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Written by Margaret Griffis, Photos by Silvia Ros   
March 2011

Miami does have a history, and there’s a place you can go to see it

CoverImageAs the Historical Museum of Southern Florida celebrates its 70th year, it is on the verge of a great transformation, one that could reshape how Miamians see themselves, their young city, and their diverse culture. Through the lens of history, they just might even redefine what “history” means to them.

In April of last year, much to the surprise and chagrin of those who enjoy bemoaning change, the museum somewhat quietly began calling itself HistoryMiami, a first step in fine-tuning its mission of connecting Miamians to the story of their city. That story, however, is not a static one. And so the museum also represents change.

Yes, really. Despite their reputation as dusty repositories of culturally inert objects, museums rarely just showcase static stories from the past. They are there to interpret changes through significant points in time. Sometimes those points involve the museums themselves.

Cover_1_02222011_history_miami_0162One such point occurred in 1940, when a group of important South Floridians, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas and George Merrick, formed an historical society in order to document the area’s rapid changes. To some it may have seemed preposterous that anyone would bother with a 50-year-old city’s “history,” but these concerned citizens were prescient: Miami’s growth reignited in the post-war years, easily eclipsing the development that had occurred in earlier booms.

“The change is interesting,” says Paul George, who not only is an historian at the museum and professor at Miami-Dade College, but a familiar face to the thousands who have taken one of his many walking historical tours (and some by boat). “Obviously the first thing that comes to mind is almost a nontangible change. That is, the ethnicity has changed so much, and the race has changed so much in neighborhoods in the last 30, 40, 50 years in Miami. Significantly in every American city, but especially here.

Cover_2_02222011_history_miami_0063“I say ‘nontangible’ but in many ways it isn’t that,” George continues, “because if you look at a home that’s in Little Havana, that was once Shenandoah or Riverside, you would have seen the same home, but obviously it would have been different. For example, a Cuban touch would be to make the homes and the yards more functional. They park a lot of cars right in front of the house in a lot of Little Havana places, but you wouldn’t have seen that in a more sedate Miami of 50 years ago, when people parked on the curb -- and there was plenty of room to park.

“The paint colors now are more dramatic. They can be brighter or off-colors, not the traditional white that you found on homes 50 years ago. Although I talked about nontangible in terms of ethnic and even racial change in a neighborhood, that type of change has also changed the look of homes.”

George, a native Miamian who is never at a loss for words on his tours, catches his breath and goes on: “The second thing, in terms of change, is that we’ve lost the old, which is not surprising. But shockingly, we’ve been able to restore and retain a lot of the old too. Morningside is a great example of that, but other neighborhoods, too, have become very preservation-conscious. So what’s great about that is homes that would not have been showcased 30 years ago and were considered mundane, are now special places. We’ve seen a lot of good stuff go, but we’ve also seen a lot of stuff that’s been preserved. It’s become very important for us -- to understand how things were, once upon a time.”

Cover_3_02222011_history_miami_0035By 1962, shortly after Cuban immigration increased dramatically, the historical society had evolved into a public museum that was expanding as quickly as Miami itself. By the time it moved next door to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens and the Miami Science Museum, only ten years later, the museum was desperate for space, and more so when it relocated in 1984 to its current home in the Miami-Dade Cultural Center, an attractive compound designed by acclaimed architect Philip Johnson that oddly evokes an era of citadels and parapets -- right in the shadow of downtown’s skyscrapers.

There the museum is housed in one of three buildings accessible from a shared plaza, perched one story above street level. Its neighbors are the Miami Art Museum and the central branch of the Miami-Dade Public Library. Visitors enter the museum from the plaza and find themselves on the second level, which contains a gift shop, research center, and temporary exhibits.

The third or top level is where the permanent collection is displayed. It’s a journey through the cultural touchstones of 10,000 years of history -- from the earliest Paleo-Indians through the explorers and pioneers and on to today’s most colorful inhabitants. The first level (at street grade) is actually below the courtyard and houses offices and an education center.

“I think it’s been phenomenal,” George proudly says of the museum’s growth. “It’s one of the oldest ongoing institutions in Miami-Dade County, which obviously is an incredibly evolving, transient place. Considering its humble roots -- just a small handful of people concerned about Miami history before anybody really cared about it -- it has evolved to where it is today, a big museum with a pretty big budget.” (Big indeed. According to museum’s 2009 tax filings, the private, nonprofit corporation had revenues of $3,402,725 in 2008.)

Cover_4_02222011_history_miami_0094 Cover_5_02222011_history_miami_0173

The museum’s chief curator, Joanne Hyppolite, speaks just as excitedly about HistoryMiami’s future. When the Miami Art Museum moves into Museum Park (née Bicentennial Park) in 2013, renovations at HistoryMiami’s current building should begin. Although the plans are in their earliest stages of design, HistoryMiami will gobble up the art museum building and create even more room by joining the two buildings, effectively doubling their current 40,000 square feet of space.

Hyppolite says they had originally been invited to Museum Park as well, but it was too small (only a 25,000 foot gain) for their purposes, and they would have had to split operations and identity between their current cramped home and the park. That made the opportunity to remain whole at the cultural center too attractive to pass up.

Cover_6_02222011_history_miami_0185 Cover_7_02222011_history_miami_0192

So if there’s no dramatic move in store for the museum, why change the name? “Our marketing studies said that the name didn’t test well,” admits Hyppolite. “And that was absolutely true. Just in dealing with patrons over the years, they often got it wrong. It was too long. It was a huge mouthful. Even our county system, which services us, got it wrong in e-mails and things like that.”

Cover_8_02252011_history_miami_0071But it wasn’t just a practical decision. “There were a lot of options on the table that we could have changed the name to,” Hyppolite explains, “and we went with branding an idea rather than a place: the idea that Miami has history. Which is really important because we always talk about the fact there are so many immigrants, generations of immigrants, who come with their own history of other places.” (That’s a fact the Haitian-born, Boston-reared, University of Miami Ph.D. understands personally.)

“They don’t know Miami’s history or they don’t see themselves as part of Miami’s larger history,” she elaborates, “which is that history -- of people always coming. Layers and layers of history. The Miami Circle is a great example of that [layering] because of the different types of populations who have lived there over time.”

Somewhere on the order of about 2000-years-old, the Miami Circle is an archaeological site at the mouth of the Miami River. The Tequesta called it their home for hundred if not thousands of years, before the last of them left South Florida, ironically for Cuba. It was rediscovered in 1998 when a World War II-era apartment building was razed to make way for a high-rise condo, and since then its story has become permanently intertwined with HistoryMiami.

Cover_9_02252011_history_miami_0128With the exception of post holes cut into the limestone back at the park, all of the Miami Circle’s artifacts are now safeguarded at HistoryMiami. On February 23, museum officials hosted a dedication ceremony at the site. Politicians, schoolchildren, spiritual leaders, and hundreds of other interested Miamians gathered beside the river to honor the area’s earliest known residents.

Archaeologist Bob Carr, who discovered the site while conducting a required assessment prior to the high-rise’s construction, immediately recognized its significance. He was one of several dignitaries in attendance at the ceremony, and one of the most eloquent. “The Miami River now has a new park,” he declared. “The Tequesta now have a voice, and Miamians now have a sense of place that connects us to our ancient past. Because of these efforts and sacrifices, the mosaic of Miami’s culture is now complete, and we are wiser and more humane.”

And that’s the whole point. Through history, on long and short scales, people become more connected, more human, and more tolerant through shared memories that become the story of their lives. But it’s the artifacts that flesh out some of these stories, and HistoryMiami has aggressively accumulated millions of items over the years. Shipwreck treasure, architectural remnants, musical instruments, Native American crafts, pioneer memorabilia, and two wooden vessels representing recent Haitian and Cuban diasporas, to name just a few.

One significant artifact -- a large item that spans much of the city’s modern history -- may still produce a new story or two. Many longtime residents now celebrating their golden years fondly remember Miami’s electric streetcar system, which shut down in 1940, the same year the historical society was formed. Younger Miamians -- at least those just old enough to have some silver-kissed strands of hair -- may remember when one of those cars, No. 231 from the Buena Vista line, went back into service at the cultural center.

Hyppolite gleefully recounts the story, well-covered in the media at that time. The museum’s builders installed special doors that opened out toward the street -- three stories up from the street -- so a crane could lift the streetcar into the museum. It was the easiest way to move the trolley in and would have been the easiest way out, too, if not for one little problem. Shortly afterward, the Metromover line was built, blocking the doors and trapping its technological ancestor inside the museum forever. Someday perhaps a Metromover car will find a way join it.

Cover_11_02252011_history_miami_0027The streetcar, Hyppolite says, is the museum’s most popular exhibit, a unique icon that touches many. It recalls not only technological change but social change as well, illustrating the days of segregation in ways that can only be experienced by physically boarding the trolley and having African-American passengers sit at the back of the car -- as its posted sign once seriously demanded. Today, however, Hyppolite says she mostly talks to visitors who affectionately remember traveling on it as children.

HistoryMiami is more than a cache of artifacts. Its Folk Life program actively pursues material that will one day be historically significant, some of it quite ephemeral. Hyppolite explains that HistoryMiami’s folklorists build relationships throughout the community, with residents from all walks of life, in order to discover, document, and occasionally display their personal histories. “The practices that people bring with them, usually from their homes countries, those practiced in the home,” she says in describing such personal histories. “Usually it’s like the father teaching you to dance salsa, or your mother teaching you how to embroider. Those little traditions that come out of particular cultural practices.”

Another significant function of the museum is to help people conduct their own research into the past. The photo archive, particularly the Miami News collection, is especially popular. The photo archives are kept in the museum’s research center, which is near the entrance. At first it seems as if a room in the neighboring library had been pinched off and inserted into the museum, but these stacks hold more than literary classics, they hold Miami classics: books, periodicals, Spanish-language magazines, blueprints, diaries, and other documents that reveal Miami’s past, in addition to more than one million photographs.

Cover_11_02252011_history_miami_0014The research center’s archivists earnestly encourage the general public to come in and use the facilities. While there is no charge to do research (after admission), the center does collect small fees for copying material or using images commercially.

Walk-in browsers are always welcome, but the staff asks those who have complicated, long-term projects -- doctoral students, for instance -- to call first as some items are warehoused off property. And while visitors will get white-glove service from the caretakers, they’ll also be expected to, literally, wear white cotton gloves while handling materials. The gloves prevent chemicals and oils from spoiling the objects.

As for what’s available on-site, it’s tremendous. Box after box of images. Row upon row of historic Miami. Each item documents a specific moment in time, while the whole is a figurative tapestry of a young city’s evolution.

An amused Dawn Hugh, who is the archives manager, recounts one observation about the historical photographs. “The collections mirror the community and the changes,” she notes. “When the Miami News collection came in 1989, I had a hard time finding images of Hispanics, Haitians, and immigrants in general. When the Miami Herald collection came in, it was the opposite. I had a hard time finding Anglos. That’s just how it is. I hunted for every Hispanic or Haitian, and this time I hunted for Anglos.”

The archivists are currently working on their own photo project as well: an online library of images at historymiamiarchives.org/guides. As Rebecca Smith, head of special collections, notes, they’ve already uploaded many photographs for public view, but they’re still beta-testing and it’s a slow process that is evolving constantly.

Cover_12_circle_miami_thumbHugh is quick to add that many patrons have offered to help, but it’s not just scanning and putting the images online. Most of the work is in “meta-dating,” or documenting the images. It involves adding information such as location, place, and subject matter. Tagging the files for search engines. Deciding how the image should be “filed,” and even creating a hierarchy of files within the website. Repeat a million times for all the photographs and the task is clearly daunting.

Occasionally, though, the materials arrive with an added gift. “We also have in addition to the Miami News collection a lot of negatives from the Miami Herald,” says Smith. “They are more recent so they’re not historically as interesting -- yet. But they are pretty well captioned. The librarian or somebody there must have stood over the photographers and said, ‘Though shalt caption these things.’ So that’s going to be a gold mine.”

Beyond using the information depicted in the images, Smith says you can glean more esoteric knowledge from these larger collections. The archivists maintain the photographs in the same order and use same filing system they had when they arrived. This may seem rather inconsequential to the casual observer, but Smith says it can reveal the photographer’s thought process and adds another layer of understanding.

“We were a better community when we had two newspapers, and we’re missing that,” she muses. “I’m glad the Miami News and Cox Enterprises had the foresight to park the best stuff here. The stuff that went to the Palm Beach Post just got integrated into the Palm Beach Post and it doesn’t have a separate identity. Here the Miami News lives on. We as a society need that.”

 

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