Meaning It This Time

Will the new history museum be better than the one that didn't reopen in 2004?

Nothing ever gets finished on time, but the Museum of East Tennessee History must hold some sort of record. The museum's signature exhibit, "Voices of the Land," has so far taken five times longer than originally announced.

The museum closed in late 2003, for a major remodeling project that resulted in an expanded History Center building at Gay and Clinch. A few months before closing, the East Tennessee Historical Society offered a preview of their main, comprehensive exhibit, reconfigured as "Voices of the Land," and announced it would reopen in 2004.

Later, the opening shifted, more realistically, to spring, ‘05. They never nailed down an actual date, but to show they meant business, the society handed out tickets to the opening. The tickets expired in December 2005.

The media went gamely along. Last July, Metro Pulse announced the museum would finally be opening in spring ‘08. Now that it's spring, the latest from ETHS Director Cherel Henderson, who doesn't seem like the sort of person who would keep pulling our collective leg, is that it'll be late summer. We at least seem to be gaining on it.

What happened to the four-years-ago opening date? Much of it was unanticipated delays in state funding, which accounts for the major part of the exhibit. It was finally approved in 2006, but the museum encountered some unexpected delays in actually getting the funds. It sounds as if the concept has gotten more ambitious, too.

Henderson is a country girl at heart, but mentions that she just got back from Toronto, casually, as if it were just past Maynardville. And, in fact, Toronto may be easier to get to than some of the East Tennessee hollers they've visited researching photo prospects or people to interview for the exhibit. She and her staff went to Toronto because, "That's where the exhibit is being fabricated," by the museum firm of Kubik Maltbie, which is known for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, as well as the new Newseum, both in Washington, D.C.

The ETHS staff is also working with the PRD group, which has designed the Atlanta History Center and the Texas State History Museum, and Hillman & Carr, a multimedia storytelling firm that designed the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and the Historic Jamestown Visitor Center, as well as projects at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.

This once-humble East Tennessee history museum is "an international project," Henderson jokes. The last museum, a cluttered if roughly chronological grab bag of interesting stuff, tended to hold visitors' attention, but was never considered a state-of-the-art history museum.

"We did the last one for $10,000—and a lot of hard work," Henderson says. Thanks to a major state grant procured in 2006, this will be a $3 million exhibit—300 times the expense of the old museum.

That price tag suggests that the new museum should be astonishing, and maybe it will be, with a strong emphasis on audio and video presentations—in all 25 "media programs," including feature videos and touch-screen interactive stations. The new museum, now called the Signature Exhibit, will spread out across a much bigger space, if still modest by metropolitan museum standards: 8,500 square feet, with another 2,000 for special exhibits. It will occupy the ground floor of the 1872 Custom House, which served as Knoxville's main post office for 60 years; its ornate interior detail will be highlighted to become part of the exhibit.

Henderson says it will be more rigorously regional, representing all 35 of the counties of East Tennessee, reflecting the inclusive mission of the ETHS, whereas the previous one was more Knoxville-centric. Henderson admits visitors may note some Knoxville bias in this one, too, partly because those who have contributed artifacts to the collection are more heavily concentrated in Knoxville. "We let the people speak for themselves," she says, with inventive audio-visual components.

The exhibit coordinator is 26-year-old Adam Alfrey, a University of Tennessee art-history grad who had previously interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and worked at UT's Ewing Gallery. He has helped put together a few small exhibits, like one about women's suffrage a while back—but Alfrey has otherwise spent his entire two years at ETHS working on a museum that has never been open. "You have to have a lot of faith in the process," he says. A staff of about five has been working mostly on the museum all this time. Alfrey is overseeing the technical aspects of the exhibit, while Henderson is guiding most of the content. "Cherel has a great feel for the land and the people, the personality of East Tennessee," he says.

In all, 350 voices will tell their own stories, in one way or another, through the museum's new technology.

"The media program is definitely more ambitious" than that of a museum that would have opened four years ago, Alfrey says, incorporating pictures and interviews conducted throughout the 35-county region. Part of it is a Civil War program, which enlisted actors from the Cumberland County Playhouse to play historic characters via diaries. "We purposefully tried to bring the museum-speak to a minimum, with a lot of historic voices from East Tennesseans across time."

He especially enjoyed working with museum-video specialists Hillman & Carr. "They said this project was one of the most enjoyable, hospitable shoots they've been on," he says.

It sounds jaw-droppingly high tech, but it's still a museum; a lot of the old gawk-worthy artifacts will return, like the previously overlooked and underemphasized painting "The Hauling of Marble" by Lloyd Branson, which was iconic a century ago, and maybe still the most celebrated single piece of art ever created in Knoxville—plus a few new curiosities, including Parson Brownlow's rifle and a ring made of turkey bone and silver believed to have belonged to Nancy Ward, the near-legendary Cherokee Beloved Woman of the 1700s. More than 500 artifacts will be on display.

It'll reopen onto a different downtown. In the '90s, the little history museum sometimes looked like the life of a sad party, especially on weekend afternoons. But downtown's revival has transpired without the museum's help. The last time a history museum was open downtown, Mast was just a store in North Carolina, WDVX was a small radio station in Anderson County, and all Knoxville movie theaters were big, cheap buildings in the suburbs. The Holston and the Burwell were office buildings, the Emporium was an empty hulk, the Sunsphere was closed to the public, the Tennessee Theatre was closed for renovations, the Bijou was floundering—and Market Square, still best known as a place for TVA people to eat lunch on weekdays, was a muddy mess.

Alfrey says events are in the works for the late-summer opening: "We have things planned for opening that, I think, are really going to integrate with the downtown community."

We're not marking anything in ink on our calendars yet, but with any luck it'll be worth the wait.