Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Key West during the Civil War

Print of Fort Taylor, Key West. From Frank Leslie's Magazine, 1861.
Image no. 1998-413-1.

2011 is the sesquicentennial year of the start of the Civil War (150 years ago). Hostilities began April 12, so expect this anniversary to be in the news for the next few weeks and years.

Florida joined the Confederacy, but its largest and wealthiest city, Key West, remained under federal control, a situation that affected all of South Florida throughout the war. Southern sympathizer Jefferson Brown described the situation in his book, Key West: the Old and the New, first published in 1912:

“The election of Abraham Lincoln … stirred up the people of Key West, in common with the rest of the Southland. The cultivated and wealthy citizens were nearly all strongly pro-Southern. …

“The succession of South Carolina was soon followed by a proclamation from the Governor of Florida for a convention of the people to take into consideration the present and future relations of Florida towards a Federal Union, which brought our people to the question of succession or submission.

“A meeting was held … for the purpose of nominating delegates to the State convention to assemble in Tallahassee … for the object of taking into consideration the dangers to this State in remaining in the Federal Union. … [Three] pronounced secessionists were elected by an almost unanimous vote. …
“[Soon thereafter Federal army] Captain [James M.] Brannan on the night of the 13th of January, while the city slept, marched his entire command from the barracks to Fort Taylor, and took possession of it. …

"Key West, the most strategic point within the Southern Confederacy, being in the hands of the Federal government during the entire war and used as a naval base, was one of the determining factors in the result of the War between the States. The sentiment of Key West was strongly Southern, but with the fortifications in possession of the Federal troops, and no military organization here sufficient to wrest this control from them, the secessionists were deterred from taking any active steps to capture them. …

“Facts were distorted or manufactured to curry favor with the Federal army officers. One instance of this was when a young scion of a distinguished family was given a small toy pistol, from which a cork was driven out by compressed air, with a loud ‘pop.’ It happened to be about the time that news of a Confederate victory reached Key West, and Union sympathizers carried the report to the Federal commanding officer that Mr. ----, a rebel, was celebrating the Confederate victory by a champagne party, and that the popping of champagne corks could be plainly heard.”

-- Rebecca A. Smith, Head, Special Collections

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Miami Stories

Porter at FEC Railway station in downtown Miami, Fla., 1957.
Charles Trainor, photographer. Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami, 1995-277-9470.

A little over a year ago I moved to Miami. I moved for an opportunity to work at HistoryMiami, and quickly settled into life as a South Floridian. One of the first questions people ask me when I comment on my recent relocation is why I moved to Miami. I then proceed to tell my story, and the discussion turns to my life here in Miami.

This last year I was in search of a museum education job somewhere in the nation. So I applied to museums around the nation that were hiring. HistoryMiami was one of the museums at which I interviewed. In February of 2010 I received a call from the Education Manager here at HistoryMiami informing me that I had a job as an educator if I wanted it. It was just a part-time position, but it was in the field I wanted to work in.

I have always been what I call a wondering spirit, not staying in one city for too long. I thought the move to Miami would be a great adventure, so I told the museum I would take the job. At the end of February I packed up my car, left Alabama and headed south. On March first I started here at HistoryMiami and have been here ever since. My gamble has paid off, for now I am the School Programs Manager at the museum.

Every family has a story about coming to Miami. Now you have read my story, what is yours? It may be you are a recent arrival, like me, or a generations-long resident, but there is still a story.

Here at HistoryMiami we have teamed up with the Miami Herald to collect Miami Stories. To read these stories go to

If you are interested in telling your story, please share it with us. Contact HistoryMiami at or call Sarah at 305-375-1492.

-- Sarah Coles, School Programs Manager

Monday, November 15, 2010

It Still Works!

“They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase plenty of times. Things break all the time, and it never seems like whatever just broke worked for long enough before needing to be replaced. Nowadays, that phrase tends to be accompanied by a derision of Chinese-made products since factories in that country make so many of the goods that American consumers purchase.

At the museum, we have loads of mechanical artifacts – machines, if you will. We rarely make any attempt at operating them since knowing they work rarely improves their ability to be conserved or displayed and trying to force an item might break it.

While going through a portion of Pan Am section of our aviation collection, I came across a machine that let me know it still worked without me having to do anything. The solar calculator pictured above came to life and soon as I flipped open the cover to see what was inside. Sure enough, it still works perfectly, adding and dividing whatever numbers I asked of it, despite having been in the collection for fifteen years.

On the back the calculator proudly states that it was made in Hong Kong.

-- Robert Harkins, Assistant Curator

Monday, July 26, 2010

Video Games in a Museum?

At lunch the other day, the chief curator and I were kicking around the idea of a video game exhibition. As an avid gamer and a curator, this was a topic I had spent some time daydreaming about. To have her bring up the topic … well, let’s just say I was geeking out a little.

We both had a moment where we were lamenting that there weren’t more connections to video games in South Florida, so we were discussing Ms. Pacman arcade cabinets and Nintendo Wiis. Then, as we dug deeper in our discussion, we realized there are connections. IBM built their first PCs in Boca Raton. She informed me that she used to work for the studio that created Cabela’s Big Game Hunter, which was based in Greater Miami. Legendary arcade gamer Billy Mitchell calls Hollywood home. There are plenty of games that are set in Miami, from Miami Vice tie-ins to DRIV3R to the barely-fictionalized Vice City of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Writing this has gotten me excited about all of the possibilities. What do you think of this idea? Is there a South Florida connection to video games that I missed?

-- Robert Harkins, Assistant Curator

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

America's Most Wanted

As with many exhibits, the materials in Crime in Miami came from a variety of sources. Most of the artifacts and photographs are from HistoryMiami’s collection, but there are also a variety that come from law enforcement agencies and private individuals.

One portion of the exhibition that did not come from our collection is a video that features Samantha Steinberg, a forensic artist who works for the Miami-Dade Police Department, showing how she creates an age progression. The age progression, which is featured in the “Forensic Art” section of the exhibition, is of Gustavo Falcon, an alleged drug kingpin from the 1980s who was never apprehended.

The video came to be a part of the exhibition because of the television show America’s Most Wanted. AMW featured Gustavo back in 2008. The goal of the show, of course, is to encourage private citizens to help law enforcement locate fugitive criminals. Since the most recent photograph of Gustavo was from 1990, Samantha was enlisted to give viewers a better idea of what he would look like almost twenty years later.

After locating the video on the website of America’s Most Wanted, I contacted them to see if they would provide us with a copy. As with any organization that is unfamiliar, it took me some time to locate the people who were able and willing to help. There were many phone calls and a number of e-mails, but I found people with a passion for what they do in the form of the Miami-based producer and the folks at the D.C. headquarters, including a lawyer who authorized the use of the footage, technicians who located the master file and burned it to a disc, and the administrative assistant who coordinated it all.

When all was said and done, I had the finished product in my hands about a week and a half before the exhibition opened. It was a bit tight, but into Crime in Miami it went. Getting the disc to play the way we wanted in the space we already had was a task, but that’s a story for another time.

If you want to see the footage, check out the Gustavo Falcon fugitive brief on the America’s Most Wanted website: (click on the “Media” tab). Maybe you’ll see something that will help to bring in the last of the Cocaine Cowboys.

-- Robert Harkins

Monday, June 14, 2010

Out with the Old, in with the New!

The Education Department at HistoryMiami has had the pleasure of working in the community for decades. We service a wide array of students, from ages 4 through the collegiate level. Our programs engage students in as many subject areas as we can, while sticking to our mission to educate people about South Florida history. This summer, we will officially scrap most of the programs we have and roll out a new, sophisticated, inter-disciplinary and highly interactive series of programs.

The menu for our programs once looked like an “all you can eat buffet,” and has slowly been whittled down to an a la carte list of options. The curriculum team has lately been looking at our galleries through new lenses. This reassessment, coupled with input from teachers we surveyed for the last two years, enabled the team to come up with seven new programs. We are thrilled to introduce just a few to you.

Our new Architecture: We Built this City program takes students through different techniques and tools used for the last 10,000 years in South Florida. The tour also hits the streets of downtown Miami for a first-hand look at the Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival styles for which our city is world renowned.

Technological progress presents new possibilities and problems. Did the Tequesta people have technology 10,000 years ago? Of course they did! The Technology through Time program encourages students to look creatively at tools from the Miami Circle tools from the Miami Circle archaeological site, and hypothesize how the dredges, famously put to work in the Everglades, drained our wetlands and make space for people.

Lastly, we have all come to Make Miami Home, and our new program with the same name looks at the different people who have done this over time. Were you born in South Florida? How about your grandparents? Chances are your family came here from somewhere else for one reason or another. People migrate for a variety of different reasons, and we will connect students to their family stories.

The curriculum team will spend the summer perfecting titles for the programs, inventing and crafting different hands-on projects and writing scripts for our Educators to use. Teachers may begin booking these new programs in September 2010.

-- Jenna Vaisman, School Programs Manager

Friday, May 21, 2010

Go Team Audio Tour

A three-person team, including myself, has been working for more than six months of putting together an audio tour of Tropical Dreams, the permanent exhibition at the Museum of HistoryMiami (formerly the Historical Museum of Southern Florida). The exhibition chronicles the history of South Florida, beginning with Miami’s prehistoric inhabitants and ending with the region’s growth into a modern metropolis.

We just completed our second draft of the script, which has about fifteen stops, some of which are serious, while others are a bit more light-hearted. We’ll be testing the script out over the next few weeks, so if you visit the museum, you may hear us reading portions of it in the gallery. We might even ask you to listen and give us your thoughts!

-- Robert Harkins, Assisstant Curator