Daily Journal: Finishing touches being placed on Mississippi museums

JACKSON – Deep in the bowels of the 200,000-square-foot structure that will house the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, workers are steadily doing the painstaking task of readying the exhibits that will be displayed to tell the state’s story.

Workers, some with the state Department of Archives and others with two private companies from Nashville and West Virginia that won contracts to build mounts to display thousands of artifacts, face a rapidly approaching deadline. The museums are slated to open Dec. 9.

In one giant room, Archives and History employees place elaborate quilts into rolling, flat cabinets where they will be stored until some are displayed in a temporary exhibit that people can see free of charge, while others will be displayed in permanent exhibits in the two museums.

Private contract employees work in two other rooms. In one, they prepare exhibits for the Civil Rights Museum, such as a wooden, charred cross that burned in the yard of a McComb merchant who had committed the offense in 1964 of hiring black employees to work in his store. In another room, workers mount exhibits of primitive tools used in the state’s long-operating timber industry.

“We greatly anticipate the opening of the museums that will highlight our history and hopefully bring great pride to our state and city,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.

The museums are encompassed in one building on the eastern edge of downtown Jackson. Though one building, each side is distinctive from the other, designed to match the museum housed on each side.

The museums share a large common area in the middle that houses a gift shop, cafe, temporary exhibit spaces and a ticket counter where admission can be purchased to one museum or in a package deal for both museums.

During a recent visit, Archive and History employees and museum workers could be found poring over their impressive collection of almost 200 quilts – some dating back to the 1700s.

About 40 of the quilts will be housed in the museums’ first temporary exhibit, while about 15 are slated for permanent exhibits – some in each museum.

The quilts include a small one titled “Hands that picked cotton now pick presidents” that was displayed in Washington, D.C., during the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. It was quilted by Geraldine Nash of Port Gibson.

Another nationally recognized Port Gibson quilter – Hystercine Rankin – will be featured in the museum, including one quilt titled, “After my father’s funeral.”

The museums’ opening on Dec. 9 is designed to coincide with the conclusion of the state’s 200th bicentennial celebration.

Preparing to Open

The museums were approved by the Legislature in 2011, thanks in part to strong backing by former Gov. Haley Barbour. The state has invested $90 million in the project, in addition to $17 million in private funding.

“We are working hard on many fronts to be ready for the opening,” said Katie Blount, director of the Department of Archives and History. “Fabrication teams are installing exhibits in both museums and working with staff to prepare artifacts for display.

“We are finalizing plans for the opening ceremony and executing a major marketing initiative to ensure that the people of Mississippi and beyond know that it’s almost time to come visit these world-class museums.”

Story of Mississippi

The museums will tell the story of Mississippi from prehistoric times to the modern era. They will highlight the state’s strong cultural heritage, such as musicians like Elvis Presley and writers like William Faulkner.

They will depict the state’s many controversies, blemishes and disasters, but also tout its accomplishment.

The Museum of Mississippi History will be more dependent on artifacts to tell its story, including such noteworthy exhibits as a 500-year-old dugout canoe and a 20-star 1918 flag that was displayed shortly after Mississippi garnered statehood.

One eye-catching exhibit in the history museum is a replica of an under-construction entryway to the swinging bridge at Tishomingo State Park built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

The Civil Rights Museum, the only state-operated civil rights museum in the nation, will have historic artifacts, but will depend more on newly crafted exhibits to tell the tumultuous story of the fight for equal rights. Mug shots of those arrested in the name of civil rights can be found in one room, while the names of known Mississippi lynching victims are highlighted throughout the museum. A replica of the historic University of Mississippi Lyceum is in the museum as part of the story of the integration of Ole Miss by James Meredith in 1962.

Perhaps, the highlight of the two museums can be found in a room that stands above the rest of the structure where a “soaring sculpture” will be housed that lights up and plays “This little light of mine” as people approach it.

According to an Archives and History news release, the exhibit “honors Mississippi’s grassroots movement veterans and celebrates the potential within every person to make a difference.”

The sculpture, which will light up the Jackson sky, has yet to be installed, but, like the rest of the museums, is expected to be ready on Dec. 9.

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