secret_history (2006-06)


Good news for the long-awaited Museum of East Tennessee History

by Jack Neely

Every city needs a history museum. In Knoxville’s case, the need may be especially acute. The place has some explaining to do. Nearly everyone who visits, and many who have lived their whole lives here, seem bewildered by this place, the city and the valleys and mountains surrounding it.

We need some kind of guide, some Cliff Notes. Knoxville hasn’t had a history museum for all too long, but with the boost of a major new grant from the state, things are finally looking up for the Museum of East Tennessee History.

Its absence has been one of the ironies of downtown’s resurgence. There were times in the late ’90s, especially on a Sunday afternoon, when the museum was the only life on Market Street.

Since the museum closed for renovation and expansion in 2003, its neighborhood has boomed. Renovated Market Square, one tree-lined block away, is now livelier than it has been in decades. The Tennessee Theatre, directly across Gay Street, has reopened as a performing-arts center, and is more popular than it’s been since the ’60s. A few hundred new residents, most of them pretty well heeled, have moved into the immediate neighborhood. While all that was happening, the history museum, on the ground floor of the old Custom House at Market and Clinch, has been dark and empty.

The history museum first opened fully in 1996 after a roughly 10-year gestation period. One thing people noticed, though, was that it was always a little cramped, a twisty maze of interesting stuff, Davy Crockett’s rifle, a tattered Confederate flag, a famous painting of marble haulers by Lloyd Branson, an 1812 diary with a cursive ink stain that’s believed to be the first reference to Tennessee Volunteers.

Even the early planners acknowledged that the 5,000 square feet then allowed by the space wasn’t much room for a proper museum to convey such a complicated story. Dreams of expanding it seemed to come true five years ago when the county broke ground to convert the old Custom House into a new History Center of roughly twice the size.

The history museum closed in early 2003, announcing intentions of a glorious reopening in 2004—with an exhibit called “Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee.”

Most of the rest of the history center did open—Knox County Archives on the second floor, the eminent McClung Collection on the third. The museum gift store opened on Gay Street. But the museum itself remained closed.

The museum’s opening date was later revised to spring, 2005. After that season came and went, they stopped talking much about opening dates.

The delay reflected some indecision about how to proceed. There were some inclinations to just fill the new space with the old museum, and let it grow like moss. There was another impetus to get architects involved and make a top-flight to-do of it. The state’s chronic budget agonies threw another monkey wrench or two into the works.

The historical society decided to open a modest “streetscape” exhibit with a bona fide Island Home trolley car and a recreated early 20th-century Albers drugstore; Davy Crockett’s gun went on long-term display up in the third-floor lobby of McClung.

Last month, though, Governor Phil Bredesen presented a budget, which includes $2.5 million for the ETHS museum. That looks like enough to get it going.

“We’re not writing any checks yet,” says the patient director of the East Tennessee Historical Society, Cherel Henderson. It still has to be approved by the State Legislature, probably this May. When it does, they’ll be ready.

Opening announcements might be premature, and probably bad luck, but they’re shooting for early ’07. It won’t just be the same old place with more elbow room.

In the expanded building they’ll have additional space for special exhibits; in all, the museum will be more than twice as big as it used to be. Still, it won’t be impressively huge. The Tennessee State Museum in Nashville—which some have complained has been the destiny of too many East Tennessee icons—is about seven times as big.

The main, permanent, Voices exhibit will include a few new attractions. In the Voices of Conflict section will be an authentic 1850s cabin that curators refer to shorthand as the “Swiss Cheese House.” It was a house for cheese-making, owned by the Truans, one of Knoxville’s original Swiss families. It will be the center of the museum’s discussion of the Civil War, which split this region, depending on how you define it, somewhere near the middle.

There will also be a U.S. battleflag from the War of 1812, and a British cannon from colonial Fort Loudoun, and the substantial desk of Horace Maynard, the Reconstruction politician and ambassador who was the first of about a billion Republican representatives from the second district and one of the most interesting people who ever lived in Knoxville.

It’ll also have a beefed up music section, highlighting the region’s dynamic role in contributing much of America’s most distinctive popular music. It will do so with numerous exhibits, but also with “sound domes,” sort of unwalled booths where visitors can choose to take a listen to music or a historical voice. 

“The  building itself is an artifact,” says Toomey, and it is. The original western part of the building served from the early 1870s to the early 1930s as Knoxville’s main post office.

Museum-architecture firm the PRD Group, of Fairfax, Va., which has designed museums and exhibits all over the Southeast, will work to showcase the interior architecture, especially the capitals of the pillars in the room. The hiring of an architect to design the museum is one of the best-case situations made possible by the state funds.

Of the frustrating wait, Toomey says, “Maybe it was all for the best. We couldn’t ask for anything better than what got us to this point.”

The new entry to the Museum of East Tennessee History will at the main entrance to the history center, at Gay Street and Clinch. The flow will be clockwise, not counter-clockwise as the previous museum was. Do people subconsciously associate chronological flow with the motions of a clock? I don’t know, but Toomey says for whatever reason, most history museums are clockwise. Those who are accustomed to going backward will just have to get used to it.