Since its inception as the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, HistoryMiami has led a fairly quiet existence — carrying out its mission to present South Florida’s unique history. Now, the museum is launching an ambitious new chapter as it more than doubles in size and ramps up a robust slate of new programming.
Soon after the museum’s former neighbor, the Miami Art Museum, began the process of changing its name to Perez Art Museum Miami and moving to its new home in Museum Park, HistoryMiami began planning to take over the space.
Although the Miami-Dade Cultural Center lost one of its anchor tenants (the location is also home to the county’s Main Library), the departure of MAM presented HistoryMiami with an opportunity to grow exponentially. The expansion more than doubles the museum’s size, increasing its footprint from 40,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet. The new space began opening in May with the first-floor exhibition “History & Ourselves”; the second floor is now open as well.
“We’re thrilled because the gallery space we have now is as good as it gets,” said Ramiro A. Ortiz, president and CEO of HistoryMiami.
Over the years, the museum has quietly amassed thousands of important artifacts related to Miami’s history. The new space will allow the museum to show off many more temporary and rotating exhibitions of items that have rarely, if ever, been shown because of space constraints.
Some of the objects are artifacts from the Latin American diaspora that changed the face of Miami, like a shoddy raft made by Cuban exiles hoping to sail to American shores. Others showcase Miami’s pop culture history, such as a section of the basketball court at Miami Arena, the Miami Heat’s first home, and a sign for the Miramar Playa, a fictional Miami hotel that was the setting for the short-lived Starz channel TV show Magic City.
The gravestone of William Brickell, one of the city of Miami’s co-founders, is among the most curious objects in the collection. But fear not that the museum is pillaging funeral grounds for treasures: The gravestone on display was donated after his body was moved to another burial site per his surviving family members’ wishes.
The Miami Herald makes an appearance with a satellite telephone from the early 1990s that Herald journalists used when reporting from afar, an unwieldy set-up that looks comical today but was essential at the time.
New to the museum is a space dedicated to its South Florida Folklife Center, a division of the institution created in 1986 and dedicated to “documenting, presenting, and supporting the region’s traditional arts and culture,” its mission statement reads. While a significant amount of the work done by the center is research, it has collected hundreds of items used or made by local artisans — a selection of which are on display for the first time.
“What we’re trying to do is represent the demographics of our community . . . and also look at objects that are related to traditions, whether they be work, religious, family or community-related traditions,” said Michael Knoll, the museum’s vice president of curatorial affairs.
Among the folk traditions highlighted are Haitian Christmas celebrations, represented by the fanal lights (miniature homes that double as lanterns), the Santeria religion as depicted through intricate, handmade ceremonial gowns, and the fishing community as shown through a marlin mount.
While exhibits dedicated to showcasing artifacts from the museum’s permanent collection make up a sizable portion of the museum’s expanded programming, it is just one part of a larger effort to bring in more-ambitious shows.
Inaugurating the full expansion is “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music,” a traveling exhibition showcasing the rich history and distinctive styles of Latin music in the United States. The program focuses on five cities where Latin music flourished after World War II: Miami; New York; Los Angeles; San Francisco; and San Antonio.
Much of the show is dedicated to highlighting the diversity of Latin music from traditional salsa to modern variations like reggaeton.
Although the show will travel to institutions throughout the country, HistoryMiami is exclusively showing a curated selection of memorabilia from top Latin musicians with close ties to Miami. Among the most notable are a vibrant blazer Willy Chirino wore on the cover of one of his albums as well as a flamboyant dress and heels in which Celia Cruz performed.
The expansion is not quite finished; HistoryMiami plans to connect the two spaces, add new permanent exhibitions and enhance existing public areas.
During the coming months, the museum will roll out several major exhibitions including “Ladies and Gentlemen . . . The Beatles!” dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ visit to Miami; “A Respect for Light,” a retrospective on the Cuban-American photographer Mario Algaze; and “The Complete Audubon,” featuring sets of prints by nature artist John James Audubon.