I felt winded after getting a tour of the new 60,000-square-foot Tampa Bay History Center, which has its grand opening at 11 a.m. today just behind the St. Pete Times Forum in the Channelside District of Tampa. You can take the elevator or climb the steps, but like a heavy workout, there is a lot packed into this museum, which was 20-plus years in the making and cost about $51.5-million.
When you first step into the Lykes Atrium and see the Icons of Tampa Bay hanging overhead, you know you are in for a treat. The neon-lit icons include Babe Ruth, a flamenco dancer, a longshoreman and a Tampa streetcar — and they are just the first taste of the history that unfolds throughout the museum.
Grant Martin, the center's vice president for advancement, said there are about 40,000 artifacts that have been obtained by the museum. Only 10 percent of them are shown at any one time.
As you make your way around the first floor, the film in the Winds of Change Theater tells the story of Panfilo Narvaez's landing near the Tampa Bay area in 1528. A multimedia presentation is the highlight of Coacoochee's Story Theater. Film and rotating sets with mannequins (think the Carousel of Progress at Disney World) tell the story of the Seminole Wars through the eyes of Chief Coacoochee. The lighting, storytelling and sets give you the feel of being there.
Children will especially like the museum's second floor. It has an interactive map that takes you on a virtual tour of area landmarks; a shipping container that serves as a small theater to view a film on Tampa's port; and an exhibit that lets you make a real orange crate label. What the little ones (and some adults) will really enjoy is the chance to sit on a saddle and "ride" into a cattle drive. I wish there were more than three saddles, because it's bound to be pretty popular.
The bay area's history would not be complete without a look at how we play, from professional sports franchises to the various festivals — Gasparilla and beyond — that keep the community in beads.
The third floor, set to open in September, will house 3,000 square feet of temporary gallery space to rotate exhibitions from other museums and from the other artifacts in the center's collection.
With Channelside nearby, you certainly have a choice of places to eat. But if you stay in the museum, the Columbia Cafe — yes, the Columbia of 1905 salad fame — offers many of their specialties, including soups and Cuban sandwiches.
My only concern as I was doing the quick tour was whether this impressive facility would be ready by today. Screws and shelving were strewn everywhere, some exhibits had not been hung and railing was missing from some stairways.
But if all of that has been taken care of, residents and history buffs of all ages should take a look. It certainly is worth the workout.
Sherry Robinson is online editor for the Times' parenting channel, Go Momma, on tampabay.com and writes for the Whoa, Momma! blog. She can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8305.