The St. Petersburg Museum of History is busy reinventing itself.
The most recent manifestation of that new direction is "Experience Cuba," which opens today with several components, the starring one a portfolio of Clyde Butcher photographs.
The strategy for several years has been to bring in temporary exhibitions such as this one. The practice is common in museums, even in many of the greatest ones, and generates ongoing interest and feeds the public's hunger for something different.
For most of its nearly 100-year existence, the museum's reputation was a place "that housed St. Pete's cool old stuff," said Rui Farias, its executive director, relying on permanent exhibitions that rarely changed and drew low attendance numbers. "We want it to become more of a cultural facility."
Farias wanted "Experience Cuba" to be multifaceted and to make a connection to Tampa Bay, especially St. Petersburg, so there also will be information about Cuban fishermen who plied the coastal waters, as well as references to the better-known cigar industry in Tampa.
Museum leaders also sought out contemporary art for the show, and "through a board member, we reached out to Graphicstudio," Farias said. The prestigious print atelier is on the University of South Florida campus in Tampa. It invites well-known and emerging contemporary artists to collaborate on prints and multiple sculptures, often using techniques developed at the studio. Graphicstudio had worked with highly regarded Cuban artists Ibrahim Miranda and Los Carpinteros, a collective, and the museum borrowed prints they had made. They use images of relevant objects, maps and a flip-flop, for example, as metaphors for cultural insights.
For years, the museum didn't have many rotating shows to supplement its permanent installations because it didn't have the space. Not counting the large glass-walled pavilion called the Flight One Gallery, dedicated to the early history of commercial aviation that began in St. Petersburg, it has 13,500 square feet, of which 3,000 is the main gallery space. It has two much smaller gallery areas, one just 600 square feet. To compare, the Tampa Museum of Art has about 66,000 total square feet. The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg has more than 60,000.
"It was time to update the main gallery," Farias said, "so we just took everything out and decided to use it for new exhibitions. We have space for them now, with the 3,000 square feet (in the main gallery)." The story of St. Petersburg, which had occupied it, was edited down and installed in a smaller gallery.
Since that decision, the museum has brought in shows such as "Imagining La Florida," borrowed from the Spanish government, about Juan Ponce de León's exploration of Florida, and another by photographer and environmentalist Carlton Ward, whose work documents sometimes threatened landscapes.
The Cuba show was "perfect timing," said Farias, referring to the thaw in government relations that is giving U.S. citizens more access to the country. Looking through available traveling exhibitions, he saw one for photographs Butcher took in Cuba.
"I didn't know he did Cuba," Farias said of the photographer who is famous for his large-format, black-and-white images of Florida's natural beauty, especially the Everglades. These are unusual because Florida is not their subject. Butcher created them during visits to the island after the United Nations commissioned a portfolio from him to celebrate Cuba's natural beauty. They have the same style as his other work, but this time we see the lushness of Cuba's mountains and waterfalls.
For whimsy and community participation, the museum also invited local residents to submit their own photos of Cuba.
"We received hundreds of photographs," Farias said. A few have been enlarged for display, but all have been scanned into a program that will flash them on several screens.
The rotating shows at the museum have increased attendance. The most recent first-quarter numbers are about 6,300 patrons, Farias said. Before instituting these shows, a three-month period was consistently fewer than 2,000.
And there likely will be more change to come.
"We want to do a redesign of the main gallery in 2018," Farias said. The subject would be the St. Petersburg story, as it was in the past, "but this will be interactive, high-tech." He said the format, which highlights different eras in the city (and long before it was a city), would be flexible and allow for change and different perspectives using objects from the museum's permanent collection of 20,000 items and loans from other museums.
That way, he said, "the story of us will always be fresh."
Contact Lennie Bennett at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]