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Archaeology and History Sites in Tennessee

Beale Street

The ‘home of the blues’, Beale Street offers a walk through music history right in downtown Memphis. Music halls, record stores and restaurants line this wide avenue that has been a centre not just of music but of black history for well over 150 years. Still hosting an active music scene today, visitors can pass through a wide variety of preserved stores and music clubs filled with artefacts from the history of blues music.

Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

The site of both the battle of Chickamauga and the Chattanooga campaign, this battlefield park saw the Union army rebound from a devastating loss to a resounding victory, paving the way for the Union’s entrance into the deep south and their eventual victory in the war. The battles and their impacts for the war are explored around the park at various sites and in a museum and visitor center.

Cherokee Removal Memorial Park

This small park in the middle of a wildlife refuge tells the story of the forced removal – and subsequent deaths – of thousands of native Cherokees as part of what is today known as the trail of tears. The park and its museums record the history of the Cherokee people, from their earliest history to their continued abuses at the hands of the US government and their eventual removal in the 1800s.

Fort Pillow State Historic Park

With preserved original breastworks and a reconstructed inner fort, Fort Pillow State Historic Park preserves the the site of the Battle of Fort Pillow. The battle, also known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, was one of the most brutal moments of the Civil War where hundreds of Union soldiers, largely black, were slaughtered by Confederates. The battle’s impact on the war is explored through interpretive programs and a museum.

Graceland

The second most visited house in the US after the White House, Graceland preserves the home of the “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis Presley. This sprawling mansion shows a unique view into the life of Elvis from the jungle room where he recorded his final albums to his actual grave on the property. In addition to the house itself, a museum on the grounds interprets Elvis’ entire life and career.

The Hermitage

Providing a glimpse into both plantation and presidential life in the 19th century, the Hermitage is the former home of one of the US’s most controversial presidents, Andrew Jackson. His entire classically transformed federal style house and its plantation grounds can be explored as they tell of the hundreds of people (a majority enslaved) who lived at the site. A museum and visitor centre delves into Jackson’s history as president.

Nashville Parthenon

Seeming transported directly from Athens, the Nashville Parthenon is a full-scale model of the original. Created by a confederate veteran and featuring actual casts of the original Parthenon sculptures, the Parthenon was the centrepiece of Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition in 1897. Today the structure is home to a small city art museum and productions of various Greek plays throughout the year.

Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park

At least 15 Native American mounds dating to prehistoric periods make up the bulk of this archaeological park which is spread over more than 1,200 acres. The mounds which served both burial and ceremonial purposes range in sizes from over 70 feet (21 meters) to others which are barely noticeable. A small interpretive centre features detailed exhibits on the archaeology and history of the site.

Sequoyah Birthplace

The life of the Cherokee leader and creator of their written language, Sequoyah, is the focus of this museum and historic site in what was once the heart of the Cherokee nation. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation still manages the site, exploring the history of the Cherokee people, especially their rapid literacy in the early 1800s and their struggles for recognition from the US government.

Shiloh National Military Park

Shiloh National Military Park preserves the site of one of the earliest battles of the Civil War’s western theatre. Here, union and confederate forces fought for control of a crucial railroad junction in one of the costliest battles of the entire war. The major sites of the battle can be visited as well as two interpretive centres and museums which provide in depth information on the battle and its strategic importance.

Stones River National Battlefield

A relatively small battle by Civil War standards, the Battle of Stones River was one of the bloodiest with both sides losing nearly a third of their men fighting for control of much of Tennessee. The battlefield and national cemetery tell of the battle itself and the greater effects on society of the war and of the emancipation proclamation –which was signed into law on the second day of the battle.

Top Tours and Activities in Nashville

Museums in Tennessee

Bessie Smith Cultural Center

The combination of the Chattanooga African American Museum and the Bessie Smith Performance Hall, the BSCC traces the influence of black men and women on the history of the city and state. Named for the famed blues and jazz singer Bessie Smith, the museum was created in the 1960s in an effort to correct the lack of resources on black history available at the time.

Brooks Museum of Art

Boasting a large collection covering a wide variety of art styles and periods, the Brooks Museum was Tennessee’s first art museum. The museum is known for its extensive prints and decorative arts collections but also features strong renaissance, baroque, and impressionist collections. The museum’s 29 galleries and interactive family art gallery are housed in a 19th century Beaux-arts style building.

Cotton Museum

Based around the crop that dominated US’s economy for well over a hundred years, the Cotton Museum explores the history of just that – cotton. In the former Memphis Cotton Exchange building, both the economics and personal stories of King Cotton are explored. Cotton and slavery are inherently tied together in the US and the museum pays special attention to this relationship and the horrors that it brought.

Frist Art Museum

The Frist Museum has no permanent collection, it instead focuses on displaying local artists as well as world-class travelling exhibitions. The museum hosts a wide variety of exhibitions ranging from Renaissance paintings to the art of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The museum building itself is a piece of art, located in a 1930s art-deco style former post office that was recently retro-fitted in the 1990s.

National Civil Rights Museum

Housed in the Lorraine Hotel – the building that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in – the National Civil Rights Museum looks at the long struggle for racial equality in America. The museum covers a wide period of history from slave revolts in the 17th century to sit-ins and the black panthers in the 1960s, even connecting to the present day and modern fights against inequality.

Pink Palace Museum

Likely one of the only museums in the world with a full replica of a grocery store, the Pink Palace Museum is the former home of the founder of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain. The museum itself is housed in an ornate pink Georgian marble building and focuses on human life in the Memphis area from prehistoric pottery to the post-WWII city and human relationships.

Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum

This small museum is located inside an antebellum home which throughout the 19th century was a stop along the underground railroad. The museum looks at the history of the American slave trade and its various effects on American life for those both white and black. Resistance and the ways that escaped slaves were smuggled north to freedom are the main focuses of the museum.

Stax Museum of Amercican Soul Music

Originating from the black experience in America, the Stax museum explores the long history of soul music and its role in American culture. The museum is built in the original location of Stax Records and is filled with memorabilia from soul musicians around the country. Inside, visitors are encouraged to dance as they move through, with exhibits starting in a model 1900s church, just as soul music did.

Sun Studio

The ‘Birthplace of Rock’n’Roll’, Sun Studio was the original home of Sun Records, one of the most prominent music labels of the 1950s. The first rock and roll single was recorded here, and a number of important musicians including Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Lee Lewis got their start inside this building. Today it functions as a museum (although it still records after hours) with memorabilia from the history of rock and roll.

Tennessee State Museum

This large museum in the heart of Nashville traces the history of the state from the origins of its natural landscape to the present day. The museum has an especially rich collection of fossils and artefacts from the state’s earliest periods and from the first peoples there. All of the exhibitions branch of from a ‘time tunnel’ which travels the length of the museum tracing the state’s history.

Withers Collection and Museum

The Withers Collections exhibits the photographs of Ernest Withers, one of the most prominent photojournalists of the 20th century. Their collection includes over 1.8 million images documenting black life over several decades, focusing on the Civil Rights Movement. Selected photographs from Withers’ time travelling with MLK Jr. and his work with prominent musicians are displayed in the museum.

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