I’ve lived in Tennessee for eight years, but I’d never visited a museum specifically about the history of my new state. That’s just sad for a history fan. In May, I decided I needed to change that and planned a trip to the Tennessee State Museum in downtown Nashville. Initially, I thought the museum would be kind of small and I’d see the entire museum in an hour or two. I was wrong. The museum was much larger, and much more interesting, than I thought!
I arrived in Nashville and immediately got lost. When I finally found the museum, I couldn’t find a parking space. I saw hundreds of people milling around the streets; I think a football game was scheduled for later in the day. I finally found a parking garage fairly close to the museum and grabbed a parking spot while I could.
The museum is inside a larger complex, the James K. Polk Cultural Center, which also is the home of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. I wandered in the main entrance and found a sign to the museum. I also saw a few hundred people milling around wearing black gowns. Graduation day. That’s why the area was so busy. I descended a flight of stairs to start the tour.
The museum is organized in chronological order. The first exhibit I found featured native American cultures in the area (The First Tennesseans). The displays were not just good, they were fabulous. Of course, I have a weakness for arrowheads and old stone tools and I was practically drooling as I made my way through the displays. The museum has some of the nicest stone tools and artifacts I’ve ever seen anywhere. That’s really saying something because I’ve seen some fabulous exhibits.
I saw huge, polished stone axes, stone cylinders that looked like they’d been created in a machine shop instead of by hand with no modern tools, delicate sculptures of woodland animals, and pottery crafted into beautiful forms. It was very well done.
The displays then moved into the beginnings of the historic era when Europeans first began to settle Tennessee (The Frontier). Back then, life was certainly very different. The woods were thick and filled with creatures that would (and did) eat people. The exhibits walk visitors through the early settlement period, describe how people made their way in the challenging landscape, and established new towns and cities. Some of the artifacts on display are really gorgeous. Hand-crafted wood furniture, a reconstructed sawmill, farming tools, and household items all give you a sense of what life was like in those years.
One of the next areas I found featured Andrew Jackson (The Age of Jackson). As one of the most colorful presidents in American history, he plays a prominent part in any history of Tennessee. Exhibits show how he gained national prominence, ran unsuccessfully for office against John Adams’ son, eventually won the presidency, and was considered the first “common man” to hold high office. You can see huge portraits of Jackson, many handwritten letters (including one where he challenges Charles Dickinson to a duel in 1806–he killed Dickinson). I also greatly enjoyed many of the political cartoon of the era. If people think today’s politics are brutal, you should look back to the campaigns of the early 1800s. Not pretty. I like to imagine what our modern campaigns would be like if one of the candidates liked to settle disputes by dueling.
Moving on, I found the Antebellum displays. Did you know that Antebellum is Latin for “before war?” The exhibits discuss the thriving culture of the era, plus the dependence on slavery to maintain that culture. The seeds of war can be seen throughout that era.
The exhibits also touch of many other aspects of antebellum culture. One of my favorite displays showed how we’re certainly not the first generation to get mad at bankers. The modern banking system has a long history of creating economic depressions.
Of course, everyone knows about the Civil War era. The museum does a great job of breaking down the steps towards war in Tennessee and explaining major battles and milestones during the Civil War. I will admit that Civil War history is not my favorite period so I did pass through this section a little faster than the others, but Civil War buffs will love this section of the museum.
After the war came the era called the New South. This era is long and varied and the exhibits are too. Whole areas describe Reconstruction after the Civil War, the plight of veterans, how the south revived its economy, and even touches on the unsavory history of the Ku Klux Klan. One of my favorite displays describes the suffragist movement to give women the right to vote. I could tell that many of my female predecessors in the state were truly feisty and fiery women. I am grateful to them for making sure I have an equal role in modern society.
There is so much more in the museum to see and experience. It would be impossible to describe everything I saw in the three hours I spent there (and I actually ran through the end of it as I was running out of time). But I will say that if you’re interested in history, make plans to visit this museum. It’s one of the best I’ve ever visited and I will definitely visit again.
Don’t bother trying to find a parking spot on the street. Head to the parking garage that’s green on this map. It’s easy to get to and very close to the museum.
How to get there:
Head to downtown Nashville and find the intersection of Fifth Ave. and Deaderick St. You can find driving directions here.
Open: Tuesday – Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday: 1 to 5 p.m.
Closed: Mondays and four holidays: New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.