IF YOU GO
Marco Island Historical Museum
Where: 180 S. Heathwood Drive, Marco Island
Upcoming exhibition: “Against All Odds: The Florida Highwaymen,” an exhibit of art by a group of Africian-American Floridians. It opens in December.
Marco Island is more than a pretty place. This 24-square-mile Island is fraught with historical significance, although one wouldn’t know it by looking at the multi-million dollar homes, high-rise condos and posh hotels. All of that unique history may have been bulldozed and paved over with asphalt, in the name of development, had a group of history buffs not stepped in. Together, they formed the Marco Island Historical Society — and that group has helped build the Marco Island Historical Museum.
“We needed to preserve a part of Marco Island,” said Alan Sandlin, president of the Marco Island Historical Society (MIHS), explaining why the society was formed back in 1994. But the group’s mission slowly evolved into something grander, one to establish a “world-class museum.”
When you first walk in to the facility, visitors first see a group of volunteers behind the visitor’s desk, and, to the right a reminder of journalism past: a large lithograph machine, donated by the Naples News Media Group. The soft lighting, dark hard wood floors, open ceilings and muted walls are inviting — inviting visitors to explore the Island’s rich past.
Most Islanders are familiar with Deltona Corp, which developed modern-day Marco back in the 1960s, but earlier settlements date back to pre-Paleo Indian times, about 5,000 years ago.
“This area had a civilization that was permanent, non-agrarian,” said Sandlin, referring to the group who inhabited Horr’s Island (now named Key Marco). “The civilized Indians who came 5,000 years ago came here for the same reason we did … (They) never had to move, worry about crops, had a ready-made food source … easy living — that’s the link.”
Those Indians were among the area’s first settlers, and they had a permanent settlement here — one that couldn’t be ignored, said Sandlin.
But telling a past with such significance became a huge undertaking as plans for the new museum began to take shape by 2001. A joint venture was established between Collier County and MIHS, with the county providing the land and MIHS raising funds for the structure.
“Running a large museum was going to be difficult, which is why the county is involved,” said Sandlin, explaining that the county employs an on-site, full-time operations manager to open and close while MIHS volunteers serve as docents and to staff the reception desk and gift shop.
Building a museum
Since Marco Island was so “under-told,” MIHS focused on specific time periods — pre-Calusa, Calusa, pioneer and Deltona — to depict in the museum’s exhibits and surroundings. The museum’s first permanent exhibit, representing a Calusa Indian village, is yet to be built. Construction begins this fall, with completion about a year after. All funds have been raised to pay for its construction.
“It’ll knock your socks off,” said Sandlin, of the Calusa immersive exhibit, where museum-goers will walk through a replicated dugout canoe to enter a room with native sounds echoing throughout. “We’re creating a whole village with people, trees.”
The building itself pays homage to the Island’s history.
“Everything needed to be authentic,” said Sandlin, with no fine detail being overlooked, even down to masking some protruding metal joiners with period-styled ropes and creating thatched roofs that withstand fierce hurricane winds. After all that, the 15,500-square-foot facility cost about $4 million to build, and is valued at a little over $8 million with the land.
Key Marco cat
Possibly Marco’s most famous artifact is the Key Marco cat, which was unearthed in 1896 during an archaeological dig led by Frank Hamilton Cushing. The carved wooden feline/human figurine, believed to be a deity of some sort, is a main reason the museum was built in the first place, but the museum has a long road ahead before the “cat” will come home. It currently resides in storage at the Smithsonian Institution, which sponsored Cushing’s dig.
First, a high security, weather- and fire-proof vault was constructed to house the cat, with the design vetted by the Smithsonian. Second, the museum must receive accreditation from the American Association of Museums. The application is a lengthy, laborious process and is not guaranteed.
Because the Smithsonian won’t “loosely give away” the cat, as Sandlin says they were told, MIHS is hoping to house the artifact on permanent loan, offered Sandlin.
Representatives from the Smithsonian have already toured the facility, to inspect the vault. but at this time, Sandlin says it will take some political involvement, a letter-writing campaign by children to influence the Smithsonian to approve MIHS’s request for the cat.
Pioneers to Deltona
The Cushing dig helped shed some light on Indian life. So have Spanish reports on their voyages to Florida in the 1500s and 1600s. But the 19-century wave of pioneers were key to Marco’s development, with settlers finding creative new ways to live off the land. They developed commerce in fruit growing and fishing, especially for clams, with two major clam factories operating on Marco.
“Marco Island was the center of activity in this area” from 1880s to 1920s, explained Sandlin. “It was easier to get to Marco Island by boat than to Naples by car.”
Modern Marco development began when Deltona Corporation purchased it in 1964.
“Deltona was a great developer,” said Sandlin. “They had a great reputation.”
Lots were being sold even before the dredge-and-fill operation had begun, with approximately 25,000 people attending the open house of the new development.
More than a museum
The museum officially opened June 2010, without a permanent exhibit. That hasn’t stopped visitors from coming, however. Approximately 9,000 people have come to see traveling exhibits depicting Florida cattlemen, photography by Clyde Butcher and paintings of Florida’s “Lost Tribes” by Theodore Morris.
“We want to focus on something relating to Marco, to Florida, in different mediums like photography,” said Lisa Marciano, of the Collier County Museums. Marciano arranges such exhibits for the Marco Historical Museum. Opening receptions, author talks, movie showings and even theater productions are planned for future museum activities, to be held on museum grounds or inside the Rose History Auditorium. The 4,380-square-foot room seats 350 people and can be rented for parties, receptions or other gatherings.
And the museum gift shop is stocking up on Marco-centric gifts, such as fossilized jewelry, replicated Calusa masks and the Key Marco cat statuettes, jewelry and notecards.
“People expect the museum to be inside the building,” said Sandlin, “but the whole place, the grounds, too, is the museum.”