Creative Arts Unlimited: Pinellas company brings history to life with design, technology

A nondescript warehouse just off busy U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park may be the last place you’d expect to find a company with a reputation for building some of the coolest museum exhibits in the country.

But Creative Arts Unlimited is already a rock star in the exhibit design world. 

Hologram pirates. Constellations in the night sky that morph into mythical astrological creatures. Replicas of pirate ships, the grand first-class staircase in the Titanic and Evil Knievel’s rocket ship. A digital painting cart for kids. A hologram pirate shown with constellations used for navigation at sea.

“It’s all about engaging people, getting their attention and moving them through the space,” says Creative Arts Unlimited President Roger Barganier. “You want to create a surprise around every corner and get the public to wonder what’s next.” 

There’s a revolution underway in museum exhibit design. It’s no longer enough to show artifacts in a static display. It’s all about creating an immersive, interactive experience -- the new buzzwords for museums everywhere, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Louvre in Paris to the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa.

“We’re using technology like digital mapping, 3D interactive animation and video projecting mapping to bring history to life,” says Barganier.  

It makes learning fun and memorable.

When a sinkhole swallowed eight vintage cars at the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky, Creative Arts came in to tell the story using the latest high-tech creative tools.

Now they’re doing the same thing for the Tampa Bay History Center's new gallery -- Treasure Seekers: Conquistadors, Pirates & Shipwrecks.

From sketch to animation

Starting with simple sketches, the Creative Arts team of young professionals -- graphic designers, illustrators, animators, scene painters, fabricators, sculptors and skilled woodworkers -- spent a year working on the project, from concept to installation. The Pirate's Fate Interactive Theatre where guests can choose an adventure.

Their task was to not only entertain the crowd, but to explain the science and the history, working in collaboration with the history museum’s team of experts. 

“The last thing Tampa needed was a big old pirate ship,” says Barganier. “We wanted to give visitors the feeling that they were stepping back in time to the 1500s and the age of exploration. We wanted to let people feel it, see it, touch it.”

The team put together everything from animated graphics that explain how shipwrecks are salvaged, to a solid oak gun carriage for a cannon, one of more than 100 artifacts that are on display at the museum.  

“We have a great, tight group of people who love what they do. I’m always amazed that the final project looks like the computer rendering we started with,” says Barganier.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a full-scale replica of a 60-foot pirate ship, a Bermuda Sloop. Creative Arts’ craftsmen custom built the enormous boat at the company’s headquarters in Pinellas Park, just off busy U.S. 19 and across the street from Parkside Mall. 

Then when it was time, they took the boat apart and reassembled it at the History Center. It’s the first thing visitors see upon entering the new gallery. The ship fills the gallery space and stands in front of a large fort painted on the back wall.

A life sized replica of an 18th century sloop favored for charting Florida's shallow waters.“The ship is an immersive experience for visitors,” says Barganier. “Visitors step inside the hold of the ship to get a feel for just how tiny and claustrophobic it must have been.”

Once inside, they can look up and see holographic pirates standing on the deck.  

“We wanted to show the crew on deck, but we didn’t want actual mannequins -- that is old school and static,” says Barganier.  “We decided to use holographic images. They’re like digital mannequins. They show action.”

Above the holographic pirates is another innovative piece of technology. Using video projection mapping, Creative Arts created the night sky with constellations that morph into mythological, astrological creatures.

Last summer, on a visit to Creative Arts’ shop, Alex Keller, who has a background in game art and design, as well as fine art sculpture, was working on the night sky graphics, animating the imagery of the mythological creatures.

“I love the diversity here,” says Keller. “We work collaboratively, maybe 10 to 15 hands on a project. We might start with tracing paper and the best idea wins.”

Broader portfolio

In addition to creating interactive exhibits for museums, Creative Arts’ portfolio also includes hospitals and libraries. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Gulfgate Public Library in Sarasota, and Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville are among the company’s clients. 

In 2014, Creative Arts was the focus of a 10-part series on the History Channel titled, “Museum Men.” The show presented a behind-the-scenes look at the firm’s work on projects ranging from creating a full-scale replica of Lincoln’s funeral carriage for the Sarasota Classic Car Museum to a reproduction of the Titanic’s grand staircase for a museum in Tennessee. 

Which project has been Barganier’s favorite? “It’s always the next one,” he says, half joking.
But so far, he says the Tampa History Center is the most innovative. “We’re always taking technology to the level with each project,” he says.

A new area for the firm is designing exhibits for churches.

“We see a great opportunity to make an impact,” says Barganier. “The design bar is low and very behind the times in this field. There’s a lot of mom and pop type work out there, so it’s exciting to me to see where we can go with it.''

Sara James was one of the graphic designers working on a large project for a local church. “The creativity of projects we undertake is amazing,” she says. “It’s extremely satisfying.''

A graduate of Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Barganier launched his career in retail, designing showroom windows and floor displays for New York City department stores like FAO Schwartz, Toys R Us, and Disney Stores.  

“It was fun, but where we are now -- creating environments for museums is much more rewarding -- more of a legacy,” he says.

Background in visual merchandising

What his retail background did teach him, says Barganier, is how to use visual merchandising to first attract people into a space and then to get them to focus on what you what you want them to see.  In retail that’s getting people to buy the product. For museums, it’s about the educational component and the artifacts.

“If you just saw an old, corroded twisted piece of metal in case, you wouldn’t have any idea of its history or that is was an anchor,” says Barganier. “But you put that into context by placing it next to a ship’s rudder and you show what it looks like when it’s new, versus being in the water for over 200 years.  Then it makes sense. It’s kind of like doing kids’ pop-up books.”

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.