VOL. 133 | NO. 80 | Friday, April 20, 2018
By Bill Dries
Mud Island’s Mississippi River Museum will have a shorter season than the rest of the river park.
The park on the southern half of Mud Island opened for the season April 14 during a changing of the guard at the Riverfront Development Corp., which runs the park for the city.
The museum is open through the July 4 holiday weekend and then will close as the rest of the park continues its regular season through the end of October.
“This is your chance to return one last time during this summer’s limited run of the current facility,” was how park general manager Trey Giuntini put it in a press release announcing the new season and longer hours as well as allowing dogs in the park.
Carol Coletta, who is president of the RDC effective Friday, April 20, says she wants public input on how to upgrade the museum.
“How do you tell the story of the Mississippi River – its history, its folklore, its ecology, etc., how do you tell that in a 21st century way?” she said on the WKNO TV program “Behind The Headlines” that airs Friday at 7 p.m.
“This museum, I still love it – it’s very quaint. It’s nostalgic. It’s sweet,” she said. “Everybody remembers a good time they had at the Mississippi River Museum at Mud Island. We still have animatronics – really old school technology all of which could be incorporated into a new telling of the story.”
The river park is among the city riverfront attractions the RDC runs by contract with the city. And with the city’s riverfront plan that the administration of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland rolled out last summer, the RDC’s role becomes more than managing and maintaining the city parks and other property along the riverfront.
The riverfront plan includes a proposed aquarium on the island’s southern end as an anchor that would be connected to the city mainland with a pedestrian bridge across the Wolf River Harbor. The aquarium concept is an adaptation of an earlier proposal by a group of investors and experts to convert the Pyramid to an aquarium. The idea never went anywhere as the city pursued an adaptation to a Bass Pro Shops store with other attractions.
The modified aquarium plan as outlined by Strickland last year as part of the larger plan would include using the museum building as some kind of institute of both salt water and fresh water habitats.
“We don’t know enough about the aquarium or whether it will happen, how it will happen – if it did,” Coletta said. “So, I think what we need to do is make sure that in our initial planning for Mud Island we don’t cut off great opportunities for the future. But we also don’t put it on pause forever. We want to continue to find great uses for the citizens of Memphis for Mud Island.”
Meanwhile, she said after the museum closes and the RDC begins seeking public input about it, the river park will “flip the learning” with other ways to learn about the Mississippi River.
“The opportunity to explore the Mississippi River and its history, folklore – its ecology to outdoors,” she said. “The programs won’t stop. They will just resume outdoors while we think about what ought to be indoors.”
The museum still includes the dioramas it had at its early 1980s opening.
Barry Howard, a planner from Santa Monica, California, who designed the museum, did a touchup of sorts in 2009 along with an audio tour.
Howard’s work in the early 1980s included the multi-story riverboat models that are the heart of the museum experience. They include boat recreations that allow visitors to walk from the pilot house to the boilers and hear the voices of those who might have worked and traveled on them.
“Those are timeless,” he said shortly after the renovation work in 2009. “Those experiences are completely valid and won’t change at all. It’s just that there are some other things that need to be addressed that we can do now but couldn’t do then.”
The models include a Civil War gunboat whose cannons’ simulated roar were a bit too much at the park opening for children and were thus muted for several decades.
Before he died in 2016, Roy Harrover, the architect who designed the park, would regularly take a look around the park with an objective eye about what he liked and what he didn’t – what had held up and what hadn’t.
“The park could use some freshening,” he said after a visit nine years ago. “But it’s built as a very permanent structure.”
Over its 35-year history there have been discussions before about modernization of some attractions. That included what would have been a renaming of the island as “Festival Island” when the city turned over the park to Sidney Shlenker, who was to develop the Pyramid for the city and the county with multiple attractions in the late 1980s into the early 1990s.
Shlenker envisioned what he called a “rakapolis” experience that would ferry those at the Pyramid to the river park on boats resembling ancient Egyptian vessels for a mix of live music and holographic images.
Shlenker even asked the park’s staff during his first tour of Mud Island if there was any way to make the propellers move on the Memphis Belle – the World War II bomber that was once housed at the park in a pavilion.
None of the attractions Shlenker envisioned for the river park of the Pyramid ever came to be. He never got the financing for them.
The city and county ended their agreement with him to develop attractions for both before the Pyramid opened in 1991.
“Some of it is hand wringing,” Coletta said of the new discussions about the future of the river park. “Some of it is trying to re-imagine a whole use of the island. We think it’s a great time to just pause it and sort of take a breath and do a couple of design sprints around how could we tell this story.”