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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014

Hill: Museum undergoing renaissance

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Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2014 at 12:41 PM

Many of us who have been around for a while remember the museum of history as a squat, ugly red-brick building on the approach to the Million Dollar Pier with limited display space – and not all that much to display besides the 3,000-year-old mummy and the two-headed calf.

So the “new” St. Petersburg Museum of History building, which opened on that same coveted piece of ground in the 1990s, was a marvel and a miracle even then.

That the “new” museum is undergoing a renaissance of sorts that includes making it a cultural and event center made this longtime St. Petersburg resident almost giddy.

Not only is the focus of the museum changing, its leadership changed, as well.

Rui Farias, a longtime museum volunteer and board member, became the facility’s executive director in October.

At this point, given the museum’s rocky finances over the past few years, the position is part time.

So Farias, who has managed nonprofits in the past and has been in public relations, will continue his current job teaching history at St. Petersburg High School — including the history of St. Petersburg — and coaching the school’s soccer team until the museum is on firmer economic ground.

“One step at a time,” says Farias. “Our focus is to change the focus.”

He is willing to do triple duty.

“This is my dream job,” said Farias, who grew up in St. Petersburg and began visiting the museum as a child.

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If you haven’t been to the museum ever or recently, you should go.

The setting is gorgeous. It’s on the water on the approach to the Pier overlooking the Renaissance Vinoy and its marina.

Just being inside the building, which houses a permanent collection that includes a replica of the Benoist airboat that made the world’s first commercial airline flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa on Jan. 1, 1914, provides a unique sense of place.

The permanent collection features artifacts and objects from the city’s long and colorful history.

It also houses Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, an exhibit of baseball memorabilia.

But its new temporary collection, a photographic journal, so to speak, of the American Soldier from the Civil War to the War in Iraq, is stunning.

The images depict danger and death, humor, grief, pain, beauty and camaraderie.

Even if you are squeamish, this touching display of 116 images spanning more than 150 years of war is a fabulous tribute to Americans who have and are serving their country, and it deserves a visit.

As it turns out — in an almost unbelievable twist of fate — one of the images shows an American soldier rescuing an abandoned Japanese baby on the island of Saipan in 1944. The GI is Cliff McCallum, the grandfather of Veronica Sitler, wife of museum director of education Nevin Sitler.

McCallum’s wife, Grace, first saw the picture at a pre-opening visit to the exhibit a week or so ago. The Sitlers have a clipping of that photo on their refrigerator.

Nevin, who has been at the museum for a number of years, says it isn’t uncommon for people to recognize relatives in photos there, but he concedes that Grace finding her husband on a museum wall was amazing.

The American Soldier exhibit runs through July 13. A new exhibit that will focus on the Spanish influence in Florida is scheduled to open in August.

La Florida commemorates the 500th anniversary of the landing of Juan Ponce de León in 1513.

For information about the museum and its exhibits and events, visit www.spmoh.com.

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