HistoryMiami Museum

Located three blocks from Miami’s epicenter—Flagler Street and Miami Avenue—and a five minute walk from Government Center Station, few places can claim to be so central to Miami, both in history and location. HistoryMiami Museum (HMM) is located on the second floor of a building designed by acclaimed architect Philip Johnson, that also houses the Main Library of the Miami-Dade Public Library System. The building itself is reminiscent of a fortified house with an internal courtyard—an appropriate style since it safeguards the knowledge and history of Miami.

101 West Flagler Street
Miami, FL 33130

The museum is located in the heart of  downtown Miami on the plaza level of the Miami-Dade Cultural Center, and is accessible by both public transportation and automobile. It is a five minute walk from the Government Center Station, and if visitors prefer to drive, they can park at the Miami-Dade Cultural Center Garage. Museum visitors can validate their parking ticket at the Visitor Services Desk to pay a flat fee of $5 for the whole day.

Admission Tickets are $10, however, students with valid ID get in for $8. HistoryMiami Museum also offers “FREE Family Fun Days” on the second Saturday of each month from 10am to 5pm. This allows the whole family to gain access to the museum and take part in activities for free.

This information is from March 2020. Please confirm prices and hours on the HistoryMiami Museum website.

FIU Honors at HistoryMiami (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

The HistoryMiami Museum does not shy away from the truth in its chronicle of Miami.  Its exhibits disclose the city’s dark history while also highlighting its bright moments. If one seeks to learn what Miami is, this is the place to find out.
According to its official mission, HHM “safeguards and shares Miami stories to foster learning, inspire a sense of place, and cultivate an engaged community. Through exhibitions, artistic endeavors, city tours, education, research, collections and publications, HistoryMiami Museum works to help everyone understand the importance of the past in shaping Miami’s future. HistoryMiami Museum connects people by telling the stories of Miami’s communities, individuals, places and events.” Paying special attention to the stories of those individuals that history tends to forget. 

HistoryMiami Museum was founded as the Historical Association of Southern Florida in 1940. It was first accredited in 1979 by the American Alliance of Museums, and since then it has become affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. It is the largest history museum in Florida and one of the largest in the southeastern United States. Its collection includes over 37,000 artifacts covering “everything from prehistoric archeological finds to 20th century Afro-Cuban folk art.”

Upon entering the North Building of the Museum, visitors are greeted by the exhibition “Miami, The Magic City” which explores, via photographs, the development of Miami. It begins on the western wall of the hall with photographs of early settlers on the side of an undeveloped dirt road and it culminates on the eastern wall with more contemporary photographs—effectively chronicling the history of Miami one photo at a time. 

The tour continues as visitors walk towards a hallway and up the stairs on their left. Atop the stairs, the deep-dive into the history of Miami truly begins. Told in chronological order, the museum’s core exhibition, Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida,  runs from the Pre-Columbian “First Arrivals” to what is now South Florida.

This section of the Museum is filled with artists’ renderings of what the natives’ early settlements may have looked like based on archeological evidence. Here, pay close attention to the original shell and bone tools as well as the replicas which attempt to show their intended uses and characteristics—all a product of both need and environment. Many of the tools exhibited at HMM were excavated at the Cutler Fossil Site at the Deering Estate. Bailly’s Deering Estate Lecture Notes includes photographs of the Cutler Fossil Site.

Following the corridor past a corner, visitors will find themselves in the section aptly named “Miami Circle.” This section is dedicated to Paleo-Indians with a specific focus on the Tequesta, a group of native people largely forgotten by history. If visitors are lucky—or if they ask in the information desk—they can interact with artifacts and replicas of tools used by the first settlers of South Florida and connect with their geographical ancestors in a profound and intimate manner. 

The Miami Circle (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

“In 1998 at a construction site on the Miami River in downtown Miami, archaeologists discovered the ‘Miami Circle.’ They found a circle of deep holes in the bedrock spanning 38 feet that dated back over 2,000 years ago. Based on artifacts found during the excavation, archaeologists believe the Tequesta built the structure for ceremonial or political purposes. The State of Florida and Miami-Dade County purchased the land, and archaeologists are still working to piece together the puzzle of the mysterious civilization that once called South Florida home.” HistoryMiami Official Website

Read the full National Register of Historic Places report on the Miami Circle.

“Archeologists found wooden implements, such as these, in both Archaic Period (7500 – 500 B.C) and Glades Period (500 B.C. – A.D. 1763) sites in southern Florida. They’ve been preserved by remaining buried in riverbanks, the Everglades, or other wet environments.
(left to right)
• Wooden implement, found on north bank of Miami River
• Wooden pestle, found on a tree island site in the Everglades
• Wooden implement, found while digging Collins Canal on Miami Beach”
HistoryMiami Official Website

Walking down a wide hall leads visitors to a section titled “International Rivalry.” As its name suggests, this exhibit covers the time period after the discovery of the Americas when different empires were vying over South Florida—waging battles either under their flag or via proxies such as buccaneers and pirates with letters of marque. This section has a wall covered in historical maps which show the accuracy with which Colonial explorers mapped out coastal lines, but how little they knew about the inland that they had not yet explored.

Shackles at HistoryMiami (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

On the eastern wall, make sure to read about Captain Francisco Menéndez who was born into slavery but managed to escape British South Carolina and found haven in Florida. There, he began serving the Spanish crown and eventually earned his freedom by proving his military might. “He was the leader of the garrison established in 1738 at Fort Mose, the first all-black community in North America, and was recognized by the Spanish crown for his loyalty and courage through the difficult sieges that followed” (Landers, 1999).

The next section, “The Creek Migration,” is easily distinguished by the large chickee. The Seminoles are descendants of the Creek. Under the canopy, visitors will find the heartbreaking story of how the Creek tribes were forced to leave their sacred lands and migrate south escaping genocide at the hands of the United States. Make sure to pay close attention to the erroneous and pejorative descriptions of the tribes by the colonizers at the time.

“Seminole history begins with bands of Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama who migrated to Florida in the 1700s. Conflicts with Europeans and other tribes caused them to seek new lands to live in peace. Groups of Lower Creeks moved to Florida to get away from the dominance of Upper Creeks. Some Creeks were searching for rich, new fields to plant corn, beans and other crops. For a while, Spain even encouraged these migrations to help provide a buffer between Florida and the British colonies. The 1770s is when Florida Indians collectively became known as Seminole, a name meaning ‘wild people’ or ‘runaway.'” Florida Department of State

The walk continues with the adjacent exhibit titled “Pioneer Life.” This section portrays the inception of Miami in a different light than what is often accepted as reality by Hollywood and many historians. Here visitors can see the struggles of the first northern settlers in Miami as well as their resourceful solutions. For the first homesteaders, the only way to reach South Florida was by boat—this meant they were isolated and left to their own devices. Notice the photograph near the house. The man pictured and his family knew nothing of the land they had moved into, but the natives had lived in it for generations. His best chance at survival was therefore to create a symbiotic relationship with the natives. Pay close attention to the picture and you will see his closest associate: a native who guided them to survival.

“Once a week a ship from Key West made its way to Miami for settlers to send their crops to market or travel to Key West for supplies. One of the cash crops the settlers sent to Key West was starch. The Seminoles taught the settlers how to extract the starch from the Comptie plant and sell it or use it for food. Many homesteaders had their own mule or hand powered comptie starch mill.” HistoryMiami Official Website

Past a narrow threshold walking westward, visitors will find themselves in the “New Peoples/New Technologies” exhibit, which illustrates the effects of the Second Industrial Revolution on Miami, highlighting the machines and technology that made development substantially easier and faster. Here you will learn about the colossal obstacles faced by those who contributed to Miami’s development as well as about key figures like Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler.

Here, tucked away in the midst of photographs of railway workers, is a list of 12 names. These were men who were essential making Miami a city. These black workers (12 of many) were allowed to vote exclusively to incorporate Miami as a city in 1896, and then they went back to routine oppression and disenfranchisement. In fact, out of the 367 men who voted to incorporate Miami, 162 of them were Black.

“Some of the black men credited by John Sewell as being the black pioneers of Miami, March 25, 1896. The twelve men (not in order) are identified as A. W. Brown, Phillip Bowman, Jim Hawkins, Warren Merridy, Richard Mangrom, Romeo Fashaw, Scipio Coleman, Sim Anderson, Davie Heartly, J. B. Brown, William Collier, and Joe Thompson. Sewell is shown at left, wearing vest. In this historic photo, the men, under Sewell’s orders, are destroying a Tequesta Indian burial mound to build the Royal Palm Hotel. The Tequestas inhabited south Florida for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s and the Seminoles more than two centuries later. By the time the Seminoles arrived, the Tequestas were virtually extinct. Courtesy Historical Museum of Southern Florida.” Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century (Florida History and Culture) (pp. 54-55). University Press of Florida. Kindle Edition.

Trolley Interior at HistoryMiami (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

In this section, visitors will find a 1920s trolley that was once used in the streets of Miami. Make sure to thoroughly examine it for a gut-wrenching reminder of human intolerance. This is one of the most impactful artifacts in the museum.

Segregation Sign at HistoryMiami (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

Following a narrow corridor showing World War II memorabilia, the room opens up into the “Gateway to the Americas” exhibit. Here, visitors will be exposed to many immigration stories of people who traveled to Miami seeking a better life. Most shockingly, however, are the makeshift boats that Cuban “balseros” and Haitians would embark on hoping to reach the United States. One can only imagine what it would be like sitting in these barely buoyant rafts for days, hoping to get to land. This room certainly brings into focus the idea of the United States as the melting pot of civilizations.

Rafts at HistoryMiami (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

One of the most famous, and influential in the history of Miami, waves of immigration was the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. “On April 20, he (Fidel Castro) opened the port of Mariel to all those who wished to leave the island and to anyone who wished to ferry discontented Cubans to Florida…Between April and September, 1980, South Florida bore the brunt of the tidal wave of refugees, which is estimated to have reached as high as 125,000. In the Miami area, social services, health services, schools, and law-enforcement authorities found their resources strained to the breaking point by the sudden influx.” Mariel Boatlift. By: Mageli, Paul D., Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2019

This is the last exhibition in this building, however, across the courtyard, in the South Building, there are often temporary exhibitions as well as supplemental materials to the main exhibits described above.


HistoryMiami Museum

Bojnansky, E. (2015). Keeper of the Past. Biscayne Times. Retrieved from http://www.biscaynetimes.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2023:keeper-of-the-past-

Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century (Florida History and Culture). University Press of Florida. Kindle Edition.

Landers, J. (1999). Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

John William Bailly & Marco Linares 31 March 2020

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