A full-sized replica of a North Florida limestone cave and a 14-foot tall mammoth skeleton are only part of the allure of the largest collections-based natural history museum in the Southeast. With more than 25 million specimens, the museum has one of the nation's top 10 natural history collections.
photo: Eric Zamora, University of Florida/IFAS

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When bad weather makes you come up with Plan B, Florida's many museums offer a fascinating peek at different facets of our human history, natural history, local heritage and flavor.

By G.K. Sharman

We know why you came here. To soak up some sun. Get some sand in your shoes. Scream your head off on a theme park ride and take the kids' picture with a giant mouse. In short, to have fun. But afternoon downpours and blast-furnace temperatures - summer facts of life in the Sunshine State - aren't exactly conducive to outdoor activities.

Luckily, Florida has close to 400 places where you can stay dry and/or cool when the weather is uncooperative: museums.

Now just wait - Florida museums are not the not the stale, snooty, boring places that you had to be dragged to in school. They can pique your interest in a specialized subject or amuse the young ones. Some are serious about fine art, while others are just off the wall.

They're worth a visit on their own, not just as a place to escape raindrops. And they're cheap - many are free, some charge a buck or two and a rare few ask for a whopping $8 or $10 to get in.

We can't cover them all here, so we picked 15 of our favorites. A full list is available at www.flamuseums.org.

Let's start with a little art:

Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg
1000 Third St. South, St. Petersburg, Florida 33701
The museum is the permanent home of the world's most comprehensive collection of original works by Salvador Dalí. The collection includes 95 oil paintings and more than 100 watercolors and drawings as well as graphics, photographs, sculptures and objects d'art.

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota
5401 Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota, Florida 34243
Affiliated with Florida State University, this 66-acre estate is the largest museum/university complex in the nation. Ringling, of circus fame, was


one of the biggest tycoons of his day. The museum includes 21 galleries filled with art by European and American masters.

International Museum of Cartoon Art, Boca Raton
201 Plaza Real, Boca Raton 33432
Phone: (561) 391-2200
This is no laughing matter - this is the only museum of its kind and includes the work of cartoonists from more than 50 countries. The collection consists of more than 160,000 original drawings from every genre of cartooning, as well as more than 10,000 books on cartoons.

Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona Beach
1200 Int'l Speedway Blvd., Daytona Beach Daytona Beach, FL 32120
(386) 254-4475
Situated on the campus of Daytona Beach Community College, this 7,500-square-foot museum is a major national showcase for innovative photography exhibits and programs. It's one of fewer than a dozen such centers in the nation and the only one in the South. The museum also offers lectures, workshops, a library and a state-funded artist-in-residence program.

The Mennollo Museum of Art, Orlando
900 E. Princeton Street Orlando 32803
The Mennollo Museum of American Folk Art is one of a few museums in the US dedicated to collecting, exhibiting and preserving self-taught American art. The Museum features Florida folk artist Earl Cunningham and many other outstanding self-taught artists. The Museum is owned and operated by the City of Orlando.

History and culture:

Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden, Delray Beach
4000 Morikami Park Road Delray Beach 33446
(561) 495-0233
The Morikami is the only museum in the nation dedicated exclusively to the living culture of Japan. Its original building is modeled after a Japanese residence and chronicles the history of the Yamato Colony, an agricultural community of Japanese families in Boca Raton.

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, Clewiston
CR 833 & West Boundary Rd, Big Cypress Indian Res, Clewiston, FL 33440
(863) 902-1113
Meaning means "to learn" in the language of the Seminoles, this museum showcases the tribe's history, culture, daily habits, folklore, marriage customs and spiritual beliefs. Artifacts on display include moccasins and leggings, jewelry, medicine baskets, war-period swords and firearms and Seminole patchwork.

Jewish Museum of Florida, Miami Beach
301 Washington Avenue Miami Beach 33139
(305) 672-5044
Tells the story of Jews in Florida, from 1763 to the present. The museum is housed in a former synagogue that served Miami Beach's first congregation. Displays include more than 500 photos and artifacts.

Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum, Key West
200 Greene St., Key West, FL 33040
(305) 294-2633

The Spanish came to the New World seeking gold. Not all of the treasure that they (and other explorers) acquired ever made it back to Europe. Some of what sank to the sea floor in hurricanes between the late 15th and mid-18th centuries now rests in this Key West museum: Gold bars. More than 4,000 silver coins. A gold chalice. A 6-inch gold cross set with emeralds, along with swords, guns, pottery and personal effects.

John Gorrie State Museum, Apalachicola
46 Sixth Street, Apalachicola, FL 32329-0267
(850) 653-9347
No history of Florida would be complete without a museum honoring the father of refrigeration and air conditioning. A replica of his ice machine, built from the specs of his 1851 patent, is on display.

Natural history and science:

Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida campus, Gainesville
34th Street & Hull Road, U of FL (Powell Hall), Gainesville, FL 32611-2710
(352) 846-2000
This is the state's official natural history museum and the largest such museum in the Southeast. It's dedicated to preserving the region's biological diversity and cultural heritage and contains more than 25 million species of fauna, from mammals to mollusks, fish to invertebrate fossils.

Florida Aquarium, Tampa
701 Channelside Drive Tampa 33602
(813) 273-4000
This 152,000-square-foot aquarium follows a drop of water from its underground origin, through rivers and cypress swamps to mangrove forests, along coastal beaches and into the deep ocean. On display are more than 10,000 aquatic plants and animals.

Special interests, sports and other attractions:

Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, Sanibel
3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel, FL 33957-1580
(239) 395-2233
Serious scientists, school kids and shell enthusiasts all seek out this center of mollusk study. Some 150,000 shells from around the world - marine and terrestrial, modern and fossilized -make up the collection. A slide show on the biology of local mollusks is given four times a day.

International Game Fish Association Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, Dania Beach
300 Gulf Stream Way Dania Beach 33004
(954) 9924-4325

This place is a little fishy. The museum celebrates recreational angling with stories, world records, awards, art and fishing technology. Above it all soar mounted life-size world-record sport fish. The reel - um, I mean, real - message is about the importance of conserving and protecting aquatic resources.

Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, Ocala
13700 S.W. 16th Avenue Ocala, FL 34473
(352) 245-8661
This is a museum for folks who feel a need for speed. It tells the history of drag racing by preserving historic vehicles, honoring the sport's pioneers and developing a national archive and library of the sport.

International Swimming Hall of Fame, Fort Lauderdale
One Hall of Fame Drive Fort Lauderdale 33316
(954) 462-6536
Olympic memorabilia from more than 100 countries is part of the display at this non-for-profit educational center that honors swimming and aquatic history. In addition to exhibits, the center contains a training facility with a swimming flume, a pair of Olympic-sized pools and a diving well.