If Willie Wonka lived in Nashville and loved history instead of candy, he would have opened Tennessee’s State Museum– an enormous and often bizarre collection of local artifacts that spans thousands of years of local history. Here’s everything you need to know before you visit the Tennessee State Museum.
I was a child in the technological Dark Ages. It was a time before family cars came equipped with wi-fi hotspots and individual screens. A time when ‘apps’ were something one ordered before entrees at TGI Friday’s. A time when Speak and Spells were the ultimate portable electronic device. Faced with such cruel limitations, I was forced to do something on long car trips that’s unthinkable today’s standards: use my imagination.
I still vividly remember a few of the elaborate stories I dreamed up on the way down to Florida or over endless miles of interstate to visit grandparents in Tennessee and Virginia. In one, I was spending an entire summer with a great aunt who lived in an ancient mansion with hundreds of unexplored rooms. The doddering old woman encouraged me to explore the place to my heart’s content, and as the highway unfurled in a blur outside my window, I opened door after door to imaginary rooms filled with priceless antiques, old love letters, crumbling wedding gowns and other delicious curiosities.
In another E.L. Konisberg-inspired fantasy, I was a runaway, secretly living inside an enormous museum filled with pyramid stones and life-sized portraits, hand-carved writing desks and jade fertility idols. I’d spend my evenings trying on the jewelry of queens and handling precious Faberge eggs before bedding down for the night in an overstuffed colonial bed that had once belonged to James Hancock.
I suspect most of you had similar fantasies growing up– and if that’s the case, you can revisit those memories right here in Nashville, at the Tennessee State Museum. Tucked away in the cavernous basement floors of the TPAC building (at least until the new state museum is completed in 2018), it is, first of all, enormous– 60,000 square feet, to be exact (another 60,000 square feet are devoted to the archives) — and filled with historical antiques, artifacts and oddities that will surprise, delight, and in some cases, horrify you.
To find it, enter the building wherever you like and head in a downward direction– either by stairs, elevator, or escalator– whatever you see first. As long as you’re going down, you’ll find the museum soon enough.
My best advice is to simply wander around the place on your first visit without looking for anything in particular. It’s easy to get lost here, but not so lost that you have a panic attack trying to find your way out. It’s also generally lacking in visitors, which makes calling out in a panic to the missing members of your party (something I’ve ended up doing pretty much every time I’ve visited) a lot less embarrassing.
Once you’ve made your way to the museum’s entrance, you’ll see the exhibits on your left and the museum store on your right. Save the museum store for last, but make sure you visit it before you leave — It’s one of the best shopping secrets in Music City. The museum store has an incredible selection of obscure books from small presses, covering everything from local hiking trails to ghost stories from every region to fascinating history books from all parts of Tennessee, as well as lots of locally made items and interesting books and educational toys for kids, all at lower prices than I’ve seen elsewhere.
Since admission is free, you can walk past the bored security guard nodding off behind the front desk and head straight into the First Tennesseans exhibit — It covers prehistoric Indian cultures from 15,000 years ago to about 1650 A.D. Each time I visit this section, I learn something new, and I feel like I never get to spend enough time here.
Check out the bones from a mastadon, discovered in the Harpeth River in Bellevue and believed to be about 10,000 years old. If you ride bikes on the Harpeth River Greenway, you might have noticed the sign at the Morton’s Mill end of the trail (just beyond the point where the bike path becomes a sidewalk), which marks the spot where those bones were found.
You’ll also see plenty of Prehistoric Indian artifacts on display, surprising in their detail and made more interesting when you read about and recognize the parts of Tennessee where they were found, like Mound Bottom in Cheatham County.
Don’t forget to look for the creepy life-sized display of prehistoric Indians beside a flickering electric ‘fire’ — They are the first of many reasons why it would be terrifying to be trapped here overnight.
Once you’ve gazed wonderingly at the dugout canoe, look around yourself– You’re now in the Tennessee Frontier exhibit. Check out the iconic covered wagon (used in 1800 on a trek from the East Coast down to Tennessee)– You can’t miss it. Your kids will appreciate the interactive features for children that begin in this exhibit and continue on throughout the museum.
This is where you’ll probably start to feel a bit overcome by all the stuff. I mean, there’s SO MUCH STUFF. You simply can’t take it all in at once– Do what I did and make a promise to yourself to come back more often (a promise I’ve kept, by the way.) You’ll find something (well, honestly, a LOT of somethings) new to get excited about every single time. Honest.
The last time I visited, I was nerdily excited to discover this lace cuff, which belonged to the late, great Charlotte Reeves Robertson. Robertson’s bio reads like female version of The Revenant (but waaaay better-That movie sucked). For starters, in the late 1700s, she boarded a rickety flat-bottomed boat with her four small children and traveled 1,000 miles down river in winter to join her husband in what’s now Nashville– Several men in her party were killed along the way, so Charlotte and a female servant had to take over the oars themselves, at times using them to fend off attacking Indians. Once she arrived at Fort Nashborough and got settled in, she saved the menfolk– with a newborn in her arms– by unleashing the fort’s hounds on Indians whom she realized were about attack them while they were out hunting. Later, she lost two sons to Indian attacks and nursed a third– who had been scalped— back to health. Did you ever?
I’ve heard stories about the incredible bravery and resourcefulness of this woman for years, so seeing this lace cuff was a little like finding Michael Jackson’s original glove from the Beat It video.
Then there are the stocks. Who doesn’t love stocks? My kids are fascinated by them, and they provide a great opportunity for threatening your children if they’re misbehaving during your museum visit! Give them a try if you’d like, but be careful– That wood is heavy!
Next, make your way onto The Age of Jackson exhibit. Love him or hate him (I’ll be honest — We’ve done a lot of reading about Andrew Jackson and we can’t stand the man), a lot happened during the time when Andrew Jackson was a major Tennessee figure, and here, you’ll find the artifacts to prove it.
For example, check out this lock of Andrew Jackson’s hair. Andrew Jackson’s actual hair, y’all. It is totally worth coming to this museum, heck, coming to Nashville, even, just for this exhibit alone– so that when someone asks you what you did that day, you can casually say, “Oh, I just spent some time with Andrew Jackson’s actual hair,” like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
During ‘The Age of Jackson’ (roughly 1820 to 1860), Tennessee’s population went from 400,000 to over a million — and one in every four of those citizens was a slave– so there’s plenty to see in this section of the museum.
This exhibit is an excellent opportunity to have a conversation with your kids about race relations in the United States, and how we got to where we are today. And with that in mind, let me recommend A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It provides a fascinating look at the side of history your kids aren’t reading about in their textbooks, it leads to many interesting discussions and it’s age-appropriate for kids 10 and up.
The Antebellum exhibit is next — Here, you will find this portrait gallery, another crazy room that’s impossible not to love. Allow the many eyes in these paintings to follow you as you try each and every cushion on the weird circular chair in the middle of the room. Then leave this room and try to find the most notable ‘artifact’ in the Antebellum exhibit…
THE MUMMY. Yes. There is a 3600-year-old mummy at the Tennessee State Museum, and finding him isn’t easy, which makes it all the more fun to search. I’m not posting an image mummy here only because I believe doing so
may invoke an Egyptian curse that will inflict pain and suffering on my family for generations to come is disrespectful. Plus? You really need to see this mummy in person. It’s in a coffin-like glass case, which allows you to get nose to nose with him, if that’s your thing. Added bonus: At the feet of this mummy is a MUMMY CAT, whose bones you can see if you look on the right side of the ‘mummified cat parcel.’ (That’s the technical term, right?)
Now is as good a time as any to tell you that when you see docents and security guards standing around at the museum, it’s worth your while to talk to them– They have MAJOR inside intel that will heighten your museum experience. It was a security guard, for example, who told us how to see the cat bones poking out of the cat mummy wrapper. Other security guards have gotten us additional printed information on exhibits that interested us, and docents have even spontaneously led us around on guided tours of the exhibits. In fact, the last time we were there, I met a docent with the last name ‘Hunley,’ who proudly informed me that he was a descendant of the Hunley for which the Hunley Submarine was named– He then led me us to a replica of the submarine at the museum and retold the story for us.
She’s seated inside a painted room that dates back to 1861, and she is yet another reason why you don’t want to ‘accidentally’ get locked inside this museum overnight. Just sayin’.
If you’re not completely overwhelmed with artifacts by now, you’ll arrive at the Civil War and Reconstruction exhibit– It’s worth making a separate visit just to see this section, because the museum’s Civil War collection is one of the best in the nation.
Even if you’re not that in to war paraphernalia (like me), you’ll find some interesting things here, like this actual Civil War musket ball that you can touch and manipulate yourself. And the display of a Civil War-era field doctor’s kit *shudder*– the tooth extractor alone makes me so very glad I wasn’t born 150 years ago. Keep looking and you’ll see a fragment of a human hip bone embedded with a bullet, discovered at a Civil War battlefield.
You can also see a collection of photographs taken of African American Union soldiers from Tennessee.
And that brings you to your final exhibit, The New South, which includes this crazy horse-drawn fire engine from 1900, as well as two more of my favorite exhibits–
One is on on the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, a six-month celebration held in 1897 and modeled after the Chicago World’s Fair back in 1893. This is why the Parthenon was built, y’all. Photos, music, and display pieces from that celebration give you an idea of what a big deal it was.
I especially love a chair on display that was R.H. Macy and Company in New York and displayed at the Exposition. It was later discovered in a junk shop– Markings on the bottom of the chair helped identify it and this photograph helped historians confirm it was one of the display pieces in the Women’s Building.
The other is an exhibit I’m hoping will be expanded in the new museum– Tennessee played a pivotal role in the passage of the bill that allowed women to vote and there’s a small exhibit acknowledging this major story in our state’s history.
There’s more, y’all. So. Much. More. These are just a few highlights. You’ll find that this museum becomes something of an addiction– I went for the first time about a year ago and I’ve been at least four times since then!
Here’s the lowdown on what you need to know before you go:
The Tennessee State Museum is located in downtown Nashville at 505 Deaderick St. Admission is free. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10-5; Sun., 1-5. The museum is closed on major holidays. Call (615) 741-2692 for more information.
Obviously, parking downtown is an issue– We park in the downtown library parking deck, spend some time there, then walk a block over the the museum. That way, parking is never more than $5.
There are INCREDIBLE resources online to help you and your kids learn more about the exhibits at the museum. I’ve linked to many of them in the post, but here’s a short list:
–The Tennessee State Museum’s student resources. This site contains TONS of information and lesson plans for teachers and students about the museum’s exhibits. Definitely worth checking out.
-Tennessee History for Kids is a one of my favorite history sites– It has lots of local history in an easy-to-understand format that you won’t find elsewhere.
Wondering where the World War I and II exhibits are? You can find them across the street, at the Military Branch Museum inside the War Memorial Building, which is right beside the State Capitol. This museum covers America’s overseas conflicts, from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to the Vietnam War. We haven’t yet made it over, but we plan to– I hear there’s a substantial exhibit on Sgt. Alvin York and since we saw the movie over the summer, the kids are dying to learn more. The Military Branch is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Got more tips? Share them in the comments!