By Ron Cooper
Wherever you go for a day trip, you can add some extra fun and sneak in a dose of education by visiting one of Florida’s many museums. You are sure to find something to suit your interest in this sampling of 20 of the area’s coolest museums within a hundred miles.
1. Readers of this magazine are surely aware that Ocala’s Appleton Museum of Art is a first-rate institution with outstanding exhibitions to suit any visitor’s interest. Permanent collections include African work from across the continent, Asian sculpture from India, China, and Japan, 400-year-old Pre-Colombian artifacts, paintings from American and European masters since the 15th century, plus illuminated manuscripts and Orthodox icons. Currently, the Appleton is showcasing its regional juried exhibition, The Appleton Biennial, highlighting four Central Florida artists. Lectures by local nationally renowned speakers, a film series, concerts, and summer art programs for the kids make the Appleton a Florida cultural leader. 352-291-4460
2. In 1946, local veterans remodeled a vacant building as a WW II memorial. Then when internationally known artist Malcolm Fraser donated 56 of his paintings, that memorial became the Ormond Memorial Art Museum and Gardens. More of Fraser’s mystical, William Blake-like works have been added since and the surrounding grounds now sport four acres of palms and waterfalls. This museum has a strong commitment to local artists and sponsors plenty of their work. Opening in mid-July is a special exhibition of work by physically and emotionally challenged artists. 386-676-3347
3. Don’t be fooled by the modest exterior of the African American Museum of Arts in DeLand. Inside is a wealth of sculptures and masks from Africa and paintings from established and emerging African-American artists in the permanent collection. The museum celebrates African, African-American, and Caribbean art and culture by hosting several traveling exhibitions a year, as well as drama, music, and dance performances. 386-736-4088
4. Winter Park rests quietly in the shadow of Orlando, content to be the home of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. The creation of artists and philanthropists Jeannette and Hugh McKean, the museum is named for Jeanette’s grandfather from whom she inherited her love of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s work. The Morse boasts the world’s largest collection of work by Tiffany, including glassware, jewelry, enamels, ceramics, and — unknown to most — paintings. You’ll also find “A Florida Gallery,” featuring paintings by the Keans and The Highwaymen. There’s also Rookwood pottery and paintings by Samuel F. B. Morse (You know — the code guy!), a relative of Charles Hosmer Morse. Call ahead on Tuesdays in July to set up a special gallery tour for the kids. 407-645-5311
5. Two turns off Gainesville’s Archer Road and you’re at the University of Florida’s Cultural Plaza without even having to dodge a student slouching to class. Here sits the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, whose airy, sunbeam-filled entryway promises enlightening viewing. That promise is well kept with art collections for every taste. Modern offerings include Monet, Dali, Goya, Picasso, Rodin, and O’Keeffe. The famous African collection boasts sculpture, masks, and ceremonial artifacts from around the entire continent. Nearly as impressive are the more than 700 pieces from Asia. Education is a high priority here, evidenced by interactive computers, individual viewing stations for videos, and hands-on artifacts for all ages. Pick up an event calendar — you don’t want to miss the many lectures by artists and scholars. 352-392-9826
6. Jacksonville’s beautiful Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens on the bank of the St. Johns is known for its collection of European and American masterworks from the Middle Ages to the present. A new gallery showcases American painters Sargent, Eakins, Benton, Rockwell, and Bearden. Porcelain enthusiasts already know of the famed Meissen collection. Legend says it was developed by an 18th century alchemist who, judging by these prized dishes, really did create gold. Be sure to get outside to see one of the finest gardens in Florida — fountains, sculpture, and arbors of exquisite beauty. Well worth the drive. 904-356-6857
7. Mount Dora probably can boast more antique dealers per square foot than anywhere in the state. Pound for pound, though, bragging rights go to the art lovers, chiefly due to the annual festival sponsored by the Mount Dora Center for the Arts. Last year’s festival attracted 200,000 visitors to view and purchase work from local and regional artists. The Center provides many other opportunities for dancers, painters, sculptors, and musicians to practice and display their talents. Educational programs are offered for all ages and kids can enjoy summer camps on photography, cartooning, and art for community service. 352-383-0880
8. Phosphate mines, orange groves, the Legend of Spook Hill (where cars roll uphill — or do they?) — what more could you expect from Polk County? Well, you won’t expect the intriguing, post-modern style building of the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, with its unusual floor plan and some of the state’s best examples of Florida contemporary art. Prepare to be challenged by innovative photography, provocative mixed media (including a Rauschenberg), and a major collection from the Pattern and Decoration movement. If that’s not enough, there’s a pre-Columbian collection and a host of workshops for all interests and ages. 863-688-7743
9. I used to think of Tarpon Springs solely as Greek restaurant heaven until the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art opened in 2002. The stunning 53,000-square-foot structure resembles a ship, perhaps an architectural nod to the fishermen and sponge divers who deliver their catch at the docks just blocks away. The forte of the distinctive collection inside, says Public Relations Coordinator Jody Sherman, is its “focus on 20th century art from the perspective of the 21st century.” The museum features the work of its namesakes, influential expressionist Abraham Rattner, who worked in a variety of media — paintings, lithographs, sculptures, tapestries — and his stepson, abstract painter Allen Leepa. Also included are works by Rattner’s friends Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Henry Moore. You won’t forget the exciting interactive gallery, including the ingenious “Walk Through a Painting.” 727-712-5762
10. In St. Augustine I visited what is claimed to be the oldest house in America, walked down the oldest street in America, cussed the oldest traffic light in America, and was served by the oldest waiter in America. The Lightner Museum, however, is one place in this town that has succeeded in preserving a different age. Tycoon Henry Flagler, whose heavy thumb left its prints along Florida’s entire east coast, built the luxurious Alcazar Hotel in the late 19th century. Sixty years ago publisher Otto Lightner bought the hotel to house his collection of Victorian Age art and furniture. Today, the Lightner, as much a history as an art museum, brings the Gilded Age back to life with painting, neo-classical sculpture, glassware, and Art Nouveau furniture and cabinetry. 904-824-2874
11. Sometimes the history of a museum itself may be as interesting as its contents. The red brick building tucked under live oaks at the edge of the government complex that now houses the Marion County Museum of History was once a school for troubled girls and then part of a prison farm. Ask Earl DeBary, and he will tell you all about it, as well as the displays on many different people who have inhabited Marion County. An exhibit on Native Americans features a 12,000-year-old artifact, as well as items from Timucuan and Seminole cultures. You can learn about the turpentine industry, Cracker cowmen, and Ma Barker’s gang. “All history is important,” DeBary says, “and here you can see it.” 352-629-2773
12. Cars thundering out of Turn Four at 200 mph, Harleys roaring down Atlantic Avenue, spring breakers staggering along the beach — that’s Daytona Beach for most. Thanks to the Halifax Historical Museum, we are reminded of this region’s long heritage before the Birth of Speed. You’ll see 7,000-year old Native American artifacts, learn about early contact between the Old and New Worlds, and find out about famous residents ranging from educator Mary McLeod Bethune to rumrunner Bill “The Real” McCoy. 386-255-6976
13. The quotation from Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel that greets visitors to the Holocaust Memorial Research and Education Center in Maitland expresses this museum’s theme: “Whoever forgets becomes the executioner’s accomplice.” Memory is kept alive here primarily through photos and text, but the displays also feature artifacts and artwork by survivors. Materials are organized into segments on Jewish history in Europe, Nazism and hate groups, WWII, resistance movements, concentration camps, and modern Jewish life and contributions. The Center is also home to a library with sections for students and researchers. 407-628-0555
14. On December 28, 1835, Major Francis Dade and 107 weary soldiers were marching from Tampa to Ocala when they were surprised by 180 Seminoles resisting the U.S. demand that they relocate to Oklahoma. Only three soldiers survived. Today, the Dade Battlefield State Park near Bushnell is Florida’s hallowed ground. A visitors’ center and museum provides the story of the battle that started the Second Seminole War. The park is known for its annual re-enactment of the battle, next on December 30-31.. The Florida State Park System, which may be the best in the country, places foremost value upon natural preservation, and you can tell it here as you trek along the walking trails that wind through 50 acres that look today just as they did to the participants in that bloody fight over 170 years ago. 352-793-4781
15. When you visit Eustis, once known as the Orange Capital of the World, drop in on the Eustis Historical Museum. The beautiful, 100-year-old Clifford House is restored with period pieces and features double heart pine floors, six fireplaces with imported Italian tiles, and original copper screens on the doors and windows. The hinges, door knobs, and light fixtures are all brass and in the kitchen you’ll find Mrs. Clifford’s cast iron sink. No wonder the Clifford House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Curator Brenda Herbst says “you must see” the room devoted to Eustis resident Edgar Banks, the original Indiana Jones. Skip next door to the Citrus Museum, the only independently housed citrus museum in the state. 352-483-0046
16. The beautifully restored 1924 Historic Courthouse in Tavares is on the National Register of Historical Places and is home to the Lake County Historical Museum, which was recently named one of the Top 100 Museums in Florida. Through its constantly changing exhibitions and interactive exhibits, this museum weaves together the strands of Lake County history that form the fabric of the region’s past. Call ahead and Director Diane Kamp will give your group a big smile and a great tour of a museum where she says “there’s always something new to see and do.” 352-343-9600
17. No one ever dominated a sport like “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. His 17 world champion drag racing titles and eight National Hot Rod Association’s U.S. Nationals (a record) were won with his Swamp Rat series of 34 dragsters, some of which are on display at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing a few miles south of Ocala on I-75. If you don’t find dragsters a gas, Big Daddy invites you next door to the Museum of Classic Automobiles. There’s a 1904 Orient Buckboard built mostly of wood, a 1909 Buick Horseless Carriage, President Eisenhower’s ’56 Chrysler Imperial, and a collection of prewar Fords. Nostalgia lovers will want to linger by “The Parlor,” a living room setting from the 1940s. 352-245-8661
18. Ocala’s Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center is a testament to one man’s vision. School teacher Guy Marwick dreamed of celebrating the rich environmental story of the Silver River a proper way, a way that did not involve a theme park. By partnering with the school system and by tirelessly enlisting the support of others, Marwick made his dream come true here in the middle of the Silver River State Park. Take in the view as you drive along the scenic entrance to the park. Stroll through the Cracker Settlement and follow the trail down to the river. Then come to the museum to cool off amid dinosaur skulls, the jaws of a prehistoric megalodon shark that could swallow your car, the biggest alligator you ever saw (don’t worry — he’s stuffed), and centuries worth of artifacts from the area. 352-236-5401
19. Think the biggest beasts in Gainesville were Gators or their fans? Wait until you’re greeted in the lobby of the Florida Museum of Natural History by skeletons of two tremendous mastodons. Hall of Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land might be the most spectacular science exhibit in the state. With over 500 fossils of all shapes, sizes, and species in a highly imaginative display, it’s truly a marvel of design. If you prefer the light and living to the dark and dead, stroll through the Butterfly Rainforest: Where Science Takes Flight. Amid tropical foliage and waterfalls, hundreds of butterflies of over 60 species flit around, taking such little notice of human intruders that one will surely perch on your giggling child’s proboscis (that’s “nose” in lepidopterist lingo). Back inside, the kids will spend the rest of the day crawling through a reconstruction of a cave, complete with creepy critters. 352-846-2000
20. If you can’t find something to fascinate you in the Museum of Arts and Sciences and Planetarium in Daytona Beach, you won’t find it anywhere else. Outside metal forms adorn a sculpture garden, a sensory garden grabs your nasal attention, and a nature trail winds through gorgeous Tuscawilla Preserve. Inside awaits the most complete fossil record of Florida, including a 13-foot-tall giant ground sloth skeleton. See over 100 Africa artifacts and 1,000 years’ worth from China. I was entranced by the largest collection in the world of Cuban art outside of the island. Many of those paintings were donated by Fulgencio Batista — yes, that Batista. Like vintage Coca-Cola items? Antique race cars? Teddy bears? They’ve got them. You’ll have to drag the kids out of the science gallery with its oodles of oddities. (I think my daughter is still there.) I haven’t even mentioned the planetarium for heaven’s sake! Weekend Manager Jennifer Gill calls it “a hidden jewel among the race cars and sand.” In my opinion, this is the whole jewelry store. 386-255-0285
A Few Gallery Guidelines
1. Call. Museums rarely keep ordinary business hours and many close on a weekday, often Monday.
2. Ask. Museums often have scheduled tours, but if they don’t, ask. Whether they’re full-time docents or volunteers, all museum staffers love nothing more than telling you about their stuff.
3. Give. Museums put as much work into fund raising as they do in collecting and exhibiting. Put it into perspective: If you’re willing to drop nine dollars for a ticket to spend 90 minutes in a noisy theater watching the latest Hollywood pabulum while eating 39 cents worth of popcorn for which you paid five dollars, surely you can donate to a much more fulfilling experience. You’ll be glad you did.
By Ron Cooper