Just as a visitor to the Tampa Bay History Center comes away enriched by an experience there, the Tampa Bay region is enriched by the unique position this institution has attained in the cultural life of the region. If it isn't already a recruitment tool for those trying to lure business and talent, it should be. Even a brief spin through the center's eight smartly themed exhibits — Florida's First People and War Stories, among them — shows how the modern Tampa region has emerged from a centuries-long parade of people working in a land unlike any other.
Now, as it approaches its eighth anniversary in January, the history center has announced its first major expansion — an addition to its top floor that will increase the permanent exhibition area by a third and include a world-class cartography center.
The theme of the new exhibit, "Treasure Seekers: Conquistadors, Pirates & Shipwrecks," marks a departure from the center's tight focus on the Tampa Bay region. And it may sound as if it's inspired more by Hollywood than history.
But the skill shown by the center so far in bringing the past to life, and the success it has had in raising the profile of local history through its exhibits and outreach efforts, should alleviate any fears about mission creep.
Besides, it was the audience of some 100,000 people a year who declared through surveys that pirates are what they'd like to see. And regardless of whether Tampa can claim a strong historic connection to these marauders of the sea, our NFL team and our biggest annual festival ensure that no city is more closely identified with the pirates of old.
A number of factors help explain why the history center among all local museums has enjoyed the kind of success that allows for expansion so soon after its opening.
For one thing, it still shines as one of the region's newest attractions. For another, early backers like businessman J. Thomas Touchton and attorney George B. Howell worked diligently to keep the community's eyes on the prize. And, crucial to its future, the history center was located in Tampa's sweet spot — adjacent to the downtown arena, at one end of what was still an unfinished Riverwalk, and now smack inside the billion-dollar waterfront redevelopment area.
Still, the key to its attraction is the experience of a visit to the Tampa History Center.
It begins with a soaring hall of icons hanging from the ceiling that in themselves provide a Cliff's notes version of Tampa history. The Columbia Cafe, an outpost of Florida's oldest restaurant and one of downtown's top lunch spots, beckons arriving visitors with the smell of Cuban bread and the tinkle of sangria glasses.
Pass through the doors to the exhibit areas and you'll find local history unfold in engaging ways, whether you're passing lightly through or conducting serious research. Tourists come away intrigued by this introduction to a remarkable region, locals gain a new appreciation for the roots of their home.
Curator Rodney Kite-Powell likes to talk about the stories the center tells. And page-turners they are, many arising from conflict and oppression.
The Cigar City exhibit features a scale model of an iconic cigar factory and includes the role of lectores, the storytellers of the factory floor who kept talking outside even after the owners banned them as agitators. A white pith helmet speaks to the efforts of black leaders who donned these hats to bring peace after riots sparked by a Tampa police shooting in 1967. And in a new exhibit, a Hillsborough County seal and a collection of banners that include a Confederate stars and bars — once hoisted in the halls of local government — have been relegated, as they should be, to historical artifacts.
The new pirate and treasure exhibit is scheduled for completion at the end of next year.
A small hint of what's to come appears in a flat slab of smelted copper that occupies a corner of the history center's first display case. Its purpose was prosaic, ballast for adjusting weight, but it once rode aboard that most famous of Spanish shipwrecks, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
The silver and gold salvaged from the galleon went elsewhere, but with a vibrant history center that helps the community relive the richness of its past, Tampa can look forward to a more enduring fortune.