tampabay.com

Civil War buff guides history in the making

By ERIKA VIDAL
Published May 11, 2007


C.J. Roberts got his first sword for Christmas when he was 7. The second one came a few months later, in February, for his 8th birthday.

Not the plastic swords you see on the shelves of Toys "R" Us.

These were authentic. Civil War authentic - with brass hand guards and blades of steel. He kept them in his room, along with other Civil War treasures.

"If you asked me where I wanted to go on vacation, it was generally to a Civil War battlefield, " he said.

Roberts, 38, is president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay History Center. He has had a thing for the Civil War - well, for history and museums in general - for as long as he can remember.

"I feel very fortunate to be in a career that combines both."

The Tampa Bay History Center is moving from its current 6, 000-square-foot space at 225 S Franklin St. to a new location in the Channel District. The new, four-story, 60, 000-square-foot building is scheduled to open in late 2008.

Roberts, who has directed several museums and helped build the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, was hired to lead the mission.

"When I finished building and opening the National D-Day Museum, I kind of made myself a promise. If I ever had a chance to build another one, and it was the right project, I wanted to do it, " he said.

A few years later, this project came along. He couldn't pass it up.

He moved here in 2005 from Savannah, Ga., with his wife of nine years, Sarah, and their 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Olivia.

Roberts grew up an only child in Nashville, Ind., where seven generations of his family had lived. The family home was full of antiques.

From the time he was 14 until well into graduate school, he and fellow Civil War buffs traveled all over on "pilgrimages" to battlefields and took part in hundreds of staged re-enactments.

Once in high school, he and a friend ventured several hundred miles to Natchez, Miss., to be extras in the TV miniseries North and South. He got more than he expected: a closeup in one of the final surrender scenes.

"I actually for a while made my living as a Civil War re-enactor, " he said.

After graduating from Indiana University, he got a job as a park ranger at the National Park Service in Harper's Ferry, W.Va, also a Civil War site. Part of his job was to give talks and tours in costume.

Now, he travels to museums all over the country and some in Europe.

Some of his best ideas come from visiting museums and seeing exhibits that inspire him. In Spain recently, he spoke with a museum director about borrowing artifacts for the Tampa facility.

From within this new history center, Roberts and his staff hope to tell the story of Tampa Bay.

The center has more than 40, 000 artifacts - like 19th century bonnets and old maps of the city - and Roberts says the collection is constantly growing.

He and his staff have been busy meeting with community groups, educators and students, getting feedback on what they want in a museum.

What Roberts loves most about Tampa's history is its rich diversity, and he hopes this new center will succeed in "being relevant" to the community.

"People want to see themselves in an exhibit, " he said.

Take, for example, a button.

An exhibit should do more than show people a button from a soldier's uniform. It should tell them what the soldier who wore that button went through.

Few people, Roberts said, care whether it's a circa 1850 button, "but if this is a button of the type that would have been worn by this guy from Georgia who left his family, had three kids, and came down here to the swamps and chased around Seminoles, and left these journals, " he said, "that kind of brings it to life."

Erika Vidal can be reached at evidal@sptimes.com or 813 226-3339.

Fast Facts:

 

C.J. Roberts

Gig: President and CEO of the Tampa History Center.

Family: Wife Sarah and daughter Olivia.

Age: 38

Private stash: He keeps a modest collection of Civil War artifacts at home

Claim to fame: Helped build the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans

C.J. stands for: Clarence Joseph, "but my parents were kind enough to start calling me C.J. from the time I was born."

Other hobbies: Traveling, kayaking and hiking.