Collective Memory

The Museum of East Tennessee History, closed since 2003, opens in a different era

At long last, almost five years after it closed for remodeling, the Museum of East Tennessee History reopens next weekend. We've reported other opening dates before, going back four years or so, but count on this one.

The word reopen understates the story. Yes, there was a Museum of East Tennessee History that opened in the same space in the mid-1990s, and many of its most memorable exhibits—Davy Crockett's rifle, a Civil War draft dodger's bloody shirt, the wooden grave marker of a German soldier who died in a Cumberland County POW camp—are all back. They'll join several new exhibits, from Dolly Parton's blouse to some impressionist paintings to a still-operable 1902-3 Cadillac believed to be one of the first big-name cars ever seen in Knoxville. No one ever claimed East Tennessee's culture was particularly coherent. That's what makes a museum tough, but maybe also what makes it fun.

All of it's enhanced with a great many bells and whistles that seem engineered to capture the attention of bored kids. It's more appealingly laid out than the old one, too: roomier somehow, and more brightly lit. Whereas the old museum was something like an especially obsessive Grandma's attic, the current one seems more carefully arranged, with a calculated flirtation with Too Much; one more interesting object might push it over. Its arrangement might call to mind something like an upscale trade convention. About hydroelectric power, and women's suffrage, pre-Columbian Indians, pharmaceuticals, mining, and the banjo. It might be fun to blindfold a newcomer, take him into the museum, and tell him you'll give him five bucks if he can guess what the theme is. The History of East Tennessee is, to some extent, the History of Everything.

One of the few who aspire to keep all this under one roof, or within one head, is the disarming director of the East Tennessee Historical Society, whose name is Cherel Henderson. Several of the former directors of the ETHS, all male, have been polished academics, the sort who might pose with a meerschaum pipe and an abstract expression; Henderson, who's hard to catch without a smile, comes across more as a favorite aunt on Thanksgiving Day. Originally from Gobbler's Knob, in Jefferson County, she has been known for about 25 years as an expert on regional genealogy and family heritage.

"I grew up in a nest of older relatives, people born in the late 1800s," she says. "They liked to visit graveyards, and knew all the people in them." She got into organized historical research via the Smoky Mountain Historical Society in Sevierville, and came to ETHS as a staffer in 1986. As director of the Historical Society since 2003, she has, in her unpretentious way, presided over the most ambitious changes in the society's 160-year history: the expansion that resulted in the History Center, and now this multi-million-dollar museum.

She was behind the First Families of Tennessee program, and contributes to the genealogical publication Tennessee Ancestors; to her, history is a web of families. That fact comes out in her approach to the museum, which she sees as a place for people to find connections to the region, and to their own ancestors.

"They will find their family in the story," she says. "Not necessarily their own families, but maybe their father worked for TVA, or maybe their people had to move because of TVA. The exhibit incites them to find their own story here, and find out about the rest. People find their family stories, and get real excited. That's what we want to do."

Henderson seems to have applied some of her personality into the museum. Museum designers came in from Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Toronto to work on the exhibit, and between them they'd worked on everything from the Oklahoma City memorial to the Smithsonian's museums. Henderson admired and respected their work, but didn't let them boss her around. She describes an early draft of the museum's design as "straight lines with cases," and not what she had in mind. "Something about it looked sterile and cold. They said, ‘That's modern,' but I said, ‘That's not who we are.'"

She quickly adds, "not that we're not modern. But we want to be welcoming, gracious, friendly."

The exhibit coordinator is Adam Alfrey, who's a generation or so younger than Henderson and has a background in art history and experience working in the University of Tennessee's Ewing Gallery, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Quietly efficient, Alfrey has a million last-minute details to attend to. If you're a reporter, he may hasten you around the museum's clockwise arc a little quicker than you really want to go.

"We want to keep the museum-speak to a minimum," he says, gesturing toward the large "teaching panels" and smaller exhibit plaques, which tend to be dominated by quotes. "We thought it was important to let the voices of the people narrate the exhibition." Most of the text legible near the artifacts is in the words of witnesses and participants in East Tennessee history.

He admits it's hard getting a purchase on 35 counties: "We go back to the theme of how the people and the land shaped one another." (ETHS includes the traditional 33 counties of East Tennessee, plus Sequatchie and Fentress, willful annexations that are sometimes considered the fringe of Middle Tennessee. "It evens the line," quips Henderson.)

"How the terrain has impacted the people and how the people have impacted the land is a national drama," says Henderson. East Tennessee's known for farming, mining, dam building. Some exhibits have to do with those pursuits, "Voices of the Land" is a vague sort of premise, considering that almost all humans have voices, and almost all humans live on the land. If that phrase helped the ETHS get grants for this museum, it's all for the good.

As we walk toward the frontier section, a fiddle air comes up, a little louder than it would be if a particularly burly and enthusiastic fiddler had materialized between us. "It's never gonna be that loud," assures Alfrey. "We're studying the sound levels."

The computerized programs weren't all up when we visited last week, but there will be in all 25 media programs, counting three sitting-down-length videos, ambient audio, and "sound sticks," wands from which you can hear the voices of real people telling their stories. The technological innovations may account for the biggest difference from the old museum, and a significant chunk of the $3 million price tag for the exhibitry.

The museum's path proceeds in a counter-clockwise manner around the big room. At first, it's strictly chronological, opening with stone carvings and arrowheads from prehistoric American Indian cultures—one interesting addition is a ring, probably made of silver and turkey bone, which may have belonged to the legendary Nancy Ward, the Cherokee leader known as "Beloved Woman," who negotiated with white settlers in the 18th century.

The course then proceeds rapidly through the frontier and the antebellum eras. An oddly elaborate quilt-like square of fabric turns out to be a divisional flag from the War of 1812 that was present at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, an Indian battle at which Andrew Jackson and Knoxvillian John Williams took a leading role; some younger soldiers named Davy Crockett and Sam Houston were there, too. There's a new portrait of Williams, a Knoxville maverick in Tennessee politics.

The antebellum and Civil War eras were nowhere more complicated than in East Tennessee, a place of slave owners, slaves, abolitionists, and poor farmers for whom slavery was purely an abstraction.

An original Lloyd Branson painting of a melancholy older black man, a former slave known only as Uncle Jerry, is not far from a wooden chunk of a Green County bridge, which helps tell the story of the pro-Union guerrillas known as the bridge-burners. One, in particular, was Christopher Haun, one of the men executed by Confederates for destroying that particular bridge; near the wooden artifact are the tattered remains of a U.S. flag that once marked his grave. He was such a hero to his associates that his wife allowed several people to clip away portions of the Haun flag to be buried with.

There's a similar-looking Confederate flag. And then there's the story of Alfred Green, the man who didn't want anything to do with either side. He escaped the Confederate draft only to be shot by rogue Unionists. On display is the nightshirt-like garment he was wearing when he was shot.

The Civil War home front comes across within an authentic cabin, actually an 1857 dairy house used by the Swiss Truan family of northeast Knox County; a video presentation portrays the disparate lives of three Civil War women.

Nearby is the actual desk of Horace Maynard, one-time ambassador to Turkey and U.S. congressman from Knoxville who started the unbroken chain of Republican representatives from the second district; he continued to serve in U.S. Congress even after his state seceded, and after the war sometimes sided with the civil-rights radicals of his era. He's also, by the way, the lawmaker who appropriated funds for this building, maybe Knoxville's most extravagant edifice in 1872. The building is more part of the exhibit than it used to be, the antique Corinthian columns are the most obvious signs of where you are, the Custom House, which Reconstruction-era Knoxvillians knew as the post office.

A newcomer seeing the museum for the first time might round the corner and gather that our history got much more lighthearted in the 20th century. Some audio concerns the "hillbilly stereotype" and its origins in regional literature and vaudeville. There's more about the arts and culture—evolution, temperance, and women's suffrage appear right together, as if they were all aspects of one minor war. The whole northwestern corner, probably the biggest and most elaborate part of the museum, is about the history of country music, specifically the middle third of the 20th century, when East Tennessee played a major role in its development. An oversize cutout of maniacal singer-guitarist Jumpin' Bill Carlisle, depicted in mid-air, might startle you all the way from the Reconstruction era; before his Opry career, he was a star on WNOX just down Gay Street. A 17-minute film includes rare clips of the seminal Knoxville radio show Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, a bit of Ida Cox, and Dolly Parton appearing on Cas Walker's show. It includes a Dolly blouse, filled out to realistic effect on an apparently custom-built mannequin torso.

Stars indicating East Tennessee legends like Roy Acuff are imbedded in the carpet, like an interior Hollywood Boulevard.

As big and elaborate as the country-music section is, Henderson wishes it could be bigger. "We would love to have more country-music room, even a whole gallery," she says. "We wish we had more about UT, more about the world wars. We wish we could have a business gallery, about influential businesses."

Though larger than the old museum, thanks to the gift shop and some services moving into the new part of the History Center, it's still just one big room of 8,500 square feet—or about one-seventh the size of the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. The size forces tough choices, of juxtaposing disparate items, leaving many out altogether.

"Did you ever plant a garden and have to weed your okra, or your corn, just to thin it?" Henderson asks. "You think, Oh, I hate to pull these up. It's hard to decide which ones stay and which ones go. It's painful."

(Her example raises what might be another welcome addition, an exhibit on regional food.)

As she speaks, coincidentally, a man appears and inquires about a donation, an ancestor's World War I uniform. She assures him it's safe in storage in the museum's capacious climate-controlled basement, where they can find it when they have a relevant exhibit. A gallery adjacent to the permanent museum will be available for changing exhibits with particular themes.

It's an admirable accomplishment of an arguably impossible task. Whether East Tennessee is a culturally coherent region with a history wholly different from that of, say, North Georgia or Western North Carolina or, for that matter, Greater Pittsburgh, is largely a matter of faith. East Tennessee is Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and it's also Dollywood. It's the steep Smokies, and it's the broad rolling cow pastures of the lower valley. And the small seas we call TVA lakes, and a couple of municipalities that make fair approximations of cities. It might be easier to make a museum about what's not here, like Amtrak and glaciers and newsstands.

But a museum of East Tennessee history is an intuitive experience, one that's likely to make you consider the unlikely connections that make up every human life: more specifically, those in this interesting place. m