“It’s a Miami Thing” at HistoryMiami Celebrates the City's 125th Anniversary

A vintage sign from Burdines department store.
A vintage sign from Burdines department store. Photo courtesy of HistoryMiami
Blank walls make up the second floor of the HistoryMiami Museum. Soon, these walls will be covered in fresh paint and drenched with so much Miami history you’ll need to block off a few hours for a visit.

Opening Thursday, July 29, is the museum’s latest exhibition, “It’s a Miami Thing,” which honors the city's 125th anniversary.

What makes this particular exhibit unique is that it features some never-before-seen artifacts and items from its permanent collection that have not been displayed in this magnitude. Also, rather than a sole curator, the museum's staff put together the exhibition, making it a truly collaborative effort.

Michael Knoll, the museum's director of curatorial affairs and chief curator, walks the space and motions to the bare platforms as he describes what will soon be displayed. As he waves his hands, it’s almost as if he’s holding a magic wand, and it’s easy to envision the rich history he speaks of. His voice echoes into the empty space, building image after image with every word.

“We have an ongoing show downstairs that showcases some of [these same Miami stories], but we’ve never done anything quite to this degree before,” he says.

“It’s a Miami Thing” will take over most of the second floor of the museum. As guests enter through the stairwell, they’ll see a magnificent sign that spells the exhibit's title. The five neon letters that spell Miami are actually part of the original Miami Theater marquee that hung on the side of the 777 International Mall on Flagler Street. HistoryMiami acquired the sign and had it refurbished, so it shines as brightly as it did in 1948.

Surrounding the large introductory piece is cases containing textile pieces and old archeological findings. One such piece is a sparkly yellow cape that once belonged to the famed Puerto Rican astrologer and pop-culture icon Walter Mercado — very much a Miami thing.

Directly behind this setup is the Burdines department store sign. This will be the first time the complete sign is on display. The recognizable singular blue B has been featured in a handful of exhibitions before.
click to enlarge Treasure from the Atocha shipwreck. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HISTORYMIAMI
Treasure from the Atocha shipwreck.
Photo courtesy of HistoryMiami
“Some of the things we’ll be exhibiting we don’t often get to exhibit,” Knoll says. “I like the idea that we’re able to bring more pieces out to tell more Miami stories and to give the public even more to connect with. It’s a nice feature of this exhibit.”

Throughout the exhibition, there are various sections, including a section dedicated to aviation — complete with a large Pan Am sign — and another platform featuring maritime objects, including a large airboat. Other areas are dedicated to journalism, folklife objects, and an almost-hidden archival section full of photographs, maps, and the like. Some pieces in this section are so old and fragile that they won’t be on display physically but rather via a projection on the wall. One of those pieces is an original map of the city circa 1905.

Knoll states the two main goals of the exhibition are to feature the highlights of the museum’s collection and inspire the community.

“The general point of our collections work is to build this collection — to build it, to care for it, and to make it accessible to the public,” he says. “We like to think of the [museum’s] collection as the community’s collection.”

Many of the pieces currently sitting on display or within one of the museum’s many storage facilities were actually donations from locals, like a large Farm Store cow sign that blew off the top of a storefront during Hurricane Andrew. It was gifted to the museum in 2017 — just in time for their "Hurricane Andrew: 25 Years Later" exhibition.
click to enlarge Tequesta artifacts - PHOTO COURTESY OF HISTORYMIAMI
Tequesta artifacts
Photo courtesy of HistoryMiami
After you’ve visited “It’s a Miami Thing,” you might realize you have a thing or two at home that may have some cultural or historical significance. HistoryMiami is always collecting and accepting donations. You can fill out a donation form online, and maybe one day, a little piece of your personal legacy will be on display for all of Miami to see.

Part of the exhibit includes an interactive portion where guests can video record their answer to the question, "What’s your Miami thing?" The responses will be automatically uploaded to the gallery and become an instant part of the exhibition.

A large part of this exhibition explores what makes Miami unique while also engaging with the community, Knoll explains.

“We’d like to think that by engaging with our history — engaging with the cultural traditions of our community and all those things that make Miami the place it is — that it will bring people together,” the curator adds.

“They will think about themselves, they will think about their stories in the community, they will think about stories of others in the community, they will connect around this place. And hopefully, that will engender a feeling of belonging in this place.”

"It’s a Miami Thing." Opens Thursday, July 29, and runs through Sunday, January 9, 2022, at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-1492; historymiami.org. Tickets cost $10.
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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.