‘Water Shapes Florida’

The new exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History showcases Silver Springs and the iconic glass-bottom boats.

The Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida is an amazing resource located in Gainesville, just north of Marion County. Founded in 1891, it serves as Florida’s chartered natural history museum and is a beehive of exhibits, research and study focused on our wonderful and diverse state.

The old North Florida exhibit at Powell Hall was recently redesigned into a new exhibit space, Water Shapes Florida. This new permanent exhibit highlights the complexities and importance of freshwater, our most precious natural resource. Notably for Marion County, the exhibit also prominently features our own Silver Springs.

The Water Shapes Florida installation is unique in several ways. In a previous life, the exbibit focused on North Florida and many visitors will remember it as the “cave.” The old cave, interpretive panels and overall layout have been reconfigured into a fresh and exciting space that is the new exhibit. This was surely a challenging project in the sense that it is easier to completely start over with a blank slate. However, the talented designers at the Florida Museum kept some of the more popular components, such as the cave and large murals, while adding new updated displays.

This redesigned hall is also quite diverse. In addition to the “cave,” visitors find themselves exploring a water laboratory, display cases full of natural history specimens and artifacts related to water, a Florida springs gallery, a realistic glass-bottom boat and even a lounge with books, games and activities for adults and children alike. As I walked through the exhibit the first time, I was impressed with the eclectic mix of objects, large video screens, touchable items and detailed information about the freshwater cycle.

The Floridan Aquifer, that vast underground reservoir that filters and stores our supply of freshwater, and our wonderful springs (such as Silver, Rainbow, Juniper, Salt, Alexander and Silver Glen, just to name a few), are important themes in the exhibit. Visitors learn about how to conserve and protect our freshwater. This is critical information for anyone who calls the Sunshine State home.

Our growing population (we’re now the third most-populated state in the country) and porosity of the aquifer system mean that it is easy to overdraw and pollute our water supply. There are two main points to remember here: overdrawing our limited supply and allowing pollutants to enter the system and foul our sole source of water.

The exhibit designers who created Water Shapes Florida skillfully present a large amount of complex information in an easy-to-understand format. One of the highlights for me is the life-size replica of a glass-bottom boat from Silver Springs.

The vessel is named the Oscar Collins after the retired long-time Silver Springs glass-bottom boat captain. It looks and feels like one of our iconic local boats but sits in the middle of a major university. There are high resolution video screens in the well of the boat where the glass-bottom would be and around the front where a visitor would look ahead from inside the vessel.

Video of Silver Springs (shot by Ocala’s own Mark and Mary Emery), both below the water and above, play on the screens. There is even narration from Silver Springs boat Capt. Bill Crosby, which completes the experience. It is the closest thing to riding an actual glass-bottom boat one can find.

The Florida Museum of Natural History is open seven days a week and is worth a visit. Learn more at floridamuseum.ufl.edu. If you go, be sure to see the new Water Shapes Florida exhibit and learn how you can help protect our most valuable resource—freshwater. OS

Scott Mitchell is a field archaeologist, scientific illustrator and director of the Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center at 1445 NE 58th Avenue, inside the Silver River State Park. Museum hours are 10am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday. To learn more, go to silverrivermuseum.com.

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