At some point during your residency in Northeast Florida, you’ve probably marveled at works by famous and upcoming artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art or Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens or oohed and aahed at dinosaur exhibits and planetarium shows at the Museum of Science and History. But have you come face to face with a 2,400-year old rug made out of cat hair — that is cursed? Or learned how to properly load gun powder into a Civil War-era musket?
Didn’t think so. Which is why I sought out some lesser-known museums in the area that may prove to be just as educational—and entertaining—to you and your family. And some even have gift shops!
Amelia Island Museum of History, Fernandina Beach
Mission: “To bring alive and preserve the area’s rich history, from Timucua Native American tribe to Spanish and French explorers, from the lawless spirit of pirates to the dignified air of Victorian-era residents…”
Permanent exhibits: Civil War and the Florida Railroad, Spanish missions of La Florida, Timucuan Village
What you might learn: David Levy Yulee, an Amelia Island lawyer, was Florida’s first U.S. senator and the country’s first Jewish senator.
Beaches Museum and History Park, Jacksonville Beach
Mission: “Dedicated solely to preserving the history and heritage of Florida’s First Coast beach communities including Mayport, Atlantic, Neptune, Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra beaches and historic Palm Coast”
Permanent exhibits: a 28-ton 1911 steam locomotive, the Heritage Garden and extensive photo archives
What you might learn: Some historians believe the first permanent, year-round Native American settlement in North America was located in the area now known as Atlantic Beach in 3570 BCE.
Florida Agriculture Museum, Palm Coast
Mission: “Preserving Florida’s agricultural past and [encouraging] conservation of heritage livestock including rare Florida Cracker cattle and horses”
Permanent exhibits: original pioneer homestead, Caldwell Dairy Barn, Black Cowboys exhibit
What you might learn: How to shell corn and hunt for eggs—and if pigs really are happier in mud
Hands-on Children’s Museum
Mission: “Promote hands-on participatory learning… through observation, inquiry, creative construction, role-playing, problem-solving and free play”
Permanent exhibits: little veterinarians, puppet stage and wheelchair basketball
What you might learn: Working a supermarket (in this case the “Lil’ Winn-Dixie”) might not be as fun as your child thought.
Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum
Mission: “[To preserve and share] the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscripts and documents”
Rotating exhibits: the original draft of The Bill of Rights, Webster’s Dictionary, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
What you might learn (assuming your brain doesn’t explode): ds2 = g11dx2 + 2 g11 g22 dx dy + g22 dy2
Jacksonville Fire Museum
Mission: “Serves as an educational link between Jacksonville’s past and present and about the rich history of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department”
Permanent exhibits: photos from the Great Fire of 1901, a fully-restored 1902 American LaFrance horse-drawn fire engine and a working 1926 American LaFrance fire engine
What you might learn: The Great Fire of 1901 is still the largest metropolitan fire to ever occur in the South.
Jacksonville Maritime Museum
Mission: “To preserve and interpret the maritime history of Jacksonville and the First Coast in order to foster among all residents and visitors a deeper appreciation of our maritime heritage”
Permanent exhibits: a 15-foot model of the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier, diorama of the ill-fated (in other words, it sunk) Civil War transport ship the Maple Leaf and a collection of maritime-related artifacts
What you might learn: The USS Constitution (aka “Old Ironsides”) visited Jacksonville in 1931 and is the oldest U.S. Navy warship to date.
Lyons Maritime Museum, St. Augustine
Mission: “[To display what is] very likely the largest deep sea diving collection of its kind on this planet. Could there be another larger collection out there in the galaxy???”
Permanent exhibits: thousands of diving helmets, diving knives, underwater flashlights, chest weights — just about anything you would need to explore the deep
What you will definitely learn: Owner/curator Leon Lyons really, really likes diving helmets.
Mandarin Museum & Historical Society
Mission: To share the stories of Mandarin’s history, culture and natural resources by providing engaging programs that educate, entertain and inspire”
Permanent exhibits: historic Mandarin store and post office, restored homestead site and coming in January 2015, the oldest one-room school house in Duval County
What you might learn: Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, made Mandarin her winter home in 1867.
Military Museum of North Florida, Green Cove Springs
Mission: “The preservation and respectful presentation of the rich military history of our citizen servicemen and women in order to honor their sacrifices to maintain our freedom”
Permanent exhibits: service vehicles from all branches including a LARC-LX 60-ton amphibious military vehicle used in Vietnam, WWII memorabilia and German SS articles
What you might learn: In 1940, the U.S. Navy opened a naval station in Green Cove Springs. After the war, it was downgraded to a Navy Aviation Auxiliary Station where it housed a “mothball fleet” of hundreds of Navy vessels.
Museum of Southern History
Mission: “To maintain and perpetuate an educational facility for those who are interested in the history of the United States, its early problems and difficulties in becoming the Nation it is today”
Permanent exhibits: original revolver carried by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and one of only three flags in existence to have adorned the casket of President Abraham Lincoln
What you might learn: There were approximately 170 battles and skirmishes fought in Florida during the Civil War.
North Florida Railway Museum, Green Cove Springs
Mission: “To preserve, restore and display the vast railroad history of North Florida … and promote railroad safety”
Permanent displays: railroad cars, equipment, models, photographs and research materials
What you might learn: The first railroad trains arrived in Florida in the 1860s with a line running between Fernandina Beach and Cedar Key.
The Ritz Theatre & Museum
Mission: “To research, record and preserve … the many facets of African-American life in Northeast Florida that make up the historical and cultural legacy of this community”
Permanent exhibits: vignettes recreating scenes of everyday life in Jacksonville during segregation; and an animatronic, mixed media presentation that tells the story of James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, who composed “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”
What you might learn: James Weldon was the first African-American in Duval County to seek admission to the state bar and one of the first African-American professors at New York University.
Villa Zorayda Museum, St. Augustine
Mission: “Providing an in-depth look at the historical significance of the Moorish Spanish revival style of architecture to St. Augustine and showcase unique antiquities”
Permanent exhibits: the Sultan’s Den and the Sacred Cat Rug, more than 2,400 years old and made from the fur of cats that roamed the Nile River in Ancient Egypt
What you might learn: Supposedly, anyone who walks on the rug will be cursed. Also, don’t even try taking a picture of it. Seriously. Don’t.