collection of authentic pirate artifacts that help explain how swashbucklers (many of whom visited Florida shores) sailed, plundered, lived, killed and died. Sometimes creepy, sometimes chilling, always entertaining. I mean, where else could you touch an actual 400-year-old treasure chest? thepiratemuseum.com
6. Orange County Regional History Center, Orlando
Prior to 1971, Orlando was a rest stop en route to Miami, which means this center has plenty of kitsch Floridiana to enjoy. Of course, it also includes exhibits on prehistoric tribes, Spanish explorers, Florida Crackers, African-American history, the cattle and citrus industries, and the arrival of Walt Disney World, which sparked Orlando’s transition into a modern city. thehistorycenter.org
7. St. Petersburg Museum of History, St. Petersburg
In 1914, St. Petersburg became home of the world’s first scheduled commercial airline, with $5 service to Tampa. That’s why a working replica of the Benoist Airboat is showcased alongside permanent exhibits covering the area’s Tocobaga people, encroaching conquistadors, territorial wars and frontier development. Bonuses: archival photos, vintage postcards and snapshots of St. Pete bathing beauties. spmoh.org
8. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Clewiston
This history museum of Florida features the heroic Seminole tribe whose past is told in multiple exhibits at the Smithsonian-affiliated museum that includes artifacts and life-like dioramas focusing on facets of Seminole life such as religious ceremonies, recreation, cooking, crafts, fishing, hunting and homelife – all complemented by the inspirational film We Seminoles. ahtahthiki.com
9. Collier County Museums, Naples
Claiming Collier County has a story too big for just one museum, they prove it with five separate and unique history museums in Florida. Learn about the Calusa and Seminole Indians, saber-toothed cats that once roamed the area, curious inventions, weird vehicles and early settlers who forged the foundation of southwest Florida. colliermuseums.com
10. Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, Key West
Gold, silver, emeralds, pearls, crystal and thousands of priceless artifacts discovered by America’s most famous treasure hunter are showcased here in jaw-dropping displays. It took Fisher and his team 16 years to locate the main treasure of the doomed Nuestra Señora de Atocha, so not only is this treasure worth seeing, you’ll be inspired by Fisher’s persistence. melfisher.org
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