Make it a Museum Day in Sarasota County

Enjoy some arts and culture at these six local spots

In the mood to do a little museum hopping? There’s lots to see and experience in the area, from artwork both serious and lighthearted to cool fossils and artifacts from long ago.

The Ringling

The Ringling complex in Sarasota is really several museums rolled into in one. Circus magnate and millionaire John Ringling built a lavish home on the site in the 1920s. That Venetian Gothic, 41-room mansion known as Ca’ d’Zan is now open for tours, allowing visitors to marvel at its palatial decor and postcard-worthy views of Sarasota Bay.

Ringling also originally built the site’s Museum of Art, which showcases his collection of Old Master works by artists like Velazquez, van Dyke, and Rubens. A new extension, the Center for Asian Art, is scheduled to open in 2016 and will feature exhibitions and programs to help the public better understand Asian history and society.

Visitors go under the big top at the Ringling’s Circus Museum. The original building features sparkly costumes, colorful parade wagons, cannons that shot performers through the air, and Ringling’s private rail car The Wisconsin. The newer Tibbals Learning Center helps young guests (and the young at heart) unleash their inner circus star through hands-on exhibits that let them play tightrope walker, clown, or animal tamer. It’s also home to the 44,000-piece Howard Bros. Circus Model, a don’t-miss display that painstakingly recreates all of the action in the ring and behind the scenes when the circus comes to town.

Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy

To keep the art-meets-fantasy vibe going, head down the road to the Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy. Scheduled to reopen in mid-February 2016 after an extensive renovation, the pastel-hued Sarasota site displays an eclectic collection of paintings, sculpture, and mixed-media artwork that’s bright, colorful, and meant to celebrate and inspire creative expression. An outdoor sculpture garden features an equally playful mix of pieces, like hanging Barrel of Monkeys–style simians and a giant flamingo wearing a top hat.

Crowley Museum and Nature Center

Life probably was anything but whimsical for some of the early settlers in these parts, who had to deal with things like mosquitos and sweltering temperatures without any of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. Get a glimpse of the past at the Crowley Museum and Nature Center in Sarasota. East of Interstate 75, the 190-acre farmstead was established in 1878 and includes pioneer buildings, heritage farm animals like Cracker cows, a kitchen garden, bee hives, and even an organic muscadine grape vineyard.

The site is situated along the Myakka River, and hiking trails and a half-mile boardwalk traverse through piney flatwoods and oak hammocks and along swamp- and marshland. They offer a sense of the area’s pre-development days and the opportunity to spot a variety of native plants, animals, insects, and birds.

Historical Museums

Historic Spanish Point in Osprey also offers a picture of the past. It’s home to one of the largest intact, actively preserved archaeological sites of the prehistoric period on the Gulf Coast of Florida. An exhibition takes visitors inside a shell midden that’s several thousand years old, providing information on the objects found within and their importance to the people who used them.

For some more recent history, visitors can tour the Guptill House, a circa-1901 pioneer homestead; stop in at the property’s chapel and cemetery; and check out the area’s first produce packing house. Displays also provide information on Chicago socialite and business woman Bertha Palmer, who lived at the waterfront property in the early 1900s and planted some of the gardens still found there today.

Continue your local time travels by heading to neighboring Bradenton. There the Manatee Village Historical Park brings a collection of restored buildings to one site, making it easy to imagine life on the coast in days past. There’s a turn-of-the-twentieth-century general store, boatworks with original tools and equipment, one-room schoolhouse, and a church and courthouse dating from the 1800s.

The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature

The largest natural and cultural history center on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the Bishop Museum delves into the area’s distant past via artifacts from paleoindian and archaic cultures and fossilized remains from early marine creatures and mammals. Other exhibits focus on the region’s environment and maritime history.

The site’s Parker Manatee Aquarium is home to manatees recuperating at the site, which you can learn more about during the feeding presentations that take place several times a day.  And the manatees are not the museum’s only unique attraction: for something even more out-of-this-world, catch at show at the Bishop Planetarium and look at things from a totally different perspective.