New Museums Highlight Mississippi’s History

By Cheré Coen | Photography courtesy of Mississippi Archives

Mississippi will add to its own illustrious history on Dec. 9 when not one, but two museums will open in Jackson this month after years of planning and fundraising. Here is a sneak peek inside the state-of-the-art galleries.
Mississippi owns a long and complicated history, and at its center are the people who shaped the state. Both will be on exhibit at the new Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, opening Dec. 9 in Jackson.
The 200,000-square-foot building under the umbrella of the Mississippi Department of Archives was a massive undertaking that began years ago and is the culmination of the state’s Bicentennial celebration.
In addition to the two museums, the space includes an auditorium, temporary exhibit space, classrooms and café.
Both museums share a lobby and visitors may opt to see one or both. Visitors should expect to spend at least an hour in each museum but can easily spend the day enjoying both thoroughly.

Trip back in time
Enter the Museum of Mississippi History and you’ll begin with a theatre orientation organizers designed to be akin to storytelling around a campfire, said Director Rachel Myers. Once inside the museum, visitors will discover 11 galleries in chronological order that begin with the state’s Native American history and end with present day. Along the way are hundreds of artifacts gleaned from the state’s archives, many of which have been in storage for years.
Artifacts only tell half the story, however. The museum’s overlying theme, “One Mississippi, Many Stories,” spotlights the state’s people at the heart of this history. For instance, there’s Mississippi author Eudora Welty’s typewriter, a rocking chair that a Union soldier gave to a Port Gibson man after the Civil War, and an ancient canoe used by Native Americans from the late Mississippian Period, around 1500-1600, magically preserved for centuries in the mud of Swan Lake in Washington County. There are also trade beads of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto to an elegant carriage owned by a plantation owner in the heyday of cotton.
Some exhibits, such as “How We Lived,” show the disparities of Mississippi life. It includes an antebellum mansion, slave cabin and poor white yeoman cabin accented by audio of first personal narratives of the people who lived in these homes.
The galleries weave through the second-floor exhibits and lead visitors to a stunning overlook that shows a visual timeline of state history as well as the state’s geographical diversity. Downstairs are more galleries, including an exhibit dedicated to Mississippi’s military history; an historic flag collection; a recreation of a Jackson Baptist church; the Turkey Creek community of the Mississippi Gulf Coast that was built by freed slaves; and a juke joint recreation where visitors may listen to Mississippi artists on a jukebox. Finding musicians hailing from the Magnolia State was not an issue.

At the museum’s end is the “Reflections Booth,” a place where visitors may videotape their own story. Some of those tales may be added to the “Reflections” area throughout the museum, Myers said.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
The historical scope of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first state-operated museum dedicated to civil rights in the country, spans only 30 years but those three decades helped shape U.S. society, said Director Pamela D.C. Junior.
The museum’s civil rights story begins in 1946 at the end of World War II, when returning soldiers demanded more of America, asking for voter rights and equal opportunities. The timeline continues through the 1955 assassination of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed while visiting Mississippi relatives, through the rise of peaceful demonstrations, Martin Luther King Jr. and the black empowerment movement of the 1970s.
The eight galleries examine African-American life, as well as the movement, and how it shaped the road for change. For instance, one gallery includes a replica of an African-American church, a place where protestors met to plan civil disobedience. Another revolves around a school with one side representing white education and the other black and the differences between the two. Along the school’s back wall are charred wood remains, depicting how African American schools were sometimes burned.
One of the most inspiring galleries is the “Tremor in the Iceberg” gallery, which features mug shots of those who were arrested in the fight for civil rights, as well as a recreated jail cell and a tear gas canister from the integration protests at the University of Mississippi. The photos rise from floor to ceiling and include one wall of nine students arrested in a “read-in” at the whites-only Jackson Municipal Public Library. Viewing these faces reminds visitors of the bravery of civil rights workers, many of which were teenagers who traveled to Mississippi to invoke change.
“Teenagers,” Junior said. “Today, who would do that? That’s amazing to me.”
The museum’s centerpiece is a massive sculpture that lights up when visitors arrive and plays “This Little Light of Mine,” growing stronger as more people enter the room and mirroring how change can happen when people stand up to injustice.
At the museum’s conclusion, the “Where Do We Go From Here” gallery incites dialogue on further social justice issues, Junior explained.

Exhibits and programming
The two museums share a 1,000-square-foot gallery space where revolving exhibits will tie into both histories. First up is the “Stories Unfolded” quilt exhibit, spotlighting textiles from the early territorial time of Mississippi to the present, said Myers.
“Quilts tell a story,” she said.
The museums will offer programming in the future, in addition to activities for Mississippi school children on field trips.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.