Telling Tennessee's story in a grand new way
How much do you know about the history of Tennessee? Even if you’ve lived here most of your life like I have, there’s a lot to cover. The state stretches nearly 500 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Mississippi River and people have called it home for more than 10,000 years. A magnificent museum (Opened in October 2018) on Bicentennial Mall in Nashville is charged with telling the story of a state that’s home to famous historical and pop culture figures like Davy Crockett (not really born on a mountaintop), Andrew Jackson (the General and President), Elvis (the King) and East Tennessee’s own Dolly Parton.
As you approach the entrance to the new Tennessee State Museum, you get the feeling there’s a BIG story to be told inside. Stately columns stretch around the Grand Hall which overlooks Bicentennial Mall. The design is an ode to the state’s antebellum homes, courthouses and landmark buildings like the State Capitol. Just beyond the entrance is a courtyard and water feature symbolizing the importance of rivers in the state.
The centerpiece of the Tennessee State Museum is its Grand Hall, visible as soon as you walk in the door. The large stars inlaid in the marble floor mark the three grand divisions of Tennessee (East, Middle & West). These symbols are also used on the state flag which you see a lot of in this part of Nashville. Floor to ceiling windows let in abundant light and make the Grand Hall a great spot for receptions and other events. There are 95 lights in the hall representing the state’s counties.
Begin your journey through the museum with a stop at the information desk, then be sure and look up through the rotunda. Along the edges of the opening, the patterns you see represent the petals of a passion flower, the state’s official wildflower. Other things to check out on the ground floor are the museum’s theater and the children’s gallery. The main exhibits are on the upper level.
Tennessee’s Time Tunnel, makes the journey through the Volunteer State’s history exciting. This “tunnel” allows entry into larger exhibit areas, each highlighting a different era in the state’s history. Interactive exhibits and video presentations help bring history to life. One that stood out on my recent visit was the map in the Civil War section. Just touch a county and learn ways the Civil War impacted the people there even if a battle wasn’t fought nearby.
Artifacts play an important role in any museum and the permanent collection on display is amazing. You’ll find a pocket watch William Blount gave John Sevier (Tennessee’s First Governor), a car made in Nashville’s Marathon Auto plant and a few relics telling the story of the mine wars in Anderson County.
From prehistoric times through the present, this history lessons can be a little overwhelming for just one visit. In the museum’s former home, traveling through history stopped in the 1920’s. Now, the museum tells the story of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Secret City of Oak Ridge’s and the courage of the Clinton 12. Together, the Time Tunnel and all its portals help paint a more complete picture of the people and events that have brought us to the 21st Century.
For decades, plans have been in the works to move the Tennessee State Museum to its home on Bicentennial Mall, another place to take a walk through the state’s history. It’s location and design have a specific purpose, something that’s most evident when you step out onto the second story veranda. In one direction, you see the 95-bell Carillon at the north end of the mall and in the other direction you see the State Capitol directly in your line of sight.
When Bicentennial Mall first opened in 1996, I was working just a few blocks away at WTVF-TV. I remember hearing about the detail that went into building this monument to history, knowing that someday other buildings like the Tennessee State Museum would be a part of this grand space, kind of like the National Mall in Washington, DC. Both places help you experience Tennessee in unique ways, and best of all, visits to both are free.