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A guardian of fossils, cigar industry and its history to Tampa Bay

Brad Massey feels that being the curator of public history at the Tampa Bay History Center “..is the best job I ever had.”
Brad Massey, 44, the Saunders Foundation Curator of Public History at the Tampa Bay Historic Center, pictured with the skull of a Zygorhiza whale in the Tusks to Tails, A Fossil History of Florida, exhibit at the Tampa Bay Historic Center, 801 Water Street, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021 in Tampa. Massey helped research and write the material for the exhibit.
Brad Massey, 44, the Saunders Foundation Curator of Public History at the Tampa Bay Historic Center, pictured with the skull of a Zygorhiza whale in the Tusks to Tails, A Fossil History of Florida, exhibit at the Tampa Bay Historic Center, 801 Water Street, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021 in Tampa. Massey helped research and write the material for the exhibit. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 13
Updated Mar. 14

Times Correspondent

Aside from giving talks, Brad Massey, curator of public history at the Tampa Bay History Center, does the research and writes the text for the exhibits. The current show is “Tusk to Tails: A Fossil History of Florida.” For a recent exhibit, Massey got to dive into the figurative ring with Dusty Rhodes and other legendary entertainers of professional wrestling in the Tampa Bay area.

“This is the best job I ever had,’' said Massey, 43, who taught history at Polk State College and courses at the University of Tampa. He has a Ph.D. in American history, with a focus on Florida, from the University of Florida.

Massey talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the museum and the job.

What’s involved in creating an exhibit?

The process is I write the copy and then the curatorial team reviews it. We decide if we like the direction that it’s going in, and then the designer and I will sit down and we’ll talk about what kind of emotions and aesthetic standards we want to capture in the design. So we talk about color, we talk about exhibit layout. And then this is a museum, so we tell stories through 3-D things. So, we think to ourselves, well, how do we take, for wrestling, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake’s shears (and)… put them on display? What do we want to put next to them?

The research must be fun.

I do a lot of research. It’s funny, we’ll be at a meeting the way it normally goes down, and they’ll look at me – since I’m responsible for kicking off the content and the early conceptual ideas – and they’ll say, “Well, Brad, what do you know about professional wrestling and the history of it?” And then I always look at them, I go, “Absolutely nothing,’'

So that’s where we start from. Wrestling was really interesting, because I got a bunch of books. There’s a really good book called Sisterhood of the Squared Circle, and it tells the story of women wrestlers. And when I was putting together the exhibit, I’m like, I really want to tell that story because women have wrestled really ever since wrestling has been around. ...

The cool thing about wrestling was I also did a lot of YouTube research because I wanted trash talk to be part of the exhibit. You know, it’s not just the wrestling, it’s all the junk that they talk to each other. And so my colleagues would laugh because they would walk by my office and you would just hear Ric Flair screaming insults at somebody on my computer. …

It’s my job to be as exhaustive as possible. A lot of the research I do ends up not getting in the exhibit, but I do extensive research because you never know when you’re going to find that one nugget that’s going to work really good in the exhibit.

Your next revolving exhibit will be about the Cubans. What will it cover?

It’s tentatively entitled “Cuban Pathways,” and we really want to tell the long, roughly 500-year story of all the different people that moved to and from Cuba. And it ranges from West African people that were enslaved, Chinese laborers that came to Cuba in the1800s and then the movement of a lot of people out of Cuba after the Castro revolution. Instead of just telling one particular story we want to kind of tell the long story of people moving to and from the island.

Brad Massey talks to a Leadership Tampa alumni group from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce recently at the Tampa Bay History Center.
Brad Massey talks to a Leadership Tampa alumni group from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce recently at the Tampa Bay History Center. [ (By Teresa Silva, courtesy Tampa Bay History Center) ]

What is it about this area’s history that you like?

I’m kind of a nerd about that. I like industrial history. I’m interested in some histories that are a bit esoteric and other people might not be interested in. For example, the development of Tampa’s port and the phosphate industry. I’ve always found that really interesting because – you know, people don’t think about phosphate but it’s used in fertilizers and it’s sent out throughout the world. So it’s a commodity in our area that really ties us to these farms in distant places throughout the globe.

So with that in mind, things that I’m interested in that other people are interested in is how downtown Tampa has changed so much over time. I’m really interested in development patterns and the development of Harbour Island and Davis Islands. And especially after World War II, how a bunch of people flooded to the area and the city’s politics and its literal makeup start to change.

Your interest in industrial history presumably includes the cigar industry’s impact on Tampa.

Absolutely. … Tampa is just a tiny little frontier town before cigars come. The focus is cattle and some other things but it’s going to be the cigar that changes things.

How many people lived in Tampa before the cigar industry?

I think (in) 1870… right around there, there’s only 720 people that are here. So, yeah, it’s tiny. And the population has actually shrunk from before the Civil War. You had just over 1,000, so now you’re down to about 700. And then when the rail gets here and then the cigar factories get here, it’s going to boom. You’re going to have tens of thousands of people in the next 20 to 40 years that end up flooding into the city. So it completely transforms Tampa.

How do you attract visitors to the museum?

What we try to do is tell a lot of different stories. We tell the stories of the early Spanish explorers on our first floor. … We have a video that talks about Narváez, who was an early explorer. We have things on display that conquistadors wore. … And then we tell the story of the Seminole Indians because it’s such a Florida story. And of course the Second Seminole War is so important to Tampa: It’s going to be the military headquarters for Zachary Taylor, who is later going to be president of the United States. ... Then if you go to our top floor you get the story of treasure seekers, pirates, the development of these empires like the Spanish empire. ...

And then... we have our temporary exhibit space, and that’s a way to keep attracting people. It was wrestling, now it’s fossils. Looks like the next thing is going to be the “Cuban Pathways” exhibit … We try to keep it as fresh as we can and tell stories that we think will attract a diverse group of people.

For more information, go to tampabayhistorycenter.org.