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A version of this story appears in the Spring 2021 Issue of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly Newsletter.
Curators Annabeth Hayes and Brigette Jones will discuss Tennessee at 225 at our Lunch & Learn on Wednesday, June 16 12 p.m. CDT. It will take place live in the Museum's Digital Learning Center and be streamed live on our Videos portal.
by Annabeth Hayes and Brigette Jones
This year marks the 225th anniversary since Tennessee became the nation’s 16th state on June 1, 1796. While this date formally recognizes Tennessee’s statehood, the area was occupied by Native Americans prior to the arrival of European settlers and the enslaved peoples they brought with them. The name “Tennessee” is likely derived from the Overhill Cherokee town of Tanasi (sometimes spelled Tanase), located in present-day Monroe County, as well as the Tanasi River, now known as the Little Tennessee River. When the first white settlers and enslaved peoples entered the area, many crossed over the difficult terrain of the Appalachian Mountains. After arriving, they encountered Southeastern Indians living and hunting in the region. The interactions of the diverse peoples living in Tennessee shaped the state’s rich history and culture.
To commemorate this moment in the state’s history, the Museum’s curators, educators, and exhibition staff collaborated to select 100 objects currently on display that reflect the stories of Tennesseans during the past 225 years and beyond. The objects represent five themes—Art, Community, Service, Innovation, and Transformation—that provide a framework connecting the stories of Tennesseans across different time periods and Grand Divisions. The selection ranges from objects associated with famous people such as Andrew Jackson’s top hat, artifacts related to the New Deal programs of the mid-20th century, and more. Viewed collectively, they create the exhibit experience that is Tennessee at 225: Highlights from the Collection, a self-guided tour through the Museum’s galleries and an online exhibition.
13-star American flag dates from the period of 1790 to 1810 (2.186.1)
Exploring the exhibit themes and some associated artifacts illustrates how this project helps visitors reflect on connections within the histories of Tennesseans.
The Art theme offers opportunities to share stories about, and works by, self-taught, formally trained, and local craft tradition artists who have used their creativity to shape Tennessee’s rich artistic heritage. Through this theme visitors will learn more about Sevier County’s country music legend Dolly Parton and Sevier County artisan, Lewis Buckner. A Black craftsperson enslaved as a child, Buckner built furniture and mantels with ornate designs during the late 19th century in East Tennessee.
Mississippian Culture Period Female Effigy, carved from gray sandstone, 1250-1350 (estimated) (82.100.1091)
The theme of Community represents the groups of people who created spaces for themselves based on shared beliefs, ideas, and backgrounds. For the Stout family in Memphis, their family Bible represents the legacy of Nashoba, a community established in Shelby County during 1825. Frances Wright created the community to challenge the institution of slavery and provide enslaved individuals with opportunities for freedom. In Cannon County, community is reflected in the tradition of basketmaking dating to the early Scots-Irish settlers. A tradition often passed down from parent to child, basketmaking offered a way for this artisan community to support their families into the twentieth century as highways brought more travelers into the area.
Cherokee Coat made of deer hide. Estimated to be from 1820-1850. (85.23)
Service recognizes the contributions of Tennessee “Volunteers,” including military veterans such as Union City’s Doris Tanner, who was a pilot during World War II. We also look at Civil Rights activists like Diane Nash and John Lewis, who fought against racism and oppression in Nashville while they were students at Fisk University. Other forms of civic contributions that have enhanced the social fabric of the state are also explored.
Button from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which grew out of the “sit-ins” of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s (2011.195.2)
The theme of Innovation offers opportunities to learn about Tennesseans who have used their skills to achieve progress in knowledge, trades, and technology. One artifact that reflects this theme is the NASA spacesuit worn by Wilson County astronaut Barry Wilmore. This theme also incorporates the 1831 edition of the Cherokee Phoenix and Indians Advocate. Originally published in 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix was the first newspaper published by Native Americans and written in a Native American language in the United States.
Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s Officer’s Kepi, Confederate Army of Tennessee, 1864 (estimated) (3.284)
The Transformation theme explores the changing built and cultural landscapes of Tennessee. It encompasses early settlement by white settlers as seen through the survey compass used by Daniel Smith in the late 18th century, and the area’s changing landscapes influenced by the institution of slavery, industrialization, and other major events. The experiences of Jewish refugees following the Holocaust is explored through a crate used to ship the belongings of a refugee family from Czechoslovakia to the National Council of Jewish Women in Nashville ahead of their arrival to the United States.
As we commemorate the 225th anniversary of statehood, Tennessee at 225: Highlights from the Collection explores the stories of people who have contributed to Tennessee’s history and culture. The project offers opportunities to consider challenging and difficult aspects of the state’s history and gain new understandings of many dynamic communities and stories. This project invites visitors to reflect on the past and to think about how to shape what it means to be a Tennessean in the future.
Annabeth Hayes (left) is the Tennessee State Museum Curator of Decorative Arts; Brigette Jones (right) is the Tennessee State Museum Curator of Social History