Tennessee is a state that is rich in both history and diversity. From the legend of Daniel Boone to the Civil War battleground at Shiloh, the history of Tennessee is suffused with an indelible spirit. From classic music museums to historic civil rights spaces, Tennessee can offer you a little bit of everything. Here are our 10 favorites.
In 1968, the Lorraine Motel was the site of one of the most shocking assassinations in the history of the United States. Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the Civil Rights Movement at the time, died in room 306 after being shot on the hotel balcony. The assassination sparked riots in many U.S. cities. Today, the Lorraine Motel is the focal building for National Civil Rights Museum. The museum contains over 260 artifacts, 40 films, oral histories, and other multimedia that chronicle the long, dark and often brutal struggle for African American civil rights. The exhibits cover periods of time dating back to 1619 and include focused exhibits on the Freedom Rides, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and the Black Power Movement.
The Creative Discovery Museum is primarily targeted toward kids but it’s about as fun as its name implies. There’s The Amazing Castle, where kids can put on costumes and act out the roles of those in a medieval community (complete with a Royal Table and The Dragon Tower). There are programs and camps, including Club Discovery, a free after school program where kids can learn about the world while building relationships. And there’s Café Dino-Mite, which serves healthy options like salads and deli sandwiches. It’s located in downtown Chattanooga near the Tennessee Aquarium and Riverfront.
If there is one aspect of Nashville that compels people across the nation, it is country music. Nashville is known as the country music capital of the world, and none of that speaks more to its legacy than artists like Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson, and Willie Nelson. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is located on 5th Avenue near the Tennessee State Capitol and contains exhibits about current and former country artists, as well as history. As a bonus, there is the Hall of Fame rotunda that recognizes everyone inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
While all the museums on this list qualify as interesting and engaging, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame receives a special asterisk for importance. It wasn’t too long ago that athletic programs for women were underfunded, leading to promising female athletes being denied the chance of performing. Title IX and other legislation changed this but the opening of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 signaled a broader change and marked an era of progress. The Hall contains a few exhibits, such as the Hall of Honor, which showcases the achievements of those who have been inducted into the Hall. Another is the All American Red Heads exhibit, which shares the story of the longest running women’s professional team from 1936-1986. There are basketball drill exhibits and the world’s largest basketball.
Stax Records was initially formed in 1960 when Estelle Axton moved from Brunswick, Tennessee, to Memphis, opening the studio in a former movie theatre on McLemore Avenue. In the 15 years that followed before the studio was vacated due to bankruptcy, legendary soul artists recorded albums there, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Albert King. The museum has a lot to offer in terms of a glimpse into soul music and the recording studio itself. The tour opens in a reassembled Mississippi Delta church from 1906, moves forward to a replica of the actual recording studio, and onto the wall of sound with records from Stax artists. There is even a look at Isaac Hayes’ custom Cadillac Eldorado, complete with a refrigerated mini-bar, as part of his negotiations with Stax records.
The Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum is located on Beale Street in downtown Memphis. The mission of the museum is to tell the stories of the artists who broke down barriers, whether racial or socioeconomic, to create music that would alter the world. It was opened in 2000 as the first exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution outside of New York City or Washington D.C. The galleries follow a path from rural life to music coming to Memphis, with additions like a gallery devoted to record companies such as Sun Records and another to soul music. The museum is more than a simple list and presentations of accomplished artists. It is a look at the culture of music in Memphis, how that culture affected the youth in the area, and how music related to social change.
The Tennessee State Museum is in downtown Nashville and offers a nice complement to the rich musical heritage of the city. There are six permanent exhibits that chronicle civilization in Tennessee with detail about the Age of Jackson (President Andrew Jackson) and the Civil War and reconstruction period. There is a separate Military Museum that is in the War Memorial Building that details America’s overseas conflicts from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to the Vietnam War. An interesting addition is a deck gun from the U.S.S. Nashville, which fired the first shot in the Spanish-American war, and General Dwight Eisenhower’s jacket.
The Lotz House is memorable from the story associated with it: In 1864, Union soldiers retreated from Spring Hill, Tennessee, to the Lotz House where they established trenches and drew a battle line. The house is considered the “ground zero” for the Battle of Franklin and some of the worst hand to hand fighting in the Civil War. While the owner at the time did his best to remove the signs of battle from the house, a quick tour will reveal evidence of a battle long lost. There are bloodstains still on the floors and the repairs in the spots where a cannonball crashed through the roof all the way down to the ground floor.
For motor enthusiasts, there is no better stop in Tennessee than the Lane Motor Museum. While a description of the exhibits may prove informative, a more useful step might be to simply some unique cars that express the breadth and depth of the museum’s collection: the Fiat Bianchina Wagon (1970) from Italy. a Citroen 15-Six (1952) from France, and a Tatra T-57b (1938) from the Czech Republic. And many, many more. There are collections in the museum for cars, motorcycles, flying vehicles, and floating vehicles. An example of a current collection is “100 Years of BMW.” They host events and are worth a stop next time you’re in Nashville.
The slogan for the Titanic Museum Attraction is “Enter as a guest; leave as a Titanic passenger.” The experience is unique, as visitors can receive a boarding pass of an actual Titanic passenger, touch a real iceberg, immerse their hand in 28-degree water, all while surrounded by hundreds of artifacts taken directly from the ship and its passengers. There is a Titanic Memorial Room and even a Grand Staircase constructed from the original Titanic plans. Pigeon Forge is located near Gatlinburg, the entrance to Smoky Mountain National Park, and is known for attractions that are slightly different than a standard city. If you’re in the area and want to experience something new, the Titanic Museum Attraction is a good place to start.