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Coming Sunday: a 4,300-square-foot pirate exhibit at Tampa Bay History Center

The Tampa Bay History Center's new permanent exhibit "Treasure Seekers" gallery focuses on pirates and explorers across Florida. [Tampa Bay History Center]
Published Feb. 18, 2018

Pity the area schoolchildren who took class trips to the Tampa Bay History Center in recent weeks. Those landlubbers missed out on piracy fun.

Sure, the kids enjoyed learning about local history through the museum's interactive exhibits, which include a cattle drive ride-along.

But if the schools had planned the trips just a little bit later in the year, their students could have learned whether — yo ho, yo ho — the pirate life is for them.

This Sunday, the Tampa Bay History Center will open its new permanent display, "Treasure Seekers: Conquistadors, Pirates & Shipwrecks."

And to paraphrase the swashbucklers who once sailed the Caribbean that the exhibit details, "Arr, blimey, shiver me timbers!"

"We've asked visitors and others in the community what do you want in the history center we don't already show," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the history center, while giving the Tampa Bay Times a preview last week.

"Pirates were always at top of that list. So, we gave it to them."

Among the features of the 4,300-square-foot exhibit:

•?A life-sized, 60-foot, stem-to-stern replica of a small, fast pirate sloop complete with swivel guns, cannons, holograms of pirates on board and, projected above, the night sky's constellations buccaneers used for navigation.

•?An immersive 360 degrees around and 180 degrees above interactive theater that places museum visitors at the bow of a ship while they experience an adventure at sea. They will feel the wind blowing in their hair, pirate holograms will pop up around them, and a cannon will have to be fired.

•?And plenty of centuries-old artifacts from shipwrecks that range from a cannon to silver coins.

"This is now the best regional history museum in Florida and maybe the United States," said Tom Touchton, who led the original $52 million capital campaign to build, endow and open the history center in 2009.

"I always knew it would be good but didn't know it would be the best."

The pirate exhibit is part of an 8,500-square-foot addition built on the fourth-floor of the center that was previously an estimated 60,000 square feet.

Also, part of that expansion is the 1,400-square-foot, Touchton Map Library/Florida Center for Cartographic Education.

Named for Touchton, it is the only cartographic center in the Southeast and one of nine in the nation. Of the collection's 18,000 maps, 6,000 are from Touchton's personal collections.

The full expansion cost about $6 million, part of a recent $11 million capital campaign funded through private contributions and government grants.

Still, to see these new exhibits, some visitors will have to pay more.

Adult and senior admission will increase from $12.95 and $10.95 to $14.95 and $12.95 respectively. For children, admission is $10.95, up from $8.95, and its range changes from 4-12 years old to 7-17. Kids under 7 get in free.

"It's our first raise in five years," said C.J. Roberts, the history center CEO. "We estimate the average visit will go from the current two hours to three."

He also said the center, which now welcomes around 100,000 annually, could experience as much as a 20 percent bump in visitors per year.

For starters, both the cartographic center and some components of the pirate exhibit — such as those teaching the science behind navigation and the ships' engineering — are geared toward an older audience.

"We're happy the with the younger kids," curator Kite-Powell said. "But we've not seen as many high school and college age visitors as we'd like."

Also, pirates expand the scope of the history center's stories outside of Tampa, the first exhibit to do so.

Despite Tampa having an NFL team named Buccaneers and a parade named for fictitious marauder Jose Gaspar, this area has no real connection to pirates, so the display's stories focus on those who sailed the entire Caribbean.

And then there is the fact that people simply find pirates to be cool. "It's a lot like organized crime but two centuries earlier," Kite-Powell said. "The anti-heroes — people are just fascinated by them."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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