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VOL. 10 | NO. 12 | Saturday, March 18, 2017

Memphis Museums and Attractions Broaden Reach With Host of Upgrades


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Elvis Presley Enterprises made a splash in recent weeks with the grand opening of the 200,000-square-foot museum, restaurant and retail complex known as Elvis Presley’s Memphis. But the Graceland operator isn’t the only local institution upgrading what it offers visitors.

The Children's Museum of Memphis is building out the pavilion that will house the 1909 Memphis Grand Carousel, with a grand opening planned for November.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Museums around Memphis have made and are making substantial investments in updates and renovations to their structures and exhibits, which many see as a sign of health and pride in the community.

“We are lucky as a city to have such a rich and diverse heritage and story to tell through our museums,” said Kevin Kern, director of public relations for Elvis Presley Enterprises. The March 2 opening of Elvis Presley’s Memphis came roughly four months after EPE opened a 450-room AAA Four-Diamond resort called The Guest House at Graceland. Together, the projects represent a $137 million investment.

“There are (more than 50) museums and attractions in Memphis, and that speaks well about what we have to offer our citizens, local and regional visitors and those who fly here from around the world,” said Kern.

Kevin Kane, director of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, sees the biggest opportunity for museum investment in technology, which enhances storytelling in a personal way. These days, people can find information about anything on their handheld devices, he said, and if they can marry that with the physical experience of being at a museum or in front of a piece of art, the experience is richer and will stay with them longer.

The National Civil Rights Museum embraced new technology with the $27.5 million renovation it completed in 2014 – the first since the museum opened in 1991. Interactive stations were added throughout the exhibits, allowing visitors to watch footage of historic events, listen to oral histories and speeches and explore current civil rights issues, among other things.

NCRM’s renovation went beyond technology; it also included a new lobby and several new exhibits, plus a restoration of the Lorraine Motel room where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was assassinated in 1968.

The Pink Palace Museum, meanwhile, is undergoing phase three of a four-phase, $25 million master plan that already has included overhauling the IMAX theater to create the CTI 3D Giant Theater and upgrading the Sharpe Planetarium – now known as the AutoZone Dome at the Sharpe Planetarium – with new equipment and seating, among other things.

Currently the Pink Palace mansion – the defining feature of the museum campus on Central Avenue – is closed for renovations that are scheduled to be completed in April 2018.

Once the work is finished, the miniature Clyde Parke Circus and replica Piggly Wiggly store will be relocated to the mansion. A Beale Street and Main Street scape will show what Memphis was like in the 1920s, when Piggly Wiggly founder Clarence Saunders began building the mansion, and both the African-American artifact collection and the event and support space will be expanded.

Ronda Cloud, marketing and public relations manager at the Pink Palace Family of Museums, is excited not just about what’s going on at the Pink Palace, but with investments around the city.

“Memphis has so many cultural opportunities, and it’s still the right size where you can get to all of them,” she said. “And it has the right attitude. … The city invests (in its museums) and the citizens invest. Memphis has changed the way the world operates today in many ways.”

Just down the street from the Pink Palace, the Children’s Museum of Memphis is undergoing a $6 million addition to house the Memphis Grand Carousel in a glass pavilion with adjacent support and rental space. The carousel, which was built in 1909 and has been owned by the city of Memphis since 1923, was an iconic structure at Libertyland and the fairgrounds for decades. The grand opening of the addition is set for this November.

Randy McKeel, chief financial officer for CMOM, has been encouraged by the support for the museum’s newest project.

“I think it shows that our citizens invest in the arts and culture,” he said. “You can’t have museums without community involvement and investment.”

Memphis’ art and botanic museums have much to be proud about too, and several have taken steps to stay current and fresh.

Memphis Botanic Garden recently refurbished its sculpture and sensory gardens and added gallery space that features rotating exhibits. This month’s exhibition, “Beauty in a War Torn World,” includes photos taken inside a Japanese internment camp, along with related artwork and images.

While Memphis Botanic Garden has long attracted gardening tour groups, the creation of the Live at the Garden concert series and My Big Back Yard, a popular outdoor interactive children’s element, have helped it broaden its reach in the past several years.

Dixon Gallery and Gardens, meanwhile, recently invested $2 million in an infrastructure project that mostly improved the unseen functioning of the museum, but also included a new cafe and renovated retail space.

Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon, said attendance stayed high even during the renovations, which is “a testament to the people of Memphis and their willingness to support great institutions.”

“Memphis has a tremendous visual arts community,” Sharp said. “Music tends to be the thing people associate with the city, and rightfully so. But Memphis has a very vibrant arts community, and the visual arts community is really stretching what it’s trying to mean to the community. It’s a great time to be doubling down on visual arts in Memphis.”

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art isn’t missing out on the action. The Brooks, the oldest and largest art museum in Tennessee, celebrated its 100th anniversary last May by unveiling a facelift.

The renovation carved out three new spaces for display of its growing permanent art collection, which spans 5,000 years of history and features artwork from around the world.

More recently, the Brooks closed the Brushmark restaurant and outsourced its food service through the new Cafe Brooks, which opened in January. The former Brushmark space has been refurbished and is now a terrace room available for meetings and rentals and overflow for the cafe.

The rotunda was renovated, and the museum now features Tennessee’s first hands-on gallery and family interactive gallery through a Plough Foundation-funded project.

In addition to physical changes, Brooks Museum executive director Emily Ballew Neff said that expanding beyond the walls with outside public art exhibits – such as the RedBall Memphis installation last May and the “Intrude” exhibition of illuminated giant rabbits in January – and having different artists in residence to interact with patrons helps the Brooks attract new visitors and appeal to a broader audience.

Neff also believes the collective investment of the museum community in Memphis is significant.

“What I love about it is the vibrancy, energy and dynamism of our community,” she said. “The city is a kind of ecosystem and you want your art organizations, museums and nonprofits to thrive. You can’t have a great city without great museums. It’s how you take the pulse of a city.”

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