Museums that tell Mississippi’s story to open in Jackson

Published 8:00 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Sprawling across two museums and including a combined 19 galleries and nearly 2,000 artifacts, the new Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will work together to tell the story of Mississippi over the last 15,000 years.

“We have been working on these museums for many, many years and we involved a lot of people in doing it; both our staff and consultants who are professionals in building museums, but also scholars and community advisors and teachers,” Katie Blunt the director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History said. “These museums are the products of thousands of hands.”

The two museums, which will open to the public Dec. 9 in Jackson, share a building and work to tell the entire story of Mississippi.

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The state history museum takes visitors on a journey encompassing 15,000 years, from prehistoric times through first contact with Europeans, the birth of Mississippi, the Civil War and through the 20th century and into today.

“Everything just gets a little bit,” Rachel Myers, director of the Museum of Mississippi History said. “There’s definitely some threads and themes that get more weight. Our theme is One Mississippi, Many stories. We really tried to elevate this idea that in each time period we are elevating the stories of women and immigrants and Native Americans and enslaved people and the leaders of the time throughout history.”

Each of the 11 galleries includes a station called Voices where contemporary Mississippians give voice to the historical first hand accounts that have been archived throughout the years.

“You can click on profile, a biography that was featured during this time period,” Myers said. “These are a way we are able to showcase the collection of the state Department of Archives and History.”

The museum is also working to include the ever-changing stories of Mississippians and allow people to recap their experience in the museum through a feature called Reflections, which is tied to the Voices feature in each gallery.

“Essentially people get to feel ownership over this place and know other visitors will get to hear them,” Myers said. “It gives us some wiggle room. Yes we have 20,000 square feet of exhibition here and we really tried to include a diverse range of stories, but we might have missed some. When someone comes and says ‘I really want to tell the story of my grandmother’s people,’ we have a way to record them.”

The artifacts in the museum include items ranging from a 500-year-old canoe and antebellum carriage to household items such as period clothing and children’s toys. At the end of the tour, visitors are greeted by a large image of the state of Mississippi, which includes the pictures of many of the people whose stories were told through the exhibits.

“My goal is by the time you get to this spot, everybody will know the names and the faces of these people and the impact they had and how they define us as a community,” Myers said. “I am hoping people find something that is nostalgic and makes them proud of our state and where we’ve been and where we’ve come.”

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum starts in the beginning telling the story of enslaved Africans and the Civil War and then reconstruction. The story then continues through the period of Jim Crow laws including pillars with the names of men and women who were lynched with a sculpted oak tree as the centerpiece of the exhibit. The museum then takes visitors through the entire Civil Rights movement including the protest, the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and the black power movement.

The centerpiece of the museum is the “This little light of mine” sculpture. The interactive piece has arms that stretch through each of the eight galleries that make up the museum and lights that track the movement of the visitors. The center of the sculpture in the museum’s main atrium comes alive as more people gather with the lights getting increasingly brighter and a choir singing “This little light of mine” crescendoing into a dramatic performance of light and sound.

“These blades are entangled because from all over the United States people came in (to Mississippi). They were lights,” Pamela Junior, director of the Mississippi Civil Right Museum, said.

The galleries are organized in tight confined spaces meant to make the viewers uncomfortable as they work their way through the exhibits and learn the history of Mississippi’s civil rights movement.

“We want it to be uncomfortable because the movement was uncomfortable,” Junior said. “People were afraid. They didn’t know what was going to happen to them. We want you to feel as much of the emotions as those lights that came into Mississippi as much as possible. That was done on purpose.”

The majority of the museum tells the story of African-Americans in Mississippi from 1945 to 1976 and includes artifacts such as the rifle used to kill Evers, a Klan robe and shackles worn by slaves.

“We were ground zero for the movement,” Junior said. “We want people to come to Mississippi. We want them to see our history so when they come out they come out for the better. A lot of museums tell the national story, but we are talking about the place where it was ground zero.”

The eighth and final gallery asks visitors what they felt going through the museum and encourages them to go forward and make a change like the leaders whose stories they heard during the tour.

“It is dark, but it is dark when you go through a tunnel and there’s always light at the end of that tunnel,” Junior said. “That is what you are going to see when you come through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.”

The museums will open Dec. 9and cost $8 to tour one museum or $12 to tour both. Myers said they expect a tour through both to take at least three hours.