State Museum tells Tennessee stories new and old

TML Communications Specialist

Tennessee’s history has a new home at the recently opened Tennessee State Museum at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville.

One of the oldest and largest state museum collections in the nation, the museum was previously located in the lower levels of the James K. Polk State Office Building for 35 years. The new 137,000-square-foot facility was financed through $120 million in state funding and $30 million in private contributions and is expected to host some 220,000 visitors annually.

Joe Pagetta, director of communications for the museum, said the new location is built specifically to tell the story of Tennessee.

“The biggest difference between the old and new location is that this building was built specifically as a museum, and it was built for the visitor,” Pagetta said. “In its previous locations, at War Memorial from 1937-1981, and the Polk Center from 1981 until earlier this year, the museum was retrofitted into an existing location. Here, architects and exhibit designers worked together to create a museum that focused entirely on how visitors would move through it and engage with the exhibitions, and gather in public spaces. The space difference is somewhat negligible as a result, but the way that space is used is better.”

Technology has been widely incorporated to the new museum to help visitors better interact and learn from the exhibits.

“All of the permanent exhibitions include introductory documentary films, and audio soundscapes that put the visitor into the experience,” Pagetta said. “Additionally, many of the exhibitions include interactive tables and displays where they can scroll and click through to learn about early American treaties, how the Civil War affected the entire state, significant stories and individuals from counties throughout the state. In Civil War and Reconstruction, visitors can interact with a Civil War soldier who shares stories from life during the war. In the State of Sound: Tennessee’s Musical Heritage, listening stations throughout the gallery offer an opportunity to discover the blues, jazz, country, bluegrass, and more from throughout history and across the state.”

New learning centers at the museum also have a wide range of technology available.

“Our Digital Learning Center is an auditorium with state of the art sound and audio capability that will enable us to livestream and archive lectures and discussions,” Pagetta said. “We have smart classrooms in the education suite that enable our educators to connect with students and teachers throughout Tennessee. Even at our information desk in the rotunda, there are interactive wayfinding stations to help guide you through the exhibits and find the restrooms and lockers.”

This new technology is just one of the ways the new location helps the museum showcase the state’s history on a new level.

“There is only so much you can tell with an artifact and a text label with 60 to 100 words,” Pagetta said. “Being able to present films, and interactive displays, and large graphic panels, enables us to tell more stories and to tell them more deeply. Plus the Expansion of Change and Challenge and Tennessee Transforms allow us to tell a fuller story. We can all agree that much has happened in our history since 1920 – when the old locations exhibitions ended. There is Tennessee post-WWI, Women’s Suffrage, WWII, Civil Rights, Iindustry, advances in agriculture, andthe TVA. They are all part of the story.”

Pagetta said the increased amount of space at the new facility has also allowed the museum to display items in its collections that have previously been unseen or that haven’t been displayed in long periods of time.

“The new museum’s permanent exhibitions, and multiple temporary exhibition spaces, provide an opportunity to display artifacts we have had in our collection but have not been able to exhibit,” he said. “We have a 13-star silk Revolutionary War era flag – one of only about 20 in existence – that underwent a year and a half of conservation and is now on display. Lloyd Branson’s iconic 1915 painting, ‘Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals’ is exhibited in its original frame for the first time in 30 years. There is a rare fiber moccasin in our First Peoples exhibit that has never been exhibited. We have Union General George Thomas’s sword, which has never been exhibited.”

Many of the unexhibited items are also from periods the museum previously hasn’t explored.

“We have a Women’s Suffrage Banner in Change and Challenge that has never been exhibited, and a Marathon Motor Works car.,” Pagetta said. “Nothing in Tennessee Transforms has been exhibited before, including items connected to Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and Tina Turner.”

While much of the museum’s collection was begun in the 1930s, Pagetta said the museum still receives and seeks out donations for exhibits.

“Many of our oldest artifacts came into the collection when the General Assembly created the Museum in 1937 to consolidate World War I mementoes and other collections from the state, the Tennessee Historical Society and other groups,” he said. “A good example of that would be the Ralph E. W. Earl portrait from 1817. But since then, artifacts have arrived through a variety of means, including donations. We also have an acquisition budget to purchase items curators feel is important to the story of Tennessee. We’re always seeking artifacts and still receive donations.”

For Pagetta, it’s hard to pick just one item or one exhibit that stands out among all of the state’s collections.

“I think I go back and forth between Forging a Nation and Change and Challenge,” he said. “Forging contains some of those artifacts regarding slavery and the Trail of Tears. I’m proud of the full story it tells. Andrew Jackson’s inauguration hat is there, complete with its black mourning band to mark Rachel Jackson’s death. There is also the Trail the Tears and Jackson signing the order for removal. So the visitor than gathers this history and has to come to some of their own conclusions, and it’s complicated.”

Pagetta said the 1800s mark one of the most tumultous times in Tennessee history.

“So much happens in Tennessee and American history in those 100 years, and it’s very messy.,” he said. “There are great stories, too, of course. In the gallery we also have an 1800s-era print shop modelled on the Knoxville Gazette printing press. So we also tell the story of the press and printing at that time.”

Pagetta said the Change and Challenge exhibit highlights more modern history.

“It includes some extraordinary artifacts connected to WWI and Tennesseans who served, and learning those stories has been eye opening,” he said. “As a cyclist, there are also a couple of vintage turn of the century bicycles in there I love.”

Of course, the most important part of the museum is connecting modern day visitors to the past.

“It’s cliché to talk about knowing where we’ve been to understand where we’re going, but I truly believe it,” he said. “Communing with our past, with the people who came before us, their successes and failures and mistakes, helps us put our present in context and better move into the future. There is something about knowing a story, and then connecting to it through an actual artifact, that brings it that much closer.

“We can talk about slavery, but it’s another thing entirely to see shackles and chains that were placed on another human being, he said. “Or to talk about the Trail of Tears, and see a Cherokee coat worn by a person as they were being forced from their homeland. I’m moved every time I see Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize certificate. That artifact gets you closer to the humanity. And then, of course, Tennessee’s history is America’s history, whether it’s the three presidents from here, our role in passing the 19th Amendment, our music history, and our significant role in the Civil Rights movement. It’s imperative we know who and what came before.”

Though the museum only opened its doors to the public in October, Pagetta said there is much more on the horizon.

“We’re excited to use those six temporary galleries to dig into our collection and tell more stories,” he said. “We have a Tennessee quilt exhibition on tap for February, and a Southern Foodways exhibition after that. We’re looking forward to marking the centennial of the passing of the 19th amendment in 2020. With all of these and more, we’re looking forward to presenting programing and inviting the public in to engage with history.”

The museum is comprised of six permanent exhibitions ranging from First Peoples beginning in 13,000 BCE to present day, six temporary galleries highlighting the work of Red Grooms, Tennessee’s Musical Heritage and WWI, among others, a children’s gallery, a Digital Learning Center, and more.

To learn more about the museum, visit