By Laura Myers
Nearly a decade ago Cori Convertito, 39, today curator and historian at the Key West Art & Historical Society, packed up her flip-flops and moved to the United Kingdom to earn a master’s degree in maritime history from London’s University of Greenwich.
She also earned a doctorate in maritime history from the U.K.’s University of Exeter.
But the gray, sometimes gloomy climate across the pond evoked longings for sunny, color-drenched and subtropical Key West.
“I was always interested in what was going on here,” Convertito said, recalling listening to US1 Radio newscasts to keep up with life in Key West.
In 2012, she was awarded that year’s prize for “best doctoral thesis in maritime history” from the British Commission for Maritime History.
In London’s Victoria district, she also worked as archivist for four years for the P&O Heritage Collection.
During the time Convertito lived in London, “I thought of Key West all the time. I knew I wanted to come back.”
She frequented the Keys on twice-annual vacations, bringing her British husband, Nic Farrar, who today is a Key West property appraiser.
“The first vacation I brought him to Key West convinced him,” Convertito recalled. “He loved it the minute he got off the plane.”
Today Convertito creates and curates art- and history-rich exhibits that attract about 250,000 annual visitors to Key West’s The Custom House, Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters and Fort East Martello. Operated by the Art & Historical Society, the three museums span two centuries of history.
Convertito’s love of all things nautical is clearly visible, etched in about 20 different ways on her skin by a favorite London tattoo artist. She has even penned a piece on tattooing in the Victorian Navy, which stemmed from her master’s thesis, that was published in “Maritime History and Identity: The Sea and Culture in the Modern World.”
“My tattoos symbolize events in my life: when I got my master’s degree, my marriage, moving back to Key West from London,” said Convertito. “My husband says I use the events as an excuse.”
Convertito’s maritime passions began in Stratford, Connecticut, where she attended Bridgeport Regional Vocational Aquaculture High School.
She learned how to build a fishing pole and design lobster traps, and worked aboard the tall ship HMS Rose that was later used in the movie “Master and Commander” starring actor Russell Crowe.
Moving to Key West in 2001, she worked with then-executive director Madeleine Burnside as assistant curator of education at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum after earning a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“My internship turned into three years,” she said. “Key West just made me very, very happy. I feel comfortable here.”
Happily ensconced at the Art & Historical Society, Convertito remains fascinated by the rich heritage of her adopted home.
“People don’t realize the extent of history here with the cigar, turtle and sponging industries,” Convertito said. “We can pack in as much history in Key West as in some European cities.
“History here really has shifted in less than 200 years,” she added. “A lot of big cities don’t go through these evolutions.”
In late 2015, Convertito represented the historical society in an appearance on the Travel Channel, journeying from Key West to Las Vegas with the eerie, 4-foot-tall “Robert the Doll.” The iconic doll, part of Key West’s paranormal historical lore, is based in a glass case at Fort East Martello, the brick Civil War–era fort turned museum.
Despite her average workweek of 60 to 70 hours, Convertito enjoys roaming the Keys with Farrar on weekends.
“Key West is a big city on a small island,” she said. “I enjoy the lifestyle here, I really love what I do and it benefits the community.”
Convertito creates and curates art- and history-rich exhibits that attract about 250,000 annual visitors to Key West’s The Custom House, Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters and Fort East Martello.