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Magnificent to Macabre
Exploring the museums of St. Petersburg

By Kimberly Button

When it’s time for a break from the sun and sand, the city’s myriad art and cultural museums beckon

Situated on a peninsula embraced by the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg, Florida’s claim to fame has always been its sunny weather – an average of 361 days of sunshine each year – and pristine beaches. In fact, two of the area’s beaches have been named “America’s Best Beach” by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, known as “Dr. Beach,” in 2005 and 2008, and second-place honors in 2006 and 2007. So, if you’re searching for sunshine and sand, St. Petersburg should definitely be at the top of your destination list.

With so much national attention focused on the beautiful beaches of the Pinellas Peninsula, home to the city of St. Petersburg and 25 other communities and just 30 minutes from Tampa, it’s easy to lose sight of the world-class arts and cultural activities that are also available to visitors. However, the city’s seven museums are cultural gems not to be missed. From art and aviation to history and scientific mysteries, the city’s museums surprisingly boast a wealth of unique displays seldom seen in many parts of the United States, much less the world.

Artworks of the Masters

Perhaps one of the museums most often associated with St. Petersburg is the Salvador Dali Museum, home to the most comprehensive collection of the artist’s works in the world. Born in Spain in 1904, Dali quickly achieved worldwide fame as a leader of the Surrealist movement, an artistic style that began in the early 1920s and is characterized by fantastic imagery and strange juxtapositions of subject matter. Indeed, prepare yourself for a surreal art experience at the Salvador Dali Museum. Here, you won’t find the standard self-portraits and landscapes that you might be used to in many art galleries. Instead, the museum’s vast collection of art will challenge your mind and your way of looking at everyday common objects. From strategically placed cherries that create the portrait of Dali’s brother, to fish that seem to be shooting bullets from their fins, Dali’s artwork is truly a workout for the brain. Though you can easily view the art throughout the museum on your own, it is highly advisable to enjoy a free, guided tour in which your docent can explain the symbolism behind objects in Dali’s artwork, and perhaps offer a better explanation of the meaning behind the imaginative pieces.

While the Salvador Dali Museum is rich with abstract and surreal  artworks that push the boundaries of imagination, more traditional masterpieces from the ages can be discovered at the Museum of Fine Arts. Located on the waterfront, this spacious museum offers captivating views overlooking the bay outside, as well as breathtaking views inside. You’ll find artworks by such masters as Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth. The Museum’s 24 galleries and gardens showcase a small sampling of its more than 4,600 objects, which include pieces representative of Greek, Roman, Asian, African and Native American art, as well as artwork from well-known French and American artists. A separate gallery displays photographs and works on paper that contrast the sculpture and paintings found throughout most of the museum.

Visit With History

Just across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, you can tour the collections of the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Chronicling the history of St. Petersburg and the Pinellas Peninsula, the Museum of History was the first museum to open there and is the third oldest in the state. Rotating exhibits focus on varied themes, such as a recent exhibit of Princess Diana’s dresses and a look into the scientific world of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One exhibit that will always remain, though, is the First Flight Gallery, which displays artifacts from the world’s first scheduled commercial airline flight that departed St. Petersburg on Jan. 1, 1914, for its journey to nearby Tampa. A replica of the Benoist, the commercial airliner that made the historic journey, is just one piece of the museum’s surprisingly eccentric collection of artifacts, which also include an authentic Egyptian mummy and a two-headed calf.

Another St. Petersburg museum with an intriguing array of rotating exhibits is the Florida International Museum. As an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Florida International Museum routinely hosts artifacts from the Smithsonian as well as traveling national and international exhibitions that afford visitors the opportunity to witness world-renowned treasures, sometimes on view for the first time in the United States or for a very limited American engagement. Previous exhibits have included Vatican Splendors, a collection of the Vatican’s art and historical objects; Ink and Blood: Sacred Treasures of the Bible, which featured Dead Sea Scroll fragments; and Russian Odyssey: Riches of the State Russian Museum, with artifacts from more than 800 years of Russian history.

The Museum of Fine Arts, the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the Florida International Museum are all within easy walking distance of one of the city’s most popular attractions, the St. Petersburg Pier – more simply known as The Pier. Located at the end of a 1⁄4-mile-long approach that stretches out into Tampa Bay, the five-story, inverted-pyramid-shape building is one of the area’s most famous landmarks. Within the pyramid are a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as The Pier Aquarium, a private marine education center with 11 tanks of sea life. An observation deck on the top level rewards visitors with stunning views of Tampa Bay. For those who would enjoy a more up-close and personal experience in the bay, fishing is plentiful and encouraged along the approach to The Pier, and boats are available for rent. A festive, community atmosphere constantly prevails with The Pier’s free weekly music concerts, dances and family entertainment programs.

All Around Town

An easy way to enjoy the downtown museums and The Pier is to take advantage of the Looper. This downtown trolley system costs only a quarter and provides transportation from The Pier, as well as the Salvador Dali Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the St. Petersburg Museum of History, the Florida International Museum and the Florida Holocaust Museum, also located in the downtown area.

Walter Loebenberg, a St. Petersburg businessman who escaped Germany during the Nazi regime, founded the Florida Holocaust Museum. With determination to tell the story of the Holocaust to those who were fortunate enough not to have endured this dark period of history, Loebenberg and fellow community leaders banded together to acquire artifacts and other materials that document the murder of nearly 6 million Jews by the Nazis. The central exhibit in the museum is a boxcar, one of only a few that can be seen in the United States that was used by the Nazis to transport Jews and other prisoners to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau. Resting on original train tracks from the Treblinka Killing Center, the vehicle is a chilling reminder of the cruelty of the Holocaust.

Further outside of the downtown area is the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, named after the father of Black History Month. The museum presents the history of African Americans living in the St. Petersburg area and portrays their roles in local, regional and national history.

If your guests include little ones, they’ll appreciate a place where they can play, make noise and touch the exhibits, so head on over to Great Explorations. Kids can climb aboard a fire engine, practice being a vet and have fun on a climbing wall, just some of countless ways Great Explorations teaches kids about science and the world around them in a fun-to-learn way.

With so many cultural treasures hidden in the museums of this waterfront city, it might be difficult to decide whether to spend an enlightening day exploring museums or a relaxing day sunning on the beach. The good news, though, is that you have plenty of choices in St. Petersburg.