New Tampa Bay History Center exhibit brings 500 years of Cuban stories to life

large blue boat covered in a blue tarp next to an interactive computer monitor

This article is sponsored by the Tampa Bay History Center

The Tampa Bay History Center along the Tampa Riverwalk is replete with 60,000-square-feet of exhibit space, and more than 80,000 artifacts inside. Guests can wander through a massive pirate ship, step inside “The Land Remembered” log cabin, enjoy a taste of old Cigar City, and browse a kitschy Citrus Station. The museum also honors the history of sport in the Tampa Bay region, and unfolds the history of MacDill Air Force Base. Its newest exhibit, Cuban Pathways, is situated on the museum’s fourth floor and brings 500 years of Cuban history, and its ties to Tampa, to stunning life.

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Taíno Indians, enslaved Africans, Chinese laborers and pastel-wearing U.S. tourists all traveled to and from Cuba over the last 500 years. Their experiences and labors made the largest island in the Caribbean a hub of the modern Atlantic World. Cuban Pathways tells the stories of these individuals and more, whose toil, vacations and political crusades shaped the island’s modern history.

One of the most astonishing aspects of the exhibit is the royal blue chug boat. This chug boat, and hundreds like it, were built by Cubans to cross the Florida Straits after 1959. Made from spray foam, concrete, a blue tarp and other materials, this chug boat carried 12 people from Cuba to the shore of Key West, near the famous Southernmost point buoy.

Large red vision finder next to a display of old postcards inside a gallery space

Tampa Bay History Center introduces Cuban Pathways

The boat itself is power by an air-cooled Russian-made diesel motor with a four-wheel-drive transmission. It powered a tractor before being repurposed for this vessel. Many chug builders installed air-cooled diesels because they were simple and reliable. This vessel likely traveled no faster than 5 mph.

This traveling exhibition covers early Spanish settlements and the arrival of the first Africans to the island, and it includes first-hand accounts of émigrés fleeing Revolutionary Cuba. It is a personalized experience as we meet three modern Cubans representing the island’s diversity.

“Given our region’s deep connections with Cuba, this story is part of the Tampa Bay story,” says C.J. Roberts, President and CEO of the Tampa Bay History Center. “Cuban Pathways is the first traveling exhibition produced exclusively by the History Center. We are proud to share these artifacts from our collection and extensive research with the Tampa Bay community and other museums in the Southeast and beyond.”

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Large scale print showcasing a city with old forts and towers by the water. A large Cuban

Interactive components help illustrate Tampa and Cuba’s ties

Cuban Pathways is brought to life with interactive components. Test your musical abilities on drum, peer through a massive VisionFinder featuring historic photos of Tampa families with Cuba ties, view rumba dolls, and more rare artifacts inside the collection.

Learn more by visiting the museum’s website. The Tampa Bay History Center is located at 801 Water Street. After you enjoy the collection, make sure to treat yourself to one of the best Cuban sandwiches in Tampa at the Columbia Restaurant downstairs. Follow Tampa Bay History Center on Facebook and Twitter.

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