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History of Diving Museum Unveils Community Dive into Art Exhibit

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The Florida Keys is home to some of the world’s most refined diving while boasting a diverse sea life and a population driven by the sea. As coral reef systems the world over have declined in recent years, local communities are banding together to prevent these crucial systems from further erosion. The History of Diving Museum, located in Islamorada, has been a beacon in combating environmental destruction, and its latest exhibit, “Dive into Art: The Beauty of Recycling” illustrates the choking hazards of manmade debris.

Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy History of Diving Museum

Unveiled on January 15, Dive into Art is a collaborate project between the museum, the Art Guild of the Purple Isles, and Monroe County students, which celebrates the majesty of the sea while highlighting its fragility. Dive into Art emphasizes a message of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, which is reflected in each piece.

According to History of Diving Museum Executive Director Lisa Mongellia, one key element of Diving into Art is bringing three local communities, scuba divers, artists, and students, together under one roof and toward a common goal:

“It came about through discussions to broaden the community’s involvement with the History of Diving Museum. A lot of divers are sports enthusiasts: they’re outside and on the water and it’s rarer for them to come into a museum. For artists, they do a lot in the community and in art exhibits, but they don’t really know about the ocean environment and what a diver might experience. We wanted to bring those two communities together.

“The Art Guild does a lot of beautiful work out on the beaches and from the surface – challenge their artists to think more of the underwater realm and do marine-themed pieces. By having them on display at the museum, it brings the diving community and gives them a cultural experience. We’re cross-pollinating points of interests.”

During the exhibit’s production, volunteers representing the Art Guild of the Purple Isles visited area art classes and worked with teachers and their students. Adolescent participants from elementary school to high school each played a role. Elementary school students fashioned an exhibit piece featuring a five-foot-tall seahorse constructed of recycled and repurposed pool noodles, bottle caps, and miscellaneous ocean debris. Middle school students, working in tandem with their media department, crafted advertising materials for the exhibit, boldly displaying “recycle, reduce, reuse”.

High school artists from Plantation Key School created a colorful reef sculpture highlighting the dangers of plastic entangling marine life, built from discarded lobster traps and ocean debris, and further accented by sea creatures formed from reconstructed plastic bottles. The students, 24 strong and representing different levels, began working on the display in September, spending an hour per school day. Marcia Starling, art teacher and collaborator with the History of Diving Museum headlined this project, sharing the students’ expressions for everything ocean.

“I live in the Keys and my students live in the Keys. We’re surrounded by water and we’re all about the water: we’re either on it or in it,” she says. “Most of the kids’ parents are fishermen or living one way or another off the water. Working with the diving museum is important to me and the kids because we all love water.”

The reef sculpture exhibits a beautiful and shiny quality while also exhibiting the plight of entrapped animals, which are depicted in grim, stressful expressions.

“When you get close, you can see the clownfish have big tears; there’s six-pack plastic around their heads,” Starling illustrates. “There are several sea turtles, too are crying, with their mouths stuffed with fishing filament. On the side, there’s a dolphin wrapped in gill nets. The animals are distressed because people keep throwing trash into their home.”

The exhibit also includes a homemade helmet built from a kitchen pot and pan and discarded iron weights, representing scuba diving’s early years and its do-it-yourself spirit, augmented by interactive educational tools suited for students and divers alike.

Mongellia states:

“It’s really cool to see the ingenuity of repurposed materials and how it was used in early diving for the open bottom homemade helmet, as well as the educational component from NAUI Green Diver: they sent us a poster on how long it takes for different plastics to disintegrate: the life cycle of plastics. We have a message board, which really challenges people… what you can do in 2020 to change your behavior to benefit the environment. People write down different commitments on what they can do to move forward.”

Complementing the environmental exhibit and its overall message during February will be two art sessions hosted at the museum, “Painting with a Purpose” classes. One class in particular will home in on repurposing glass jars into planters.

Following Dive into Art’s time at the History of Diving Museum, after March 18, the student sculpture pieces will be sent to the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West where they will be displayed during the Mote Marine Ocean Fest on Saturday, March 28, and will remain at the center for a few weeks.

In addition to its latest exhibit, the History of Diving Museum will celebrate its 15th year in operation, combining “recycle, reduce, reuse” and its next exhibit theme, focusing on 15 different breakthroughs in scuba diving technology, contextualizing how these advancements evolved underwater exploration, history, and science. The new exhibit will be paired with a series of scuba diving icons: their origins, accomplishments, and roles as trailblazers in diving.

Through its latest installation, the History of Diving Museum is continuing its mission to preserve scuba diving history while simultaneously working to safeguard the waters for future generations.

“Everyone of us can make the waters cleaner and by saying no to single-use plastics, and everyone doing their own little part,” says Starling, “that little bit, making the world a better place; keeping those animals alive for future generations.”

A 501(c)3 non-profit organization, the History of Diving Museum’s mission is “dedicated to collecting, preserving, displaying, and interpreting artifacts, antiques, books, documents, photographs, and oral history relative to the History of Diving.” The museum is funded by sponsorship programs and membership contributions, which go directly to educational outreach projects.

For more details on The History of Diving Museum, visit divingmuseum.org.