You can almost see the quiet as the lone figure poles the dugout through glassy water as a great egret stalks the shallows. The schooner “Falcon” is moored in front of a two-story frame building, and its door, a man shouts a hale greeting, breaking the silence
A history-versed viewer’s mind can fill in the blanks. The man in the canoe is an Indian, heading in to Marco Island to do some trading. And with W.D. Collier, Marco Fla. painted across building's second story, the waving, mustachioed man waving him in may well be Captain Bill himself.
It’s easy to get lost in Jarrett Stinchcomb’s “Pioneer Dreams” and its collection of whitewashed waterfront buildings that seem to beckon the viewer ashore – and that’s by design.
Stinchcomb’s painting is one more than 20 depicting Marco Island’s past, part of the Marco Island Historical Museum’s new outside exhibit, Windows & Doors to History. Its vividly panels — 20 faux windows, three faux doors, and a three-part column — encompass more than 6,000 years of island history.
Artists John Agnew, Paul Arsenault, Merald Clark, Muffy Clark Gill, Tara O’Neill, Jarrett Stinchcomb and Malenda Trick created original works, which were then seamlessly reproduced on aluminum panels designed to withstand Southwest Florida’s climate that wrap around the museum’s exterior.
The outdoor gallery officially opens to the public Feb. 18, but most of the works, which span the Pleistocene to modern times, are already visible, and already drawing raves from visitors.
“Awesome,” was the first word Michigan snowbird Tom Hawkins came up with, “and I don’t use the term lightly,” the retired engineer said. “You can really immerse yourself in the past, really see what life was like here on the island,” added his wife, Cookie. “I think they did a great job.”
Their favorite? The couple had trouble deciding. “I love the ones from the ‘50s,” Cookie said of the panels featuring chic, short-skirted stewardesses, mid-mod architecture and dressed-down golfers.
The exhibit also includes larger-than-life portraits of island pioneers and luminaries, including Trick’s painting of archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, to whom Tom said he was drawn. Cookie also loved “The Pineapple King,” which shows a couple in a horse-drawn wagon trotting through the island’s long-ago farm fields as workers gather the spiky fruit under a summer sky.
In the end, though, the couple settled on Merald Clark’s “Prey for Us,” which depicts ancient Indians shin-deep in the island’s turquoise water, gathering baskets full of shellfish as a stingray glides by.
“That kind of says it all — how people once depended on the coast for their livelihood,” Tom said. "And I just love the colors," said Cookie. "The beach still looks like that today, only the bathing suits are a little different." "Oh, I don't know," John quipped. "I've seen a few Germans in those loincloths."
Beyond being a fascinating walk through the island’s past, the new exhibit has a larger purpose as well. Museum patrons underwrote each piece with the fundraising goal of returning some of the island’s architectural treasures that are now housed in collections throughout the world — if only for a visit.
The scattered treasures include the carved wooden the Key Marco Cat, excavated in 1896 by Cushing’s team, which was working on Collier family property. Now held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian has twice allowed elegantly fashioned feline to revisit its island home, but it hasn’t been back in more than 15 years, and president Pat Rutledge would like to make that happen again.
But meeting the Smithsonian’s exacting requirements is a complicated and expensive process requiring the design and construction of a special, high-tech case to properly protect the sculpture.
The price tag will be at least $1 million, hence the museum’s ongoing fundraising. But Rutledge is confident that islanders and others will get behind the project as they have with other Historical Society ventures in the past.
“We raised $4 million in a down economy, and enjoy a truly unique relationship with the county,” Rutledge said. “The facility is the county’s, but we own all the artifacts and exhibits. It’s a truly unique partnership.”
That fundraising prowess is evident inside as well as out, where state-of-the-art exhibits immerse guests in island history. This fall, the museum opened its Pioneer Room, a 1,100-square-foot exhibit that’s the third permanent exhibit installed at the museum over the last two years.
Focusing on the early 20th century, when the island was a remote, unbridged frontier, the exhibit includes original pieces and reproductions fashioned with painstaking accuracy — down to pale streaks of bird poop on a brick Collier City sign, as Austin Bell, the museum’s curator of collections points out with a smile. “It’s a really authentic experience.”
The University of Florida-educated Bell was mentored by the university's Curator in Archaeology's Bill Marquardt, who's well-known for heading the Randell Research Center at Pineland, and has had an extraordinary impact on the museum, Rutledge says. "There's a level of professionalism that's just extraordinary."
Visitors can also sit in a wooden Cracker cabin to watch historic videos, get up close to a piece of a vintage clam dredge or electronically flip though the pages of a 14-year-old Saloma Old’s journal, which she began in 1913 and recorded details of pioneer life on the island with her family.
It’s all part of the overall goal, says Rutledge, of linking people past and present, “in a truly world-class facility.”
If you go
The Marco Island Historical Museum is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at 180 S. Heathwood Drive, Marco Island. Admission is free. Call 239-642-1440 or online: www.themihs.org.
About the Marco Island Historical Society
Founded in 1994 and headquartered at the Marco Island Historical Museum complex, the nonprofit is dedicated to the discovery, research, acquisition and preservation of the multi-faceted history of the Marco Island-Goodland region as well as to educating and informing the community and visitors about the area’s dynamic heritage.