Although most people may initially consider a museum visit to be a yawn-inducing activity, the Tampa Bay area proves otherwise, playing host to a number of unconventional and surprisingly stimulating museums.
Like conventional museums, these local treasures provide Tampa residents with ample opportunities to expand their knowledge of the world around them. However, they approach the educational process in a unique and exciting way, transforming the experience into an engaging but informative adventure.
The following is a selection of five such destinations, located right here in Tampa. Most of them offer student discounts, and each one plays a significant role in distinct local history and culture.
The Henry B. Plant Museum
One of the city’s most vital cultural sites is the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa. Declared a national historical landmark, the museum now occupies the building formerly known as the Tampa Bay Hotel. According to Plantmuseum.com, transportation magnate Plant, who was actively involved in the development of Tampa, constructed the hotel in 1891.
Perfectly preserved in its original state, the Plant Museum is designed like a Victorian palace. Accordingly, it is adorned with antique furniture and other decorative items recalling the elegance of an era gone by. In addition, it features a thorough exhibit devoted to the Spanish-American War. However, in order to truly immerse visitors in the experience of life in the late 19th century, the museum acts as a living tribute to the Gilded Age and the life of Plant.
To begin the tour, visitors are first treated to a presentation titled “The Tampa Bay Hotel: Florida’s First Magic Kingdom,” which summarizes the history of the Tampa Bay Hotel and its cultural relevance to the state of Florida. Detailed exhibits chronicle the events that led to the creation of modern Tampa, including the beginnings of Florida’s tourism industry.
Step by step, the Plant Museum’s many highlights provide visitors with additional insight into the origins of the Tampa Bay area, leading to a greater understanding of and appreciation for the city of Tampa.
American Victory Mariners Memorial and Museum Ship
Like the Henry B. Plant Museum, the American Victory Mariners Memorial and Museum Ship is essentially a historical landmark itself. An authentic World War II merchant vessel, the S.S. American Victory serves as the setting for this tribute to the admirable citizens who served in the U.S. Merchant Mariners.
Thrust into the seafaring lifestyle, visitors are greeted by “crewmembers” in authentic uniforms as they enter the 455-foot ship. Once inside, guests are treated to an introductory video that prepares them for their voyage. Equal parts educational excursion and luxurious cruise, the crew of the S.S. American Victory painstakingly recreate the experience of life at sea. Through the use of priceless artifacts, interactive exhibits and multimedia demonstrations, visitors are informed of the historical relevance of ships such as the S.S. American Victory.
However, the ship serves other purposes as well. Its cruises are routinely accompanied by memorials for mariners, complete with formal ceremonies and reenactments of enemy attacks.
Tampa Museum of Art
Whereas the American Victory Mariners Memorial and Museum Ship endeavors to provide its visitors with a unique experience to its visitors, the Tampa Museum of Art, located downtown along the Hillsborough River, embraces a more traditional approach.
Established in 1979, the museum features an extraordinary collection of items, specializing in contemporary pieces from throughout the 20th century. A vast assortment of antiquities, sculptures, paintings and other stunning artwork create an inspiring atmosphere for all who visit the Tampa Museum of Art.
Although it features many precious works, one of the museum’s most noteworthy exhibits is its highly lauded array of genuine Greek and Roman artifacts. Dubbed “The Classical World,” this selection is comprised of more than 400 priceless items culled from various sources. Sculptures, handmade pottery, bronze and golden statues and intricate coins portray a picture of the era in which they were crafted. By examining remnants of these lost societies, guests can gain a greater concept as to what these amazing empires were truly like.
In addition to its many exhibits, the Tampa Museum of Art offers a host of other programs tailored to the unique sophistication and flair of the museum itself. Visitors can attend classes, lectures, seminars and other activities. Meanwhile, social events such as “Art Lover’s Tea” and “Art After Dark with Starbucks,” provide a venue for fine art fans to convene and relax. Although some of these events require an additional fee, the museum offers free admission on every third Thursday of the month from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and regular student admission is only $3.
Ybor City Museum
Just as the Tampa Museum of Art attempts to recapture the Greek and Roman eras through its extensive collection of antiques, the Ybor City Museum State Park offers visitors a glimpse into the beginnings of Ybor City. Overseen by the Ybor City Museum Society, the park features a tribute to Vicente Martinez Ybor, the founder of Ybor, as well as exhibits that reveal details regarding the city’s establishment and the major industries stemming from its creation.
In addition, the park also presents historical homes known as Casitas. The casita is one of many tiny houses built to support families of cigar workers. According to YborMuseum.org, they are among the oldest existing structures in the city and are a testament to the longstanding history of the cigar industry in the area. A recreation of a late 19th century garden is also included in the park. Although this serene area has been amended with the inclusion of additional plant life, it remains a wholly faithful version of a Mediterranean courtyard, contributing a lush, natural quality to the park.
Completing the Ybor City Museum State Park is the Centro Ybor Museum. This 2,000-square foot space is dedicated to celebrating the social aspects of the city, with areas devoted to the cigar industry, the city’s many social clubs and the vitality of theater.
Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI)
Lastly, the Museum of Science and Industry, better known as MOSI, is ideally positioned for students’ convenience. Located directly across from the Sun Dome, MOSI remains one of the city’s most popular attractions for both adults and children. The museum specializes in fun and interactive educational activities that enlighten visitors on the relevance of science to the past, present and future.
A non-profit organization, MOSI features several groundbreaking exhibits. In addition to a state-of-the-art IMAX dome that showcases thrilling documentaries as well as popular films, the museum boasts simulations such as the “Gulf Coast Hurricane.” MOSI also demonstrates the structure of a natural ecosystem through the “BioWorks Butterfly Garden.” This outdoor reproduction allows visitors a glimpse at the life cycle in action.
Additionally, the museum is still playing host to the popular “Bodies: The Exhibition,” which gives visitors the chance to study the human body via actual preserved specimens. MOSI also features a more kid-friendly alternative with “Sesame Street Presents: The Body.”
More than 20 years after its original opening, MOSI continues to grow. According to MOSI.org, Disasterville, a new attraction that examines extreme storms and other natural disasters, arrives in August and is sponsored by Bay News 9. Furthermore, the celebrated Saunders Planetarium will re-open in the fall, finally completing $1 million in renovations.
These museums provide residents with the chance to learn about their local culture among a wealth of other things, yet the opportunities are often disregarded. Though the sheer scope of these establishments is awe inspiring, Tampans would be doing themselves a favor by overlooking the unpleasant stereotypes plaguing museums and seizing the chance to expand their knowledge of Tampa’s history.