Memphis 2.0

This is the second installment of my Memphis reviews. Before returning to Nashville, we stopped at the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s partly located in the Lorraine Hotel where Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

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Lorraine Hotel

The first section of the museum chronologically guides you through significant Civil Rights moments. It starts with a small section on slavery. Although small, it provides an overview that places the rest of the museum in context. You are then guided through the Civil War, Brown Vs Board of Education, Freedom Rides, etc. etc. Each section is clearly divided through the use of different coloured boards and information panels. It’s a very informative museum with didactic exhibitions that present narratives. Even though there is a large overriding narrative, each different section also contains its own story that can be traced through the text and objects.

Large amounts of text are almost always accompanied by films and photographs. There are objects on display, however, these begin to peter out as the museum progresses. In some sections there are large objects on display including a Freedom Rides bus and a reconstructed Woolworths counter from North Carolina. Alongside all of this there are many oral history interviews you can listen to relating to most of the events. The museum, therefore, provides a multitude of ways in which you can interact with the subject matter.

For me, the most powerful section was on Rosa Parks and the rise of Dr King. A bus similar to the one that Parks refused to stand in is on display. The thematic panels dotted around the room explained the event in detail and explored the aftermath as well as the actual event itself. I similarly found myself reading every panel in the section on the Woolworths counter sit-ins.

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Example of Montgomery bus.

Before exiting the museum you can walk through a memorial to Dr King. In the preserved Lorraine Hotel, you can see his hotel room, as it was, on the day of the assassination. There is a segment of museum across the road where the assassin was situated. This section focuses on what occurred after 1968 and the legacy of Dr King.

Both sections are clearly emotional places. In terms of how the museum is pieced together, these exhibitions are extremely well curated.

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Woolworth’s counter sit-in bench from North Carolina

Memphis 1.0

I’ve decided to separate my posts on Memphis considering we visited two extremely different heritage sites/museums. Both, I believe, deserve their own focus.

The first I want to review is Graceland – the former home of Elvis Presley. Just to be clear it is a massive tourist site drawing around 800 people a day in off season and up to 2 000 during peak season. You will find tacky shops and just about everything Elvis-themed under the sun. This, however, should not detract you from visiting. I wanted to see Graceland for two reasons. One, I’ve heard it’s a beautiful house and two, I spent a lot of Sunday afternoons sitting at home with nothing to watch on TV but old Elvis movies.

At Graceland you have the opportunity to tour his house and the surrounding gardens, and see a little museum. The tour is very high tech with each visitor receiving an iPad to guide them around. I really enjoyed the tour. It was well paced and gave a nice overview of everything. I don’t like those audio guides that spend 10-15 minutes in front of each object/room. All it achieves, in my opinion, is congestion.

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As for the inside of the house, it is filled with original furniture and objects that will take you back to the 1970s. In the jungle-themed living room there is shag pile carpet not only on the floor, but also, on the roof.

After touring the house and the back garden paddocks you visit the trophy building. This is where the little museum is located. It contains a lot of Elvis’ clothing and his gold record collection. There were just over 125 gold records on display! You can switch off the audio guide at this stage and read the object descriptions.

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Gold Records

Graceland is also where Elvis is now buried and right at the end of the tour you can visit the meditation gardens and pay your respects. In total, the tour lasted around an hour. Ignoring the multitude of gift shops at the visitor center the house itself has been managed very well. It’s a tastefully done tour and a great site filled with music heritage.

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Living Room (first on tour)

I’ll post in a couple of days or so on the National Civil Rights Museum also located in Memphis.

Civil War Heritage

If you ever find yourself in Nashville I highly recommend the Civil War tour offered by Grayline. On this tour you have the opportunity to learn about the Battle of Franklin (known as the five bloodiest hours of the Civil War) at three different heritage sites: Carter House, Lotz House, and the Carnton Plantation. All sites are incredibly well preserved and offer a slightly different perspective on the life and times of those who resided in Franklin during this battle.

My personal favourite was the Carter House. The visitor center museum is a great place to start your visit. You can learn a little about the Carter family and see some of their more fragile possessions. It’s pretty unbelievable to think that on November 30, 1864, 20 000 Union soldiers essentially showed up uninvited to settle in and around the house. They were met by Confederate soldiers. Between approximately 4 pm and 9 pm, a battle ensued resulting in over 10 000 casualties. During this time the family hid in the basement emerging at midnight to absolute carnage.

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Carter House

The guided tour of the house lasts around an hour and thoroughly takes you through all the rooms explaining who occupied them and general background information. The most shocking part of the tour was being shown the bullet holes in the side of the house.

Across the road is the Lotz House. It is almost the same as the Carter house in that the tour explained the background of the family who lived there and what happened to them during the battle. It’s interesting to hear how two families, across the road from each other, experienced the battle and the aftermath differently.

The final stop, the Carnton Plantation owned by the McGavock family, was a Confederate hospital during and post-battle. The most eerie thing about this house was the operating table where many amputations were performed. Our tour guide was very respectful of the blood stains on the floor utilizing them to talk about the possible experiences of those who were cared for in the house. The plantation also contained a Confederate soldier cemetery, smokehouse, and an example of slave quarters specific to that plantation.

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Carnton Plantation

Although these houses exist today and are, in my opinion, incredibly valuable assets in teaching Civil War history their value hasn’t always been appreciated. The first two, Carter and Lotz, came so close to being demolished to make way for various building projects. It’s great to see that this didn’t happen and that the houses have been preserved and maintained to educate visitors today.

If you would like more information on any of the houses we visited the links are below!

http://www.boft.org/carter-house.htm

http://www.lotzhouse.com/

http://www.boft.org/carnton.htm

Athens of the South

I wanted to write a quick blog entry on the Tennessee State Museum and the Parthenon.

Firstly, the Tennessee State Museum is located very close to the Tennessee State Capitol. It is an absolutely huge museum covering the entire history of Tennessee. And I mean the entire history from the prehistoric period to today. The museum starts with an overview of relevant Native American history. The other two floors are focused on the Antebellum and Civil War periods. We found it impossible to read every label and see every object. Basically the museum struck me as more of a place where you wander around and read what looks appealing.

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It was a bit overwhelming so we enjoyed retreating to the temporary exhibition area. There was a fantastic exhibition on display by artist Jessica Ingram. It included a series of very harrowing photographs of locations in Mississippi and Tennessee where attacks on African Americans took place prior to the 1960s. Each photograph was accompanied by their story. It was a very powerful exhibition.

Moving on to something completely different – the Parthenon. In the middle of Centennial Park is a life-sized replica of the Parthenon. It is one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. It was left over from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition. Inside, is one of the worlds largest free-standing sculptures depicting Athena. The rest of the museum contained a limited number of objects but did give a general idea of the exposition. There were some medals and ribbons on display.

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This city continues to amaze me.

Presidents’ Day at the Hermitage

President Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States of America serving from 1829 to 1837. The Hermitage in Nashville was the living quarters of Jackson and his family. It was also a cotton and tobacco plantation. Today, the Hermitage is regarded by many as the best preserved early Presidential home. I have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to visit this site.

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The Hermitage is divided into a visitor center (museum), the actual Hermitage mansion, and the plantation grounds. As opposed to telling the story of President Jackson, it also endeavours to display and interpret the stories of the slaves who worked on the plantation. I’ll talk about this a bit later on.

When you arrive at the Hermitage your first stop is the visitor center. In here you learn about the life and times of Andrew Jackson. My knowledge of early American Presidents is very limited so I was relieved to read a bit of context before seeing the mansion. I equally enjoyed how the museum employed visuals and interactive elements to reduce the amount of text on display. Take, for example, the Battle of New Orleans. Apart from a few objects scattered around the place and a couple of thematic text panels, in the middle of the exhibition was a large interactive computer. This explained the important elements of the battle and kept things interesting.

For an introductory museum, a lot of information was covered in a small space. I left with a general gist of who Jackson was and why he was important. I feel as though I belonged in the target audience of the museum (limited knowledge). For those who are more familiar, the museum may be a little too basic. However, in saying that the objects are very much worth seeing.

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Medicine Chest belonging to Jackson.

After the center we walked up to the mansion. When you reach the front door a staff member dressed in period clothing greets you and takes you on a 20-30 minute tour. It’s really a beautiful mansion containing original wallpaper and furniture. The staff we encountered were incredibly knowledgeable and this really added to the experience.

When you exit the house the tour of the grounds begin. This is self-guided tour with an audio guide unit. Unfortunately it was raining too heavily for us to listen to the audio. We basically ran from location to location to avoid the cold. Although Jackson is obviously mentioned on the grounds tour, there is a shift in focus to the slaves and the plantation. There is a really nice walk you can do that starts at the back of the gardens and takes you on a short journey to see the slave quarters. It is great to see the Hermitage not shying away from this history but embracing and displaying it.

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For an idea of scale there are two log cabins in this photograph. One is right in the background.

The grounds also include the graves of the Jackson family and the original Hermitage building. There were a lot of text panels scattered throughout and we tried to read them all! Many were on the archaeological excavations that have occurred at the site and the objects that have been uncovered. Many of these objects relate to the slaves including buttons, marbles, combs, and even small toys. They can be seen in the preserved log cabins.

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Contains the graves of Andrew and Rachael Jackson.

Overall, the Hermitage is a great place to spend a day. There is so much to see and even more to learn!

‘Music City’ Museums

Our first day in Nashville was filled with museums, snow, and amazing food. The first museum/heritage site on our itinerary was the Ryman Auditorium. Technically speaking it is a National Historic Landmark and has been since 2001.

First a little history. Originally the Auditorium was the Union Gospel Tabernacle built in 1892 and funded by Mr Thomas Ryman. In 1906, Ryman died and the Tabernacle was re-named the Ryman Auditorium. It came under the ownership of Lula C. Naff until around the 1950s. From the 1940s until the 1970s it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry radio station. Between the 1970s and 1990s the building was uninhabited and eventually deteriorated. Finally, the building was renovated and restored to what it is today. That is oversimplifying what really is a fascinating history. For the sake of this post, it’s a start to get you interested.

There are two tours you can take of the Auditorium – the self guided and the guided backstage. We opted for the self-guided. Both tours, however, begin with a short film that explains the history of the building. When it’s finished you are free to go forth and explore. It’s clear to see a lot of love and passion has gone in to restoring the Auditorium to its former glory. I loved the little display case explaining the conservation work that went on behind-the-scenes to uncover the original paint colour of the walls.

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Right at the back of the first and second levels are display cases containing costumes worn by famous country music stars and some surprising objects. My personal favourite was a yellow and white Suffragette sash. In 1914 over 1 000 women delegates gathered in the Auditorium to further the suffrage cause hence why they have that particular object. Overall, it was great to see how restoration and conservation have worked together to save this piece of history.

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Moving on to the second museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. This museum is massive. There are two levels that trace the development of country music right from the beginning to now. The first exhibition we visited was on Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley are just two of the big names who were signed to this label. The layout of the exhibition was easy to follow and there were interactive elements. For example, in the middle of the room is a sound booth where you can listen to famous songs released by Sun Records.

I really enjoyed the permanent exhibition. The museum has a very impressive collection including 98% of all commercially released sound recordings prior to World War II and thousands of costumes. The museum’s archives are kept behind a glass wall and are in full view when you’re on the second level.

Moving on to what exactly is on display. Basically the display cases trace the history of country music and the musicians who made this genre famous. There are some pretty spectacular costumes on display and too many guitars to count. The highlight object for me was on the first floor – Elvis’ gold-diamond-fishscale coated car. It’s a very nice car but something tells me it would not be roadworthy today.

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What’s great about this museum is the amount of multimedia you have access to. Around every corner is a sound recording or movie. Considering it is a museum dedicated to country music I was hoping and expecting for this to be the case.

It is a text heavy museum so trying to read everything will leave you quite fatigued. Your ticket is valid all day though so it might be wise to leave after one level for a break and come back to tackle the next. The text is worth reading if you have limited knowledge about country music (that’s me). If you’re not a big museum-text reader, you’ll still have a great time listening to the music and watching some classic vintage footage.

Visit both museums to really get a sense of why Nashville is the Music City!

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Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Today we visited a very impressive living history museum called the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. This museum transports you from Miami to Italy and even a little bit of Paris. It is a huge mansion built by James Deering in 1914 with construction finishing in 1916. The contents of the house were sourced by Deering and his friend Paul Chaflin from all over Europe. In one of the rooms there are even antiquities from Pompeii. If the house isn’t grand enough, the gardens are simply stunning. Fountains imported from Italy, hedge mazes, and a small garden theatre are just a few of the things on offer.

Where to begin. Entering Vizcaya is an experience in itself. After walking through palm trees and mangroves you reach a small ticket office. If you have an hour and a bit I would definitely recommend the audio guide tour. It is great if you don’t want to rush through. After collecting the audio guide you walk a long pathway filled with marble statutes and fountains to the main entrance. Originally exposed to the elements, the entry is now enclosed in a glass case protecting the objects inside. There are around 32 stops on the audio guide that take you through the bedrooms, kitchen, courtyard, and living rooms of the house. The most interesting aspect of the house is how technologically-advanced it was for its time. There are vacuum cleaner ports on the floor, elevators, and even a dumbwaiter.

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The furnishings of the house were as beautiful and grand as anything I’ve seen in Europe. What makes it more surprising is that it’s in Miami!

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After the one hour guided tour of the house we stepped outside into the gardens. They are jam-packed with small shell-covered caves, pergolas, marble statues, and fountains. It is an incredibly large garden to walk around so I recommend you take your time. Every aspect of it is worth seeing.

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It is also worth noting that there are many methods of interpretation available. I’ve already mentioned the audio guide, however, there are labels in each of the rooms and guided tours that occur daily. The labels are text-heavy so I really recommend the audio guide tour!

The highlight of the entire museum for me was the front of the house on the bay and the gondola poles modeled on the ones in Venice. It is not difficult to see that Deering was an Italophile. It was a really lovely museum to escape to in Miami. Similar to Epcot and the World Showcase, I feel yet again like I have been transported to somewhere else in the world then beamed back. A lot of great preservation work was happening whilst we were there so I only hope the museum grows and preserves this unique piece of Italy in Miami.

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