Key West Museum Exhibit Sheds New Light on 17th Century Spanish Shipwrecks
July 27, 2023 • KW Tourist
In an unprecedented development in Key West, Florida Keys, a new exhibition has unveiled fresh insights into two Spanish galleons, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita, which were part of the 1622 fleet that sank off the coast. The exhibit "1622: Wealthy World" recently premiered at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, showcasing never-before-seen artifacts from the wrecks and recounting personal stories related to the galleons.
The Story of the Shipwrecks
- The Atocha and Margarita, laden with gold, silver, and other riches from Spain's New World colonies, were part of a fleet of 28 vessels that were shipwrecked during a hurricane in 1622.
- The wrecks of both galleons were located off Key West in the 1980s by salvager Mel Fisher and his team following an exhaustive search.
- The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, initially founded by Fisher, is considered to house the most abundant collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck artifacts in the Western Hemisphere.
- Only after a recent expansion that doubled the museum's exhibit space was it possible to showcase the items from the 1622 wrecks in the broader context of New and Old World cultures.
Melissa Kendrick, the museum's president and CEO, highlighted that the exhibit transcends the story of the 1622 fleet, offering a more human narrative. Kendrick also noted that the shipwrecks have provided invaluable insights into the Spanish empire, its colonies, and 17th-century life on a ship.
Inside the Exhibit
The exhibit provides a comprehensive perspective on diverse topics, including:
- The colonial culture of Peru, where indigenous people mined precious metals and craftsmen crafted the gold and silver items found on the Atocha and Margarita.
- Spain's development of a robust global trade system.
- The wealth of the galleons' aristocratic passengers.
Artifacts showcased in the exhibition include:
- Massive cannons and rare hand weapons used to defend the 1622 fleet.
- Cooking tools and ceramic food and water storage jars from the ships.
- Tools belonging to the onboard surgeon and carpenter.
- The earliest glass tumbler ever discovered in the New World.
- A mirror, candlestick, scissors, silver plates, and other passengers' belongings.
- A unique rail from a senior ship's officer's hanging bed.
- Treasures such as a priceless emerald cross, gold and silver coins, a heavy double chain made of nearly two pounds of gold, and 24 silver bars each weighing about 70 pounds.
The exhibition's standout artifact is a silver Incan heraldic plate, engraved with a condor holding an Incan coat of arms, dating back to 1620. The piece, believed to be the only one of its kind worldwide, is accompanied by a well-preserved 17th-century book documenting early Spanish efforts to salvage the Atocha shipwreck.
The exhibit also features a meticulously crafted model of the Atocha in its final moments, constructed based on archaeological and historical evidence. The model's portrayal of waves sweeping over the ship and people trying to save themselves emphasizes the personal nature of the exhibition.
Madeleine Burnside, the museum's chief curator, expressed that their research on the stories of people connected to the Atocha and Margarita inspired them to present the objects in the context of these individuals and their broader world.
The "1622: Wealthy World" exhibit is permanently housed at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St, and is open daily from 10 a.m., with the last admission at 4 p.m. Guided tours of the artifact conservation lab can be booked on weekdays at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. For more information about the exhibit and ticketing, visit melfisher.org.