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Keeper of the Past PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros   
March 2015

This year our local history museum celebrates 75 years in the business of showing us who we are and where we came from

HCoveristoryMiami has a lot of history.

Previously known as the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, this Smithsonian-affiliated museum, accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, is the oldest nonreligious cultural institution in Miami-Dade County. In fact, the museum is now observing its 75th anniversary, and a big announcement is expected during the museum’s annual membership meeting on April 23. What sort of announcement? HistoryMiami’s staffers won’t say. It’s a surprise.

What isn’t a secret is the vision of Ramiro Ortiz. The former chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Ortiz once headed the Miami offices of SunTrust and BankUnited. A history buff, Ortiz jokes that the museum’s board members thought he was having too much fun playing golf during his retirement, so they drafted him. For the past two years, he’s been the president and CEO of HistoryMiami. His mission: to ensure that the museum is invigorated with age, rather than slowed.

“Our focus is to make the museum more relevant to Greater Miami, and to do that by increasing the number of exhibits, programs, and panel discussions,” explains Ortiz. “Our core mission is history and telling stories of Miami, but we also see us fulfilling another role, and that’s the role of civic engagement in Miami. We hope to be the institution that causes the entire community to come together.”

Such aspirations might have seemed impossible less than a year ago, when HistoryMiami’s exhibition space was just 13,000 square feet, much of which was occupied by a permanent, 31-year-old “Tropical Dreams” display that includes a rare 17,000-pound trolley train and a replica of a Spanish fort.

That changed in August 2014, when the Miami Art Museum, HistoryMiami’s neighbor within the Mediterranean-style Cultural Center plaza in downtown Miami, moved to Museum Park. HistoryMiami immediately laid claim to MAM’s old home. As a result, it instantly grew by 135 percent.

“If you visit the museum two or three times a year, every time you’d see new exhibitions, whereas in the past, you may not have,” says Stuart Chase, who was recruited from the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts two years ago to work as HistoryMiami’s director and COO.

CoverStory_LeadAdditionally, the increase in exhibition space allows HistoryMiami to display more of its collection, which includes more than 37,000 items and artifacts spanning from prehistoric times to the late 20th Century. That figure doesn’t include the tens of thousands of rare books, maps, and newspapers the museum has in its possession, nor the million-plus photographs.

HistoryMiami’s photo collection recently got much larger, too. Last year former Miami Herald photographer Tim Chapman donated at least 400,000 slides, prints, and negatives from his work over 44 years as a photojournalist. Those photos, which range from everyday life in Miami to gory photos of crime scenes and the aftermath of the Jonestown Massacre, will make up the backbone of a photographic and documentaries initiative that the museum will set up with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Knight Foundation.

Chapman tells the BT he’s encouraging other former Herald photographers to donate their negatives to the museum, as well. Meanwhile, Chapman’s photos are being catalogued and scanned by HistoryMiami’s Archives & Research Center, another section of the museum that’s due for an expansion.

Actually, there are several upgrades on the horizon for HistoryMiami, which is run by a nonprofit corporation that operates in a county-owned space and receives some funding from county taxpayers. The research center’s expansion will be funded with private donations, but the county has earmarked $10 million in general obligation bonds over the next five years to build and renovate exhibition space for HistoryMiami. The county is also in the early stages of finding an architect who will design a connection between the museum’s old and new wings.

Last year’s operating budget for HistoryMiami, which employs 28 people, was just $4 million to deal with day-to-day expenses, according to Roxanne Cappello, the museum’s senior vice president and CFO. Of that amount, about $1.9 million came from private grants, donations, sales, and admissions. Miami-Dade County kicked in $2.2 million, plus rent-free use of the facility.

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Cappello, who has worked at the museum for nearly 29 years, says funding, especially from the county, varies from year to year. “It just depends on what the county can afford to give us,” she says. “There have been generous years, and, as all county agencies have been cut back, we have been cut back. But right now, I think, it’s a very generous amount from the county.”

During the 2012-2013 fiscal year, according to the museum’s Form 990 submitted to the IRS, three employees were paid more than $100,000 a year: Cappello, who spent part of that period as interim president and CEO, received $145,000. Ortiz, named president in March 2013, was paid $115,897. Chase, the new director, received $101,410. In an e-mail to BT, Cappello says the group’s 2013-2014 fiscal year report to the IRS won’t be due until May 2015.

As part of Ramiro Ortiz’s desire to help bring the community together, his organization has volunteered to assist two new aspiring museums that currently have the backing of the Miami-Dade County Commission: the proposed Black History Museum and the Cuban Exile History Museum. HistoryMiami even offered to bring both endeavors into its facility.

“I would say that we’re having very preliminary discussions because it makes sense for us to get together, but I would have to underscore the words ‘very, very preliminary,’” Ortiz says, adding that his museum helped the Jewish History Museum in Miami Beach, the Black Archives at Lyric Theater in Overtown, and the Coral Gables History Museum.

 

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The office of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss, the proposer of a Black History Museum, did not return an e-mail for comment by deadline. His resolution calls for the development of a museum with the assistance of county funds and run by the Black Archives at Lyric Theater, which was founded by former Historical Museum of Southern Florida curator Dorothy Jenkins Fields. It would be built somewhere within Museum Park, Watson Island, or near PortMiami. The Lyric Theater referred BT’s questions to Moss’s office.

CoverStory_4Nicolas Gutierrez, a board member of the Cuban Exile History Museum Inc., says his colleagues are still talking to HistoryMiami reps, although CEHM’s leaders have already rejected an offer to be incorporated into downtown’s history museum. “We didn’t find their Cuban section to be very elaborate,” he says.

Besides, Gutierrez says, the county commission has already earmarked the waterfront land behind the AmericanAirlines Arena as the future home of the Cuban Exile museum. County officials have long promised to turn the county-owned waterfront land, known as Parcel B, into a park. In fact, that promise was a strong selling point to the public prior to a vote regarding construction of the AmericanAirlines Arena.

Gutierrez claims his group is already considering a joint venture with the Black Archives at Parcel B. Regardless, he says, his group is planning a major fundraiser on the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship Riviera on March 22 to help raise money for the construction of the proposed $123 million exile museum.So the prospect of putting a museum there has irked many people, including members of the Urban Environment League of Miami-Dade. Greg Bush, a founder and current vice president of the UEL, says he’s organizing a forum that will explore the development of a single Afro-Cuban history museum on a site further inland.

And, he adds, his group dislikes HistoryMiami’s location -- within downtown’s government center, where on-street parking is scarce, vehicular traffic is difficult, and the waterfront, which Gutierrez claims is paramount to exiles’ historical narrative, is nearly a mile away.

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Gutierrez even hates the plaza in which the museum is housed, referring to it as “the fortress” and insisting that the stone structure fails to attract visitors. “The county knows this and HistoryMiami knows this, and they’re looking at ways to go beyond their current situation,” he says.

HistoryMiami officials, however, say they are proud of their attendance numbers. Last year the museum received more than 100,000 visitors, ranging from school class trips to curious tourists, Cappello says. Hundreds of people have also attended the museum’s monthly Family Fun Day events, she adds.

A “What if Lincoln Had Lived?” symposium, featuring prominent Lincoln historians, attracted 500 people, while more than 1000 visitors attended the opening of the Bob Marley exhibit (which also touched on the artist’s impact on South Floridians) in October 2014. This year’s 22nd Annual Miami International Map Fair, tied with the London Map Fair as the largest event of its kind in the world, attracting at least 700 well-heeled collectors between February 6 and 8 in search of extremely rare maps.

Cappello disputes the claim that it’s a lousy location. It shares the plaza with Miami-Dade’s main library and is in close proximity to the Stephen P. Cark Center’s Metrorail-Metromover hub and a public parking garage.

Adds Ortiz: “I think it’s easy to roll your head and say, ‘Woe is me. Difficult location.’ It’s a great location if we give you a reason to come.”


I
CoverStory_6n 1961, University of Miami graduate student Arva Moore Parks was given an assignment by her history professor, Charlton Tebeau: Read all 20 issues of Tequesta magazine, the Historical Museum of Southern Florida’s scholarly journal that Tebeau edited.

She did, and from that point on, Parks, whose studies initially focused on American history and political science, was hooked on South Florida’s past. “I became a Miami historian,” says Parks, who would later volunteer, and eventually chair, the museum.

Tequesta, a publication named after the Native American tribe that once lived in Florida, predates an actual museum. It was published by an organization known as the Historical Association of Southern Florida. “If you really want to claim legitimacy as a bona fide historical society, you need to put out publications,” explains Paul George, a history professor at Miami-Dade College who runs HistoryMiami’s popular City Tours program.

No entity existed that sought to record the region’s history when the association was conceived in the home of local attorney James Carson in January 1940.

The association’s actual birth, however, took place on April 23 of that year, when 90 people gathered in San Sebastian Hall on the UM campus. They settled on the name “Historical Association of Southern Florida,” which is still the legal name of the museum (HistoryMiami is its operating name), and elected its officers and trustees. Coral Gables founder George Merrick was named the group’s first president.

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Why “Southern Florida”? Why not just “Miami”? At the time, no other historical association existed to record the annals of the region from the Keys to Martin County. Merrick also contended that the Caribbean should be included in the group’s scope. “The argument was made that we’re very much a part of the West Indies,” Paul George says. “So let’s call ourselves the Historical Association of Southern Florida. Our reach is broad.”

It was a calling that George took seriously when he became editor of Tequesta in 1995. “I was pushing and accepting articles on Broward,” he remembers.

Merrick wasn’t at his zenith when he chaired the group. Two hurricanes and the Great Depression had wiped out his fortune. When Merrick was elected president of the association, his other job was postmaster of Dade County. Still, Merrick published the inaugural 1941 issue of Tequesta, which included an article he wrote on how Bahamians influenced the development of South Florida and the Keys.

And then in March 1942, he died of a heart attack at the age of 56, says Parks, author of George Merrick’s Coral Gables. An obituary honoring Merrick appeared in the second issue of Tequesta. The magazine continued publishing every year, but the association wasn’t content with just putting out a journal. Funded by $3 annual dues charged to its members, HASF collected artifacts, documents, and books created in South Florida’s early days that no one else bothered to preserve. It also created and installed brass markers honoring important landmarks, pioneers, and streets.

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During this time, HASF operated from an office in the Alfred I. DuPont Building in downtown Miami, but it lacked a place to showcase its collection. Instead, it kept its items in a fireproof office owned by HASF board member Wayne Withers, and in a metal filing cabinet within UM’s library, according to an unpublished piece George wrote for the museum’s 70th anniversary.

That finally changed in 1962, when the group bought a 1910-era home that was converted into a rooming house at 2010 N. Bayshore Dr. in Edgewater. (The spot where the home once existed is now occupied by the Quantum on the Bay condominium tower.) The newly anointed Historical Museum of Southern Florida soon garnered media attention when it revealed the larger items of its collection, such as a huge Fresnel lens that once operated at the Carysfort Reef lighthouse at Key Largo in the 19th Century (now located in lobby of HistoryMiami’s south building) and a cannon salvaged near the same reef that once occupied the deck of the British warship HMS Winchester, which foundered on the reef in 1695.

The museum began hiring a modest staff, created its first reading room, and sold memorabilia. It also organized exhibitions, lectures, and even adult-education programs.

Conditions only grew worse when Hurricane Betsy inflicted significant water damage on the house in 1965.However, it wasn’t long before the museum’s operators hated the place. “Discontent with the association’s quarters grew as the building’s structural problems broadened, termites infested it, and the roof sprung leaks,” George wrote in the unpublished article. “Further, the lack of an air-conditioned facility made it uncomfortable for visitors and harmful to the growing collections.”

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The campaign for a new home was spearheaded by Martha “Marty” Grafton, the great-granddaughter of early Miami Beach developer John Collins and daughter of renowned architect Russell Pancoast. Grafton oversaw the museum’s collection in the 1960s. It also helped that the firm co-founded by her father and husband, Pancoast, Ferendino & Grafton, was hired to design the Miami Museum of Science at Vizcaya for Miami-Dade County.

“She had an ally,” her son, Thorn Grafton, an architect with Zyscovich Architects, tells the BT. (Marty Grafton died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 83.) Sure enough, the design allowed for a second museum to be tucked away within the science museum’s structure.

By 1972, HASF had moved into its Vizcaya home, which included 2500 square feet of exhibition space. Thanks to its newfound county support, and its exhibition space, the history museum soon experienced another spurt of hiring and programming. “When I started working here, we were basically three and a half people,” says Rebecca Smith, now head of special collections, who began with the museum in 1974. “I came on just when we went professional, just when we started that leap up.”

During this era, Miami native and historian Randy Nimnicht was hired as executive director, a post that he would keep for the next 26 years. His goal: “To build the best regional facility in the country,” according to George, a quest that led to new educational programs, tours, and in 1979, to accreditation. (Nimnicht, who consulted in the creation of the Coral Gables History Museum, couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Arva Moore Parks, meanwhile, as president of HASF, began the publication of a new bimonthly magazine called Update (now known as HM) and brought in African Americans and Hispanics to a previously Anglo-dominated board. “I expanded it not just ethnically, but age-wise,” she says. “I was the youngest president in the history of the museum.”

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By the late 1970s, the county enticed the museum to move yet again -- this time to a three-acre patch of land at 101 W. Flagler St. in downtown Miami, just a block away from the courthouse, an old rescue mission, and a few rundown storefronts.

At this site the county intended to build a $23 million Mediterranean-style complex designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson. Called the Cultural Center, the complex would be built around a large plaza and include the history museum, a new home for the main Miami-Dade library (then located at Bayfront Park), and the Center for the Fine Arts. Its opening was supposed to be 1982, but problems with the smoke exhaust system, humidity control, and air-conditioning postponed its completion until 1984.

HASF’s supporters and staff were thrilled with their new home, which they christened with a restored 1920s-era trolley that had to be hoisted by two cranes through a hole in building’s wall, and then onto a reinforced floor. The trolley was just one part of the permanent $800,000 Tropical Dreams exhibit, funded by the state legislature, which even included a replica of the Fort of St. Augustine in northern Florida.

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The move coincided with yet another hiring spree (tripled to 20 staffers) and an expansion of programs and amenities that included a reading research library run by archives manager Dawn Hugh, who has worked at the museum since it opened in the plaza 31 years ago.

“This is an excellent location [for a research center] because we’re right by another research institution, the library,” Smith elaborates. “We’re within walking distance of the Wolfson [Study] Center, so you have these big collections that are close together. You can also hop on a train and get to UM’s special library collection.”

Less thrilled were the people who ran the Center for the Fine Arts, later known as MAM. “They never liked it from the beginning,” says Victoria Cervantes, HistoryMiami’s vice president of communications, who has worked at the museum for six years. “They learned very quickly that their audience wouldn’t come to the building. It was hard to find the main entrance, it was hard to find the building itself, it had poor signage.”

MAM’s misery was the history museum’s gain. When MAM finally departed this past August “we got in there so fast,” Smith laughs. “In two weeks we did the first map fair [in the new wing], and by April we opened our first permanent exhibit.”

“By April we had another show up,” adds Jorge Zamanillo, HistoryMiami’s deputy director, who has worked at the museum for 14 years. “And by November we had four shows up.”


TCoverStory_13he new growth, however, occurred under a radically different name: HistoryMiami. As revealed in a previous BT feature about the museum (“That Was Then,” March 2011), marketing was the primary reason for the title change five years ago. “Historical Museum of Southern Florida,” it seems, wasn’t catchy.

:Money, not marketing, is the usual reason for name changes in Miami, especially for government-supported, cultural nonprofits. Lucrative endowments from generous philanthropists turned the Performing Arts Center of Miami into the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the Miami Arts Museum into the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM -- after developer Jorge Pérez), and the Miami Museum of Science (scheduled to relocate from Vizcaya to Museum Park in 2016) into the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science.

Could a multimillion-dollar gift lead to HistoryMiami’s next name change? “Anything’s possible,” says Ortiz, the museum’s current president. How big of a donation could make such a thing happen? Ortiz says he doesn’t know. “We haven’t even thought about that,” he admits.

Greg Bush of the Urban Environment League and an associate history professor at UM, isn’t too concerned about the name. What he wants is a museum that isn’t afraid to break away from the mold of playing things safe. “The key is not just getting sensational pictures or perspectives -- it’s getting some historical perspective of what we’re doing here, and the sort of culture we’re creating,” says Bush, a South Miami resident who admits he rarely visits HistoryMiami.

Ortiz says the museum is eager to host “educational and timely” discussions. In recent months, it has hosted symposiums on the civil rights movement, the pros and cons of Florida’s “stand your ground” law following the killing of Trayvon Martin, the expansion of gambling in Miami, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and relations between Afro-Cubans and African-Americans in Miami-Dade. In the planning stages: a discussion on the impacts of the Haitian Revolution.

But symposiums aren’t enough for Bush. He also wants HistoryMiami to take a stand, especially on issues of preservation. It’s a perspective that former museum board member Gene Tinnie understands.

During the Miami Circle controversy in the late 1990s, Tinnie remembers being frustrated with the museum’s longstanding policy of neutrality on political issues, including those related to archeological or historical preservation.

“It can at least appear to be dysfunctional at times,” says Tinnie, who chairs the Virginia Key Park Trust. “How can you, as history keepers for the region, not take a position [on preservation]? But that’s the way it is in the by-laws.”

Ramiro Ortiz says he has no plans to change that stance. “Everybody has to understand their role as part of a team,” he explains. “There are entities that focus on preservation and they do a wonderful job at that. Then there are entities like HistoryMiami, where our job is to...educate the public on the artifact, on the property, or whatever.

“We have to play our position, which is to collect and interpret and educate the [public] about an artifact,” he continues. “If I start playing their position and they start playing my position, neither one of us does a good job at what we’re supposed to do.”

 

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