Political Message Shirts on Display at Historic Capitol Museum

Jun 19, 2017

The big 22-story Florida Capitol is where all the legislative and executive branch action takes place nowadays. But the Old Capitol building next door is the one that so often appears in any visual reference to state government, such as TV ads for or against state political candidates or various causes of urgent public concern.

Capitol Exhibits Manager Michelle Sunset with a shirt that bears a somewhat generic message.
Credit Tom Flanigan

Inside that structure, lovingly restored to what it looked like in 1902, are historic spaces. Such as the governor’s office, not much larger than your average household bedroom. And right across the hall, an exhibit room where you’ll find the latest display and – if you’re lucky – Capitol Exhibit Manager Michelle Sunset.

“You’re looking at mostly shirts from the 1990s (and) we’ve got a few from the 80s,” she said, pointing to examples from those eras, “and some recent shirts as well. We’ve got them in various displays. They’re folded, they’re hanging, they’re everywhere…they’re on manikins even.”

These are not just any shirts; they are dozens upon dozens of tee-shirts bearing the names of various Florida political candidates. Well-known names like Jeb Bush and Janet Reno….not so well known names like Frank Messersmith. He represented Lake Worth in the Florida House from 1980 until 1990. Then there are all the political causes: for gun control, against gun control; in opposition to fracking, in support of fracking. It’s a veritable cross section of the groups that have come to the Florida Capitol over the years to plead their heart-felt cause before their elected officials. Sunset shared it was fun, but also a challenge, putting the collection together.

“This is really a huge effort, honestly!” she said. “We sent out flyers and e-mail blasts and Facebook posts. We made personal phone calls to our contacts and we tried to reach as many people as we could in the state to get their shirts out and pull them out of the closet and let us borrow them.”

Of course, history is much more than simply artifacts from the past. Explanation is needed. And Sunset says that’s included in the exhibit to help visitors know what they’re looking at and why it was important in Florida.

“We actually have a little panel that discusses the history of activism at the Capitol as well as a banner that’s hanging down and you can take a selfie in front of the ‘Capitol’ with one of our shirts to try on,” she said. “My personal favorite is the ‘I Heart Historic Preservation.’”

And there’s even an area in the hall outside the exhibit where kids can design their own political tee-shirts. Just the thing to get the small fry ready for their first political campaign or march on the Capitol.