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COCA Spotlight: Michelle Hearn “Florida dreams make history as museum turns 40”

By: Amanda Sieradzki, COCA | May 21, 2018

Florida has always been good to Michelle Hearn. Though originally from Arkansas, she’s called Tallahassee home for nearly a decade and currently works as senior curator for the Museum of Florida History.

She holds a soft spot for the Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg area in particular as that’s where she frequently visited her grandparents. As an avid hiker and scuba diver, Florida’s natural beauty and cultural centers capture Hearn’s interest and ignite her passion for the state’s extensive history.

Florida’s history often gets obscured by the tourist industry’s campaigns that tout the state’s top beaches and one beloved cartoon mouse. A mixing place for many cultures, Hearn points out that native Floridians can be few and far between. Many transplants that have sought and found their Florida dreams might not have much knowledge about the state’s sprawling, swampy, stunning past.

“I’ve been working on [Florida history] for eight years now, and it’s still like drinking from a fire hose,” laughs Hearn. “It’s a very important task, to preserve Florida’s history and culture. It has the longest history of any state in America and that’s something that should be cherished and tied together.”

Hearn says that’s one of the main goals behind the museum’s newest exhibit, “Living the Dream — Twentieth-Century Florida,” which addresses the remarkable changes the state has undergone in the past 100 years. It also serves as a celebration for the museum’s 40th anniversary, highlighting as many artifacts as possible from their collection of over 45,000 pieces. Research for the exhibit was an especially enjoyable process for Hearn, who loves diving into 20th century history.

Whereas some historians tend to become insular in their practice, Hearn uses her training as an anthropologist to ask questions and participate with others to provide interactive elements inside her exhibits. She believes her background in anthropology allows her to better engage with the community, and she will often mix genres to include art, film, music, artifacts, and immersive elements in her exhibits. “Young children remember the impression of the place when they have that immersive experience,” says Hearn. “It brings them back later in life to the museum so they can share those experiences. We have people who came here as a kid come back to share that with their children and that’s a lovely thing.”

Hearn still recalls the wide-eyed wonder she felt walking through Oklahoma’s Phillbrook Museum of Art and its palatial gardens as a young child. While earning her second master’s degree in New York City, that feeling carried over as she explored museumsafterhours and soaked in lectures from curators. Now in her current role behind the scenes, her goals are to capture that same sense of awe while addressing multiple learning styles.

In the most recent civil rights exhibit, Hearn and her team recreated a lunch counter where visitors could “sit-in,” pick up a phone, and listen to audio recordings of different Floridians talking about their experiences during the era. She explains how this gave people a chance to sit down and break away from reading panels in order to reflect on the stories.

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