TAMPA — Penny Walker, a fourth-grade teacher at Alexander Elementary School, spent Wednesday afternoon transfixed by a collection of old maps at the soon-to-open Tampa Bay History Center.
Walker, who previewed exhibits with other bay area educators, described the entire museum as fantastic.
Jane Bailey, an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher at Young Middle Magnet School in East Tampa, deemed it top-shelf.
"It's like something you'd see at the Smithsonian in Washington. They didn't cut corners," she said. "Definitely, definitely, I'm bringing children here."
As Bailey and Walker worked their way through the galleries, crews put finishing touches on displays at the $52-million, 60,000-square-foot waterfront facility in downtown Tampa in preparation of a grand opening celebration Saturday.
Exhibits cover everything from the Seminole Indians to Florida's first European explorers and sports teams.
Interactive stations allow visitors to create their own citrus crate labels, bounce on spring-mounted saddles while learning about Florida's cattle industry, and sit in a metal cargo container while watching videos about the Port of Tampa.
"Boys particularly would stay focused and watch that," said Linda Smith, a fifth-grade teacher at Lanier Elementary School in south Tampa.
Young children are also likely to be intrigued by the opportunity to design a branding iron on a screen set into the hindquarters of a model cow, they said.
"If they participate, then they're going to remember it," said Lindell Dye, also a fifth-grade teacher at Lanier. "That's the way children learn."
Museum president and chief executive C. J. Roberts said the goal is to make learning about bay area history fun.
"At the end of the day, if it doesn't have maximum value for education, then we missed the boat," he said.
Planning for the museum began more than 20 years ago, with the history center housing modest exhibits in a downtown storefront.
The dream of having enough space to display more of the center's collection became reality after a $17-million contribution for construction from Hillsborough County, land valued at $2.5-million made available by the state and city of Tampa, and a $32-million fundraising campaign that has almost reached its goal.
Board chairman George Howell has been involved in the project from its very beginning.
"The original goal was to build one of the finest regional history museums in the United States," he said.
And because history never stops, the third floor was built with the option of a 7,000-square-foot expansion.
"It's taken a long time to get this thing done," Howell said. "But the possibilities for the future are endless."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.