Proposal for Florida history museum in Sarasota County takes a big step forward with commission offer of staff assistance in search for grants

John Pether envisions the most advanced technology to bring the past alive and compare it to the present

The Florida History Expo website features this homepage banner. Image from the website, courtesy of John Pether

They may not have money to spare, but they have knowledgeable staff and land that could serve as a local match for state or federal grants. Therefore, the Sarasota County Commissioners have directed staff to assist a county resident in seeking funds for a proposed Florida history museum that would incorporate the most modern technology available to bring the exhibits to life.

Think virtual reality and holograms.

During the board’s regular meeting on Jan. 16, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo brought up the fact that John Pether had talked with the board members about the project. “Certainly, we have to be conscious of our financial constraints,” Caragiulo continued. Nonetheless, he suggested that the board give “its blessing” for the county’s Libraries and Historical Resources Department to work with Pether on researching grants.

“I’m very supportive of the concept,” Caragiulo added of Pether’s proposal “I think it’s important not to lose sight … of how rich our history is in the county and this state.”

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

“I know we’ve all met with [Pether] and support the concept,” Chair Nancy Detert responded. “The money ask is going to be huge,” she added, to make the museum a reality.

She concurred with Caragiulo’s suggestion about giving permission for staff to assist Pether, adding, “I think he can work through the [Florida] Secretary of State’s Office” to seek funding.

Speaking to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Detert continued, “We’re happy to allow him to work with our staff as long as he’s not taking up the majority of their time. They certainly have permission to speak to him.”

“I fully support that,” Commissioner Charles Hines said. Both he and Caragiulo had made it clear to Pether that the board is looking at filling multi-million-dollar budget gaps for the next few years, Hines pointed out, so it has no money to offer outright for the project. However, Hines added, he told Pether to be creative in his thinking and suggested Pether also work with the Fresh Start for the Celery Fields organization.

On Nov. 28, 2017, the board directed staff to work with the Fresh Start group on suggestions for uses of what staff calls the southwest “Quads” parcel at the intersection of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road. That property is near the Celery Fields, the internationally known bird-watching park in the eastern part of the county.

“I think having a history museum [such as Pether is proposing] is needed,” Hines added.

Commissioner Alan Maio then offered praise for Pether’s “demeanor and how he approached us. … There’s a lesson there for a lot of people: persistent; pleasant; technically competent … He was a real dignified gentleman to us.”

“He’s really doing his homework,” Detert said, adding that she also thought the potential of building the museum on county property near the Celery Fields “is probably a good one.” She suggested the potential of using the land as a match for state grant funds. “Maybe he can cobble something together.”

When The Sarasota News Leader interviewed Pether by telephone on Jan. 22, he talked of his excitement about receiving the county’s imprimatur for his project. “This is a big step forward to get the county to do what they did.”

John Pether. Image from his Facebook page

He had received a call that morning from Sarabeth Kalajian, director of the county’s Department of Libraries and Historical Resources, he added.

“I really want to do a full feasibility study,” he said, noting that he also has spoken at length with a representative of a British firm that has “done some amazing stuff” for the Smithsonian Institution. That firm also has worked on the museums at Jamestown, Va., site of the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States; and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore. The fort’s siege by the British during the War of 1812 is famous for inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the lyrics for The Star-Spangled Banner.

“They’ve done some very, very important [work],” he added of the employees of the British firm.

Based on the discussions he has had, Pether continued, he estimates he will need $175,000 to $200,000 for “a full road map of how to get there,” referring to the feasibility study.

After that study has been completed, he said, he plans to establish a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation for the project. Then people interested in contributing funds will have “hard numbers” from which to work.

Already, he has created a website to describe his plans: The homepage banner welcomes visitors to “A time machine of history from then until now” and invites them to contact Pether at

As for collaboration with Fresh Start for the Celery Fields: Tom Matrullo, one of the leaders of that group told the News Leader this week that he also was happy to learn of the County Commission discussion. He has met with Pether, Matrullo said, adding that Pether “has the nucleus of a wonderful idea.”

Commissioner Hines put Pether in touch with him, Matrullo noted, with “the thinking being the area by the Celery Fields is a natural location for something that has a community value. … I think the possibilities are really enchanting.”

The vision

John Pether has proposed these uses of grant funds he hopes to secure for the project. Image courtesy of John Pether

About 18 months ago, Pether told the News Leader, he began writing a history of the Sarasota Sailing Squadron, which led to his working closely with the county’s Historical Resources staff and a former history specialist in that department, Jeff LaHurd.

“My eyes began to open up,” Pether said.

The county has “a huge warehouse” of artifacts that the average person never sees, he continued, because the county lacks a large enough venue to put them on display. The Chidsey Library Building on the Sarasota bayfront does showcase some of the collection, Pether said, but “it’s a teeny tiny little building.”

That led to his thinking about the potential for a county history museum, but he soon realized that, in spite of the wealth of famous people who have made the county their home, fewer visitors would be attracted to a facility focused just on Sarasota County. “I realized that if I was going to be able to build a museum [that would succeed], I would have to go all the way back to the origins of Florida.”

John Pether has offered these examples of potential Florida history exhibits in the museum, to complement Sarasota County exhibits. Image courtesy of John Pether

It also quickly became clear to him, he said, that, given the tremendous advances in technology, augmented reality and virtual reality are the keys to creating a facility that would become a destination. “To kids who grew up with computers and animation,” Pether pointed out, the traditional image of a museum “is completely and utterly boring.”

As he began reading about augmented technology, he continued, he believed that history truly could come to life in the museum. For example, he noted, an exhibit about Civil War surgeons would be enhanced by imagery showing 21st century medical techniques. Visitors would “suddenly think they were inside a modern surgery theater.”

His website offers another example: “[T]he skeleton of a prehistoric Florida animal from 10,000 years ago would be enhanced by the moving 3D image of a live version of the ancient animal entering the exhibit area. To link the extinct animal to its modern day descendant, Augmented Reality would then allow a moving 3D image of the modern animal to enter the exhibit, thus bridging history from then to now.”

Making connections

The Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections of the USF Libraries features samples of its work on a website. Image courtesy USF

After Jeff LaHurd wrote about Pether’s plans in an article early this month in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Pether told the News Leader, the American Alliance for Museums must have included information from it in newsletters for its members. Pether suddenly began hearing from representatives of other museums and, potentially even more important, the director of the Digital Heritage and the Humanities Collection at the University of South Florida (USF) Libraries in Tampa — Lori Collins.

Lori Collins. Image from the USF Libraries

In a Jan. 24 telephone interview with the News Leader, Collins explained that Pether came to USF “and toured our laboratory.”

In her interdisciplinary program, she said, students develop digital collections that can be used for a wide variety of purposes. They have a virtual reality studio, as well as 3D printers, and they create 3D and 360-degree imaging with photography and laser scanning.

One of her classes this semester, she continued, is focused on museums, inviting the students to think about how they can enhance exhibits by taking them beyond the realm of “just physical objects.” New technology can broaden the educational benefits and increase interactivity between the visitors and the exhibits, she pointed out.

Additionally, she and the co-director of the program, Travis Doering, “do projects all over the world” that are focused on heritage preservation. Hundreds of those initiatives have originated in Florida, she added, while others have taken place outside the United States — in Mexico, Guatemala and Spain, for examples.

Furthermore, she continued, the USF Libraries has been working with the Tampa Bay History Center on modern exhibits.

Referring to Pether’s project, she said, “Essentially, I see this as something similar” to that collaboration with the Tampa Bay facility. (Collins provided a link to videos that explain the program’s work, along with a link to USF’s 3D collections website.)

“Part of our mission is to be an active player in our community,” Collins added, noting that any time students can become involved in projects such as those with the Tampa Bay History Center, those opportunities have the potential to lead to full-time jobs.

Pether also has been talking with Larry Thompson, president of the Ringling College of Art + Design, and members of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) of Sarasota County about how his museum could provide careers for Ringling graduates. “‘You’ve got a ready workforce,’” Pether said he told representatives of the EDC.

Given all the people with whom he has spoken this month, Pether added, “I’ve suddenly got a lot of great talent that I didn’t have three weeks ago.”