Florida Keys News
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Museum makeover
Custom House ready to show off renovations

In a glass case in a room on the second floor of the Custom House Museum sits a powerful reminder of the size of the explosion that sank the U.S.S. Maine battleship on Feb. 15, 1898 in Havana Harbor.

Cutlery used by the crew had been fused into a jumble of twisted metal, like a metallic pretzel by the force of the blast.

It's among the numerous relics from the infamous incident that led to the Spanish-American War housed at the Front Street museum, but it somehow escaped the notice of employee Gerri Sidoti for 14 years.

"Gerri asked us where that piece came from," remembered Cori Convertito , the curator of the Key West Art & Historical Society, which oversees the Custom House, Lighthouse & Keepers Quarters, and Fort East Martello museums. "I told her, it's been here the whole time. I guess it just didn't jump out of the case like it should have. In fact, there were a lot of things that we felt could be presented more prominently."

With that thought in mind, Convertito and her boss, KWAHS Executive Director Michael Guida, have undertaken a makeover of the storied Richardsonian Romanesque building that includes a reorganization of part of the existing collection, as well as a number of new pieces.

The results of their efforts will be unveiled to the public at a wine and cheese gathering taking place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The public is invited to attend the event, which will feature wines selected by Mark Gambuzzo of the Uva Gourmet Shoppe, and cheeses presented by Three Fine Cooks Full Service Catering.

The improvements to the museum begin at the grand staircase to the upper floors.

A collection of 59 pen-and-ink sketches drawn by famed maritime artist Guy Harvey, depicting scenes from The Old Man and the Sea, adorn the walls of the stairwell, on loan from Dave and Cheryl Copham, who also arranged the Hem statue at the foot of the stairs. The sketches are finely detailed, reflecting Harvey's fascination with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and helped launch Harvey's career.

The sketches will be illuminated by all new, energy-efficient lighting.

On the second floor, two rooms have been renovated and reorganized from top to bottom.

In the former Wilhelmina Harvey Gallery, temporary walls have been removed, the wood floors refinished, and fresh paint has been applied to the walls. The theme of the gallery is now the Civil War, and features Confederate currency, weapons, uniforms and more.

"It's three times larger without all of the fake walls," Convertito said. "Part of the renovation has been exposing the building, including the fireplace, which had been blocked up until now."

Across the hall, another gallery has been revamped to pay tribute to the Maine.

"This gallery had been just a mishmash of stuff," Executive Director Guida said. "There was no cohesive narrative. Though the room is dominated by the near six-foot detailed model of the Maine that Howard England built and donated to the museum in 1985, other objects, such as the twisted tableware Sidoti just noticed, have been reorganized and placed where they'll make the maximum impact on museum visitors.

"Cori just has a real knack for bringing things to the fore," said Sidoti, who serves as the KWAHS's director of programs and membership. "She really makes objects just jump out of their cases."

In addition to the reorganization and renovations, each pane of glass on the second story has been sent to the mainland for refurbishment in a painstaking process that has taken months.

Despite Wednesday's event, both Guida and Convertito concede that the changes will never really end at the building, as they rotate existing exhibits, and make room for new ones.

"We don't get rid of anything," the curator said. "We have seasonal people, and full-time local people, so we try to keep things fresh."

Space is being made among the administrative offices on the third floor for a research and learning center, which will provide a permanent home for the VIP Lecture Series, and for visiting school groups.

"It's always going to be a bit of a work in progress," Guida said. "We have a number of other renovation projects planned for the next few years. We're very excited to be taking the museum in a new direction."


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