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Based in Seminole, it's the only one devoted to the American Era.

Tucked away in the corner of a professional building on 113th Street is the unlikeliest of repositories: the Panama Canal Museum.

The small space is packed with artifacts about construction of the 50-mile swath cut through Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the early 1900s.

And the reason it is in the Tampa Bay area is because many of the canal workers settled here after finishing their stint in Panama, Elizabeth Neily, the museum director, said.

"Working on the canal was a lot like being in the military," Neily said. "Once their work was done, they could no longer stay in Panama. It was kind of like being in the military. Tampa Bay is one of the first ports those workers would get to when they left Panama."

In 1998, a year before the United States handed over operation of the canal to Panama, local residents, some of them descendents of canal workers, began laying the groundwork for the museum, which opened officially in 2002.

There is much to learn about the canal - including that it takes 10 hours to get through - but museum officials recognize not everyone can come to visit. So they've devised a plan to get the information into schools with their "museum in a trunk" project.

It's not a new idea. Other museums have done it. But these trunks are likely the only ones that contain works of art - called molas - that are brightly colored, detailed stitchery originated with the natives of Panama.

The museum has put together about 10 trunks to be distributed to school districts throughout Florida. They are paid for by donors who provide $1,500 for the trunks and their contents.

However, donors get to decide where their trunks will go. On a recent Friday, Kalika Novoa, education coordinator of the museum, delivered a trunk to Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, a public school in Washington, D.C.

Jaime Eduardo Aleman Healy, ambassador of Panama, was to be there for the acceptance ceremony.

The museum is seeking donors to keep extending its reach to schoolchildren all over the country. A plaque on the top of the trunks recognizes the donors.

The learning trunks are placed in a central location within a school district so that teachers have access. The trunks are geared for fourth- through 12th-graders.

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Where the trunks have been placed


Pinellas County

Hillsborough County

Manatee County

Leon County (Tallahassee)

Duval County (Jacksonville)

In museum for private schools and homeschoolers

Soon to be Orange County (Orlando)

Soon to be at the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg


Virginia Beach, Va.

Washington, D.C.

Soon to be Greenville, S.C.

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About the trunks


Notebook filled with lesson plans and classroom activities

PowerPoint lectures on CD

Maps of the Panama Canal and the canal locks

DVDs from NOVA and PBS on planning and digging the canal

Books, including:

- Building the Canal by Russell Roberts

- The Building of the Panama Canal in Historical Photographs by Ulrich Keller

- How the Toucan Got His Large Beak by Lauren E. Coffey

- Mola: Cuna Life Stories and Art by Maricel E. Presilla

- The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough

- Portrait of the Panama Canal from Construction to the 21st Centuryby William Friar

- West Indian Labor on the Panama Canal by Roman J. Foster

Artifacts, including:

- A mola artwork

- Molas calendar showing the American influence on the craft of reverse applique by the Kuna Indians of Panama

- Centennial commemorative coin

- Railroad rail to show railroad construction in the Panama Canal

- Teddy bear with brief history of Theodore Roosevelt

About the museum

Location: 7985 113th St., Seminole, FL 33732

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday

Web site:

Conceptualized in 1998, opened in 2002

Only museum in the world founded solely to preserve the American Era of the Panama Canal

Exhibits include "Flora and Fauna of Panama," "History and Construction of the Canal," "Panama Railroad" and "Digging in Hell's Gorge"