New Leadership and Big Plans for History Museum’s Second Century
“Magid” is a Hebrew word meaning “itinerant preacher,” or loosely interpreted, an oral historian, one who travels from town to town to share the news of the day. His great grandfather, also named Michael Magidson was a Cantor, a congregational leader who signs the prayers and hymns at the synagogue, having trained at the Berlin Conservatory of Music. After coming through Ellis Island, the first Michael Magidson took a job near New York City, where Michael’s grandfather was born. The family has a deep love of history that extends to his mother’s side as well. Part of the Dimmitt family, her Florida roots run deep; the Dimmitt family’s car dealerships have been in business here since 1924 and are now run by the fourth generation of family members.
So, Michael Magidson is that rarest of Florida specimens: someone who was not only born in Florida (just a third of Floridians are), but someone who goes back four generations in the state. Born in Clearwater in 1978, Magidson graduated from Tampa Prep and then went on to Vassar College, where he studied history, focusing particularly on the American Civil War and the 19th century. Uncertain of what he wanted to do after college, he took a teaching position at Darlington, a private boarding school located in the small town of Rome, Georgia, where one of his colleagues in the history department was none other than future Governor Ron DeSantis.
Feeling antsy in the small Georgia town, Magidson moved on to law school at Catholic University in DC. He briefly considered a career in politics, but his deep Florida roots drew him home and he joined a law firm in Tampa, eventually settling down in St. Petersburg where he now works for the firm of Johnson Pope. His practice is focused on business transactions, particularly in the health care industry. He lives in Snell Isle and has three children attending LCC. Magidson discovered the Museum of History while participating in Leadership St. Pete, where he took a historic tour of the city with Museum Director Rui Farias and Education Curator Nevin Sitler. He found himself saying, “Now this is a non-profit I can get behind.”
Magidson follows in 100 years of footsteps, the museum being founded in 1922 by a group of civic leaders headed by Mary Wheeler Eaton. Those early history lovers approached the mayor and city council about donating an abandoned aquarium building on the city’s municipal pier as a museum to house the young city’s history. On February 11, 1922, the St. Petersburg Historical Society’s Museum opened its doors.
Magidson started his tenure as president of the board this past April, following some of the roughest years for the museum industry in recent memory. Not only was revenue decimated by pandemic shutdowns, but construction on the new St. Pete Pier virtually walled the museum off from pedestrians and passersby.
Magidson sees those challenges as an opportunity. It has given the museum time to refine their vision and hone their messaging about who they are now – and what they want to be in the future. One of those things is a source of information, not just about the past but also the present.
A New Home for the Past and Present
The success of the new pier revealed a weakness in the city’s visitor experience – namely, that there’s really no “welcome center.” With a prime location at the base of the pier, the museum witnesses this firsthand every day and they want to fill that void. They are working with the city and county to fund a St. Pete Visitors Center. It’s just one piece of a planned 10,000 square-foot expansion.
Magidson puts the need bluntly: “In order to be a major city you need a history museum. That becomes particularly relevant with all the change that’s happening in St. Pete.”
The museum has big plans. In addition to the Visitor Center, the expansion will feature a new exhibit, Explore Florida!, which will bring St. Petersburg, as well as Florida history, to life. And when you’re done exploring Florida, you will be able to enjoy a drink on the new rooftop terrace, dubbed the Flight Deck in honor of St. Petersburg’s unique role in aviation history. While enjoying a cocktail, you can gaze on “Intersections,” an art installation by Ya La’ford, that will wrap the second level and rooftop terrace exterior. The museum’s expansion was designed by ARC3 Architecture and will be built by Hennessy Construction. They are hoping to break ground early next year.
To ensure that everything goes as planned, the museum is working to raise $5 million dollars for the project – and already has a chunk of that under their belt. A recent fundraiser at the waterfront home of Eduardo Zavala and Michelle Harris in Driftwood was just the beginning of their efforts.
But you don’t have to wait for the expansion to enjoy all the museum has to offer. The doors are open now, with the popular exhibits like Schrader’s Little Cooperstown (4,800 autographed baseballs and their stories) and Building St. Petersburg City – an exhibit that explores the growth of St. Pete from pioneer times through the boom of the 1920s. They also host a wildly popular lecture series “Happy Hour with a Historian.” And hidden behind the exhibits and events is an even richer trove for history lovers – the museum’s archives are available for local researchers to dig deeper into topics of interest. Just email the archivist Jessy and she’ll set up an appointment for you.
As the St. Petersburg Museum of History steps into its second century, they feel confident that it is in the hands of someone with a strong love of history and deep local roots. What more could we ask from our city’s oldest museum?
Learn more about the St. Petersburg Museum of History’s plans and exhibits at spmoh.com.
Reprinted with permission. By Monica Kile (Northeast Journal; Good People, Good Places; Good Things Happening) July/August 2022
Photo captions: Rendering of the museum’s proposed expansion. Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, President of the Board of Directors of the St. Petersburg Museum of History Michael Magidson, left, and Executive Director Rui Farias look over the expansion plans, Magidson with some of the St. Petersburg Museum of History’s current exhibits.