Visiting a museum is always a unique experience, as each one has its own distinct characteristics, style, and of course, content. That's especially true in Memphis, where museums tend to be smaller, intensely subject-focused, and absolutely fascinating.
History buffs will find the story of the Mississippi River and its importance to the city at the Mississippi River Museum on scenic Mud Island, while the city's most notorious event - the assassination of Dr. Mr. Luther King, Jr at the Lorraine Motel - is captured in realistic detail at the National Civil Rights Museum. A multimillion dollar renovation in 2014 brought even more impact at the museum through the use of interactive technology and updated exhibits and displays.
Art comes in many forms - metal, for one. All over the city, wrought iron decorations and signs adorn buildings and homes, and the history of metal work comes to vivid life at the National Ornamental Museum, located right on the banks of the Mississippi River. The decorative arts of Europe and America are well documented at the Brooks Museum, and fine paintings and jewels are often the subject of exhibits at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, where the pastoral setting sometimes competes with the objects on display.
Music is to Memphis what water is to a fish - part of necessary life - and the city's musical roots and soulful style are found through Stax and the Rock 'n' Soul Museum.
And kids get their due, too - with a few offerings aimed just at them (but pleasing to parents as well).
Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Since 1976, this museum has housed a spectacular Impressionist collection including Degas, Monet and Pisarro, and the collection of art is rivaled only by the gorgeous gardens surrounding what was once one of Memphis' finest estates.
The late Hugo and Margaret Dixon willed the house and grounds to the people of Memphis in order to establish this museum. The original Dixon collection included works by French and American Impressionists.
Traveling exhibits are usually exquisite collections based on a certain theme or time period, and while small in scope are rich with offerings.
Special concerts and picnic opportunities are offered from spring through fall in the gardens, many with no admission required. (901-761-5250)
National Ornamental Metal Museum
Decorative metalwork is a hallmark of the design and architecture of the American South, and the Metal Museum is dedicated to the art of fine metalwork, as well as its history.
Exhibits range from an examination of piercing to antique weapons; wandering through four galleries filled with artifacts and artwork are always an interesting way to spend an afternoon. Intricate gates and signs are of particular interest to Southerners, who still seek out those historic elements on their homes.
Working artists are often on hand to demonstrate their crafts,and there's even a working blacksmith shop on site. A beautiful sculpture garden on the grounds overlooking the Mississippi is one of the most scenic spots in town. (901-774-6380)
Children's Museum of Memphis
Kids rejoice! At this museum, you're supposed to touch everything! Hands-on, interactive exhibits and activities for children are the focus here.
Exhibit topics range from waterworks to health, recycling to house construction, money to transportation. The special theater area has costumes and puppets for performing plays, as well as painting, sculpting, and weaving.
Transportation exhibits have a motion simulator, hot air balloon, even a mini-van that kids can "drive" and "repair." A splash / play area opened in 2013, adding an extra dash of fun, weather permitting.
One of the most popular exhibits is the Skyscraper – a multi-level, vertical maze for kids over four. Tots have their very own Playscape – with a toddler-size treehouse, and a host of other stuff for little ones to explore. A small cafe and brown bag area, and a gift shop are also on the premises. (901-458-2678)
Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum
Think of the Memphis Rock n' Soul Museum as the broad overview of Memphis music. With exhibits about gospel, the blues, Elvis, the rise of soul, and crunk - all decidedly made-or-born-in-Memphis genres, the museum offers the big picture of Memphis' role in American musical history.
With exhibitions created through a partnership of the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History, the museum is actually on the old Highway 61 - known as the Blues Highway - and tucked just behind Beale Street in the FedEx Forum. According to the Rock 'n' Soul web site, historians working on the exhibit..."continually returned to the Delta and Memphis, Tennessee for what is finally declared as the 'roots of America's music'" .... and their findings make up the exhibits.
Those looking for in-depth stories about Memphis music will want to continue their education at Sun Studio, Graceland, and Stax. (901-205-2533)
Fire Museum of Memphis
The Fire Museum of Memphis occupies the old Engine House Number One in downtown Memphis, built in 1910.
The museum depicts the life of a firefighter and presents vintage equipment dating from the early 1900s, including a restored 1897 Hale Water Tower,which was actually used through 1973 to fight fires in buildings higher than two stories.
The "Fire Room" exhibit uses advanced technology to deliver true-life effects of past fires and disasters. You'll actually feel the heat as you view firefighters tackling huge flames. Even better, a talking horse tells stories of yesteryear firefighting! Other exhibits include a 1910 horse-drawn steam engine, a pictorial history of the city's first African American firefighters, and interactive exhibits that teach fire safety and educate about emergency services, from EMS to 9-1-1. A beautiful memorial wall is dedicated the firefighters who died in the line of duty. (901-320-5650)
Chucalissa Archaeological Museum
Chucalissa is Choctaw for "abandoned house," and at this museum visitors can see reconstructed houses dating from the 15th century AD - but the real attraction is the live archeological site, used as a lab for training archaeologists as well as a museum to educate about the early lives of Native Americans.
A reconstructed village and other historic artifacts create a tableau for visitors. The museum itself was founded in the late 1950s following a discovery of a Mississippian (AD 1000 - 1500) mound complex; it explores the prehistory of the Mid-South, contemporary Southeastern Native Americans, and the African American cultural heritage of the Chucalissa site. (901-785-3160)
Mud Island River Park & Mississippi River Museum
Mud Island is reached by an aerial tram (you may remember it from the Tom Cruise movie, The Firm) and features a to-scale model of the Mississippit River that one can walk along, noting the changing conditions of the river.
The Mississippi River Museum explores the 10,000-year history of the Mississippi, noting how it developed and what the areas around it have drawn from the river. The Belle of the Bluffs, the reconstructed front half of an 1870s steamboat, complete with cotton bales stacked on the lower deck and water lapping at the hull.
The Memphis Blues exhibit highlights the music of the Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, early rock 'n roll, and Elvis.
Mud Island's pay-one-price package includes entry to the museum, a round-trip monorail ride, and a guided tour of the five-block scale model of the Mississippi. (901-576-7241, 800-507-6507)
National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum underwent a year-long, multi-million dollar rebirth, re-opening the full museum in 2014 with more interactivity, deeper exhibits, and an even better telling of the stories of the American civil rights movement.
One of the most emotionally moving museums in America, the NCRM chronicles the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike – right in the very building where King was standing when gunned down. Exhibits in the Lorraine Motel, where King and his entourage were staying, and the boarding house across the street – where gunman James Earl Ray camped out – tell the history of the civil rights movement, leading up to the assassination of King and the hunt for his killer. In addition, the pioneers of civil rights are profiled in a special exhibit dedicated to those the museum recognizes in its annual human rights awards. (901-521-9699)
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
The lesser known of Memphis' major musical attractions, Stax is one of the richest experiences in the city for music lovers.
Home to what became known as the Memphis Sound, Stax is where Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, the Staple Singers and many others recorded hundreds of Top 100 hits in the 1960s and early '70s.
Known as Soulsville USA, the excellent museum traces the history of soul music from its roots in the blues and gospel, and offers a fantastic history of American pop culture form the 70's – including Isaac Hayes' tripped-out Cadillac and a hall of gold records which astounds with its depth of talent and hits.
Keep an eye out for multiple Grammy winner Kirk Whalum; the soulful sax man, a Memphis native, is now the director of the Stax Foundation and frequently on premises. (901-946-2535, 888-942-7685)
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Located in a 1916 building that was given a space-expanding, award-winning addition, Memphis Brooks Museum features collections of fine and decorative arts from antiquity to the present.
You'll find works representing French Impressionists, the Italian Renaissance, and Baroque masters, along with 20th-century American and modernist works. Exhibitions tend to be smaller, given the space, but that doesn't make them any less worthy - and actually is part of the appeal of the museum.
The excellent Brushmark Restaurant is open for lunch daily and is a lovely setting, offering some of the best bites around.
The museum and museum store are open on Thursday evenings until 8, and the Brushmark seats diners until 8 p.m. - the only night it is open for dinner. (901-544-6200)
About Sally Walker Davies
Sally Walker Davies is enchanted by Memphis' music, history, and characters. From the artsy South Main Historic District to the grittiness of her favorite live music clubs to the sophisticated style of the eastern edge of the city, there’s a Memphis for every mood, and she loves every part of it.
Walker Davies is an experienced broadcast, print, and online journalist focusing on travel, writing for the Commercial Appeal, AOL Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and The Tennessean. She is the author of Tennessee: An Explorer’s Guide and the Elvis-themed travel app King Me: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Royalty Tour.
Read more about Sally Walker Davies here.
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