SEMINOLE — For 14 years this city has been home to the only museum in the world created to preserve the history of the Panama Canal and the U.S. involvement in that Central American country.
But that's about to come to an end.
The decision was the result of a number of factors, including a lack of large endowments that would have allowed the museum to expand and buy its own building. The "marriage" between UF and the museum will also preserve the memories of life in the Canal Zone.
The deal also enhances UF's Latin American collection and will aid archaeological digs in Panama, the creation of an oral history of former zone residents, and the digitization of documents from that era, which roughly covers 1904 to 1999.
"It's not that we had to close," said Gerry DeTore, a museum trustee. "To ensure that our mission was accomplished, we felt that (this) was the best thing."
Former residents of the Canal Zone, many of whom retired to Florida, conceived of the idea of a museum dedicated to the history of the canal in 1998 as the United States prepared to hand the structure over to the Panamanian government.
"We could see a lot of our history would vanish or be absorbed and lost to the public unless something was done," said Kathy Egolf, the museum's executive vice president.
By 1999, the group had enough artifacts to open a small museum in a Seminole office building. It moved into larger quarters in the building a few years later. The museum has had success in gaining donations of items — a school bell, artwork, documents, photographs, to name a few — but getting financial support was harder. Members donated, as did some others, and sales from the museum store helped. But getting the interest of national, state or local officials who could help deliver large amounts of money was difficult.
A few years ago, the American Association of Museums awarded the supporters a grant and recommended that they seek partnership with a larger museum. One of their members spoke with someone at UF, and the university followed up.
When UF representatives walked in, DeTore said, the reaction was an awed, "Oh, my God, look at this stuff."
Paul Glassburn, the museum's treasurer, added, "It was a big find for them."
And the marriage, Egolf said, seemed to be made in heaven.
UF has one of the most extensive Latin American collections in the country with 500,000 volumes, 1,100 current-active serial titles, about 50,000 microforms, and a growing amount of computer-based information.
The museum raised about $100,000 to donate to UF for preservation and for projects in the Canal Zone. One of them, an archaeological dig, has unearthed two camel skeletons, estimated at 3 million years old. The money will also help to digitize the museum's extensive collection of canal records.
Seminole will lose the collection but not the organization. The museum is forming an advisory group, the Friends of the Panama Canal Museum Collection at UF. The new group will help raise money to preserve and extend the collection, and will keep collecting artifacts and other objects to add.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.