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Florida Museum of Natural History

Celebrating the Gainesville museum’s 100 years with a family visit

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By Stephen Kubiak

Memories of a museum

My earliest memory of the Florida Museum of Natural History was stopping there with my dad, who was getting his PhD at the University of Florida at the time. I spotted the dimly lit cave built into Dickinson Hall, the original home of the museum, and made a beeline for it. The museum instilled a thirst of discovery and exploration in me.

Since those days, the museum has outgrown Dickinson Hall, but its mission remains the same. Now celebrating its 100th year as the state’s official natural history museum, the Florida Museum of Natural History showcases the diverse natural history of Florida. Seeing as I enjoyed the museum as a kid, I thought my family would enjoy it as well. So my wife, myself and our three kids—6-year-old Tyler, 4-year-old Drew and 1 1/2-year-old Ava—piled into the van and headed down to Gainesville.

The museum is easy enough to find, located on the western edge of campus near Archer Road. Out front, a statue of two ants fighting was, of course, the first thing the kids wanted to see. They played by these metallic insects for a few minutes. They were already having fun and we hadn’t even gone inside the museum.

Smiling children on the welcoming ant statue at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. A display of shark jaws at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. The Florida Museum of Natural History’s previous home at Dickinson Hall in Gainesville.
Clockwise from left: The Kubiak kids at the Florida Museum of Natural History; Chompers belonging to sharks once found in the Florida’s waters; The Florida Museum of Natural History’s previous home at Dickinson Hall.

Tots & toads

This being a trip with the kids meant that we were going to follow them wherever they decided to take us. They quickly found the Discovery Room, which was designed with young children in mind. Inside, there were plenty of activities for them: drawers filled with fossils, building blocks, books and other interactive exhibits. As soon as we entered the room, all three children were on the floor playing with the blocks with such intensity that I thought they would be there all day.

We later learned that the museum would be opening a more permanent Discovery Zone in July 2017 and that it would feature many new interactive elements for the kids. Even better!

Two toads in the Frogs! A Chorus of Colors exhibit at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
Frogs and toads fill the room with a chorus of ribbits.

After spending some time exploring the Discovery Room, we decided to go next door and visit the new Frogs! A Chorus of Colors exhibit. While my wife wasn’t too keen on seeing the amphibians—this is a live exhibit, after all—she held my hand tightly and we ventured inside. I had never seen so many varieties of frogs and toads before—from a massive African bullfrog to bright neon poison dart frogs. Like a more natural version of “Where’s Waldo,” the kids would walk up and surround the glass enclosures where each amphibian was displayed and wouldn’t leave until they found the creatures. While the poison dart frogs in their bright neon blues and greens were easy to spot, some of the others took a little more effort to find. And while the live exhibits were well done, I was also quite impressed with all the informational placards and displays that provided more detail about frogs and toads.

The Florida Museum of Natural History’s previous home at Dickinson Hall in Gainesville; A fossil at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; Explore the Butterfly Rainforest at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; The Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; The Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
Clockwise from left: The Florida Museum of Natural History’s old exhibit space; Fossils of Florida; Wandering through the Butterfly Rainforest; The Florida Museum of Natural History’s new space;The state’s official natural history museum for more than 100 years.

It’s natural

Next, I wanted to show the kids something special, something from my childhood. I had heard that the museum added an artificial cave to the Northwest Florida: Waterways & Wildlife exhibit, similar to the one that was at Dickinson Hall. Inside the museum's atrium, a huge mastodon fossil stood guarding the exhibit's entrance. As soon as we walked into the exhibit, the walls seemed to melt away, transforming into lush forest surrounding a limestone cave. I don’t know who was more excited, me or the kids. The cavern was better than the one I remembered as it was much more elaborate—with bats hanging from the ceiling, a small crawlspace the kids could go through and information placards throughout that described the nomenclature and ecosystem of Florida dry caves. Having explored some of the caverns in North Florida before, the museum did an excellent job of recreating one.

Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land exhibit at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
Extinct animals come alive in the fossils exhibit.

One of the most impressive exhibits that we saw that day was Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land. The exhibit was chock full of fossils and bones representing millions of years of animals that once walked the earth. The room that housed the fossils was dark, allowing the bright white of the bones to shine though. The boys were most interested in the shark teeth, especially the chompers of the Megalodon, which is said to be the largest shark there ever was.

Butterfly on purple flower at the Butterfly Rainforest at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; Children and adults wander through the Butterfly Rainforest at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; Butterfly on green leaves at the Butterfly Rainforest at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; Moth on tree branch at the Butterfly Rainforest at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; Butterfly on red flowers at the Butterfly Rainforest at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville
Getting to know new fluttering friends in the Butterfly Rainforest.

Taking flight

The widely celebrated Butterfly Rainforest was our last stop. I think one of the reasons butterflies are so popular is that they’re one of the few insects that people are not afraid of. Even Tyler, who hates bugs, is okay with butterflies. They’re slow moving, colorful—basically floating works of living art. And if the butterfly is art, then the staff in the Rearing Lab, where we watched pupae being sorted and butterflies being raised, are like painters. We were about to see their artwork come alive. Before entering the rainforest, we passed the Wall of Wings, which was covered in thousands of butterfly specimens like you’d see on insect spreading boards—just like those ones I discovered in my childhood. I found the juxtaposition of these lifeless butterflies on display in contrast to what we were about to see curious. This was the evolution of the museum from death to life. Going forward into the Butterfly Rainforest, we walked into a living museum, a living exhibit.

Butterfly on red flower at the Butterfly Rainforest at Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville
The striking colors in the Butterfly Rainforest captivate all who enter.

Beyond the doors, we entered another world. That scene where Willy Wonka reveals the massive candy room to the children? That’s what this moment was, but with tropical trees and vibrant flowers, waterfalls and ponds, songbirds darting from the shrubbery and butterflies—butterflies everywhere. Butterflies clung to the walls, to the trees, to flowers, the ground and even people. Time seemed suspended as the butterflies gently pushed through the air. Drew was very excited and what he wanted more than anything was for a butterfly to land on him. While we were told not to touch the butterflies, the staff said they sometimes landed on people. One didn’t land on Drew, but one landed on Tyler’s leg and one on my shoulder. The butterfly stayed on so long that I thought I was going to have a hitchhiker.

Everything about the museum is so well done, but the Butterfly Rainforest makes the Florida Museum of Natural History a must-visit destination.

>> What will you discover at
the famed museum?