TENNESSEE: New State Museum Celebrates History
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When the new $160 million Tennessee State Museum opens Thursday, you will find many of the familiar museum artifacts.
The Conestoga wagon that brought early settlers from Virginia in the 1800s. The 32-foot dugout canoe from 1750. The 1863 Civil War cannon. The hat Andrew Jackson wore to his inauguration in 1829.
But now visitors will be able to experience Tennessee’s history as if they were living in that time.
The well-known objects are now integrated into a more interactive museum that uses video, touch screens, lighting and sounds for a real-life experience.
For example, instead of experiencing the Civil War though a Confederate soldier’s uniform behind glass, visitors to the new museum can hear personal war stories from a life-size Confederate soldier who fought in the battles of Shiloh, Franklin, Nashville and Chickamauga.
In the new children’s gallery, preschoolers and early elementary school students are invited to walk across a large map of the state, stopping along the way at interactive stations, where they can slide down Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, sing a song in Nashville and Memphis, paint a symbol of Tennessee or find fossils at the Gray Fossil Site.
“The museum is very visitor focused,” said director Ashley Howell. “We want the visitor to be able to learn any way that they like to learn,” whether that is through reading, seeing a documentary, studying the exhibit text or graphics, hearing stories or engaging with the staff.
6 things to see at Tennessee State Museum
You could easily spend four hours exploring the new museum, but officials recommend allowing at least an hour and a half to see most of it.
If you want a broad overview, walk through the “Tennessee Time Tunnel” on the second floor. It takes you on a chronological journey through the highlights of state history from prehistoric days to today. The tunnel is the “backbone” of the museum, with connecting galleries, where you can take a deeper dive into each period.
The “State of Sound: Tennessee’s Musical Heritage” provides a look at the events and people who have made Tennessee such a music-centric state, showcasing artifacts, images, performance costumes and audiovisuals. There are interactive jukeboxes, where you can scroll through some of the significant country, blues and soul music made in the state. Visitors also can click on dozens of Tennessee’s musicians (from Elvis to Bessie Smith, to Dolly Parton and the Fisk Jubilee Singers) and hear their music.
MUSIC HIGHWAY: The soundtrack of Tennessee: It’s the music that makes us
Civil War exhibit
One of the strongest areas of the museum continues to be Tennessee’s role in the Civil War. In the new space, this collection has been revitalized with giant graphics and interactives, including stories from life-sized Confederate soldier Sam Watkins, and a high-tech interactive table with a map of the state showing a county-by-county look at Civil War battles and other related events.
“Red Grooms: A Retrospective” showcases part (80-100 pieces) of the museum’s Grooms collection, and will be featured in one of the rotating galleries for four months. The Nashville-born and raised Grooms, who now lives in New York, is one of Tennessee’s most accomplished multimedia artists.
The whimsical first-floor gallery, designed by local artist Lucie Rice, incorporates lots of state symbols to encourage children ages 3-8 to “explore, play and discover Tennessee’s history and culture” in a hands-on way.
“It will help us serve a younger audience,” said Howell, noting that the museum had no space for this age group in the old location. “We want them to come have fun and maybe learn a little something along the way.”
Veranda and Grand Hall
The museum’s two-story Grand Hall is accessible from all three entrances. There are 95 lights in the ceiling — one for every county in the state. The second-floor veranda overlooks Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, with views of the state Capitol and downtown. The veranda and Grand Hall are available for private events.
4 new things to know
1. The new museum, at 137,000 square feet, is smaller than its previous location in the basement of the Polk Center, where it had been housed since 1981.
2. There is a wider range of Tennessee history, from prehistoric days to today, while the old museum focused on Native American days through 1920.
3. There is a more educational focus, with classroom space for the more than 55,000 schoolchildren who visit each year, as well as a digital learning center/auditorium that will be used for events and programs for all ages. More than 100,000 visitors toured the state museum in 2017, and the hope is that the new museum will double that.
4. It has six rotating galleries, instead of just one in the old museum; visitors will get to see more of the 160,000-item permanent collection. The flexibility of the galleries also enables the museum to use two rooms for a larger exhibit or update existing collections in a timely way.
One thing that doesn’t change — the museum continues to be free.
When: Thursday, Oct. 4. Opening weekend hours are 1:30-8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Monday; and 1-5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Northwest corner of the Bicentennial Mall, Rosa Parks Boulevard and Jefferson Street.
Parking: There is a free parking lot between the museum and the Nashville Farmers’ Market, and along Sixth and Seventh avenues. On weekends, there is free parking in state employee lots.