A new director has been named for the Florida Keys History and Discovery Center, the Islamorada museum on the grounds of the Islander Resort that houses a significant archive of the history of the island chain.
Bonnie Barnes moved to the Keys in 2017 and previously served as director of development for Reef Environmental Education Foundation and as executive director of the Deering Estate and Turtles Fly Too, which works with Mote Marine Sanctuary, the Turtle Hospital and other organizations to transport endangered species for release.
Barnes said this job will be the first time she will have a professional position in history and archiving on her resume, but she has a personal and amateur background in the field.
She grew up a “photographer’s daughter” and worked frequently with her father’s collection of negatives. Her family recently donated that collection to a museum in her native Las Vegas.
Her grandmother also was the former owner of the abandoned town of Amboy, California. Once a bustling drive-through town near the western end of Route 66, the town has become something of a roadside attraction now after it’s population declined due to the opening of I-40. It served as the shooting location of a few Hollywood productions, such as the 1986 film “The Hitcher.”
Her new job, she said, is about “displaying things in a manner that people will love and enjoy.”
Prior to working in nonprofits, her background was in marketing, communications and design, all areas that she believes give her the needed expertise to run the museum.
Barnes is planning to expand the museum’s hours. As of this week, the museum will be open on Sundays for the first time since the COVID pandemic hit.
She is also beginning a new art exhibit that will open Jan. 20, called “Where the Sea Retires,” by Cuban painter Carlos Guzman, who will be coming to the museum in February.
Barnes said one of the criticisms she’s heard is the museum has tended to be a bit Islamorada-centric, and she is looking to focus on the broader history of the region.
“We’re trying to be more inclusive of all the history of all the populations,” she said. “Inclusion is really key here.”
She is looking to bring in interns to help digitize the collections of thousands of photos that the museum houses so longtime Keys residents can identify who or what is in them. Barnes said she has marveled at the ability of people in the Keys, sometimes through social media, to recognize old friends or relatives in photos dating back decades.
She further said she is looking to collaborate more with the Islander, the nearby History of Diving Museum, local schools and other area organizations to offer more programs.
Asked what she believes is the most impressive or important piece of history or art in the Keys, Barnes answered, “the thing people are most interested in, most enamored by is Flagler.” As in Henry Flagler’s railroad, which was built in the early 20th century and destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935. Barnes said people in the Keys seem to have an unquenchable thirst for stories and information about Flagler and his railroad.
Another plan that Barnes has in the works: the museum is bringing back the Indian Key Festival, which was last celebrated in the 1990s.
The museum will be working with the Florida Park Service to usher in its return on April 30, and Barnes hopes to work to do more events such as that.