See Stuffed Gators and More at the ‘Smithsonian of the South’ – Destination: Lightner Museum (St. Augustine, FL, USA)

It’s not every day a stuffed alligator hangs above your head.

In researching my next book, What The Florida?, I came across a number of oddball and offbeat museums. In St. Augustine, the self-described ‘Smithsonian of the South’ makes its home in the historic Hotel Alcazar building, a former upper-class hotel built in the 19th century.

If you’re expecting the sort of fantastic exhibitions that make it seem no expense was spared, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. It’s the variety (and personally, the randomness) of the exhibits that help it live up to its namesake.

A Blickensderfer typewriter from 1897 with a decidedly non-standard layout.

Mere meters away are these 20th century earrings from Senegal, commercially created with European sensibilities in mind. You might begin to see how random the exhibits are – nearby exhibits include a Italian micro-mosaic (seen through a magnifying glass), a London microscope from the 1860’s, and a 2,500 year old Egyptian mummy.

Not far away is Rota, a gift presented to Winston Churchill as a war mascot during World War II.

This whole collection is a step back in time, right down to the old-school tobacco jars. We’re off to the side of the ground floor here, and the displays here emulate that classic tradition of window shopping.

Perhaps I’ve gotten a little Spartan with my stuff over years of traveling… but I cannot imagine why someone would collect all these little tiny spoons…

Give you one guess what these things are (answer at the bottom of the post). Also here on the first floor are some oddball mechanical marvels (none of which appeared to be working) and some musical instruments, which are played at 11am and 2pm. Drop what you’re doing to hear these 19th century player pianos and other musical marvels (we missed them both, sadly).

Head up to the second floor for plenty more decorative art, including this… monkey?

The second floor’s focus is on leaded glass, ceramics, and so on – it’s fairly clear most of the eclectic stuff is on the first floor, but there are still some nice displays to take in. These are cut glass pieces from the US’ ‘Brilliant Period’ from 1876-1906 – what made it brilliant was the 30-50% lead oxide added to the molten glass as it was being formed… Look for some beautiful stained glass in a nearby darkened corner room.

Cimon and Pera, circa 1660 – a story that dates from the 5th century BC. Held captive by his opponents in Athens, only his daughter Pera was allowed to visit. Despite being condemned to die, being nursed in this manner helped him to live. His captors thought he was favored by the gods and eventually released him.

As if the museum needed to remind you to keep perusing every corner and room, it presents to you the Leonard H. Baer Toaster Collection. (The smaller print says it was given to the museum by his wife in memory of him – translation: his quirky collection was taking up lots of room in the house!)

 

The building served as an upscale hotel, featuring a ‘Russian bath’ (a steam room next door) and the largest indoor pool in the world at the time. You’ll walk through the area that used to be the pool and can get a picture of you inside the metal cage on the left side (who doesn’t love getting sprayed from over a dozen different nozzles?)

The third floor is the most “traditional” feeling of the three, complete with a look down into a grand ballroom and restaurant (complete with live pianist). You’ve probably lost the kids attention by this point, but there isn’t much to see up here. Give it a few minutes and fantasize about wearing a nice gown or suit before moving on.

Although one of several worthy destinations in St. Augustine, I’ll tell people to head here first for the eclectic collection. It’s also a great central place to continue exploring the rest of the city.

Details

The Lightner Museum is at 75 King St., St. Augustine, Florida. It’s open 9am-5pm Monday-Saturday (last entry 4:30pm, but you’ll want at least an hour). Admission is $10 and photos are allowed. Park along metered side streets. Call 904-824-2874 or visit lightnermuseum.org for more info.

Answer: they’re occupational shaving mugs. While not explained on site, these personalized mugs were unique to each patron a barber had, and a teeming shelf of them was a sign of a good place.

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