1. News

Pirates are centerpiece of new Tampa Bay History Center expansion

An artist's rendering shows the Tampa Bay History Center's Treasure Seekers gallery, part of an 8,500-square-foot addition planned for completion by the end of 2017. [Courtesy Tampa Bay History Center]
An artist's rendering shows the Tampa Bay History Center's Treasure Seekers gallery, part of an 8,500-square-foot addition planned for completion by the end of 2017. [Courtesy Tampa Bay History Center]
Published Dec. 15, 2016

TAMPA — With an NFL team named Buccaneers and a parade, film, music and art festival named for fictitious marauder Jose Gaspar, Tampa is known for its love of all things pirate.

Now, the Tampa Bay History Center is getting in on the act.

"We surveyed our audience for what else they would like to see," said C.J. Roberts, the history center's CEO. "They answered pirates, pirates, pirates. So, that is what they'll get."

In January, construction will begin on an 8,500-square-foot addition to the third story of the 60,000 square-foot history center. It will increase the center's exhibit area by about a third.

When complete in late 2017, the new space will feature stories of real-life sea raiders through a permanent display, "Treasure Seekers: Conquistadors, Pirates & Shipwrecks."

The centerpiece of a 4,300-square-foot gallery hosting the exhibit will be a replica of a small, fast pirate sloop — still 60 feet stem to stern — that visitors can explore inside and out. It will include real buccaneer artifacts like cannons and an interactive theater where visitors can choose a swashbuckler-themed adventure game.

"In addition to adding on to the building, this expands the stories we can tell," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the history center.

Current permanent exhibits focus on Tampa Bay — American Indians and the cigar industry, for example.

Pirates span the Caribbean.

"What we have now tells Tampa stories," Kite-Powell said. "Now we will be telling Florida stories."

Furthering this expanded mission is another part of the addition — the 1,400-square-foot, Touchton Map Library/Florida Center for Cartographic Education. The center will have 18,000 maps at its disposal, plotting state history to the 15th century.

Among lessons to be learned from a map are early trade and treasure routes and sites of American Indian villages.

"In the 1500s through 1800s, not a lot of people had been to Florida," said Tom Touchton, the cartographic center's namesake. "Maps served to educate people about this place called Florida. It was a way to convey information."

Touchton, 78, was a founding member of the history center board and led the $52 million capital campaign to build, open and endow the center.

Now he is donating his personal collection of 6,000 maps — the oldest from 1493.

The history center already has a collection of 2,000 maps, and the University of South Florida will provide access to more than 10,000 maps in its collection.

The cartographic center will be the ninth of its kind in the United States, the first in the Southeast, and may be home to the largest collection of Florida maps in the world, CEO Roberts said.

Also part of the expansion will be a veranda overlooking Port Tampa Bay, classrooms, map storage and a research center that can be used by students in kindergarten through college.

Total cost of the expansion is $11 million. Half already has been raised through private contributions and government grants, including $350,000 from Hillsborough County. Roberts expects two-thirds of the cost will be paid from the private sector and one-third from government grants.

Currently, the history center has 17,000 square feet of gallery space for permanent exhibits on the second floor and 2,500 square feet on the third floor for travelling exhibits. When the history center was designed, the rest of the third floor was kept as an empty roof for future expansion.

The history center currently attracts 100,000 visitors a year. The addition could push that number to as high as 150,000, Roberts said.

Contact Paul Guzzo at or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.