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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
By Grace Allen
This year we are celebrating Tennessee’s 225th birthday! Another name for this special anniversary is bicenquasquitennial. That’s a big word! Over the years, Tennesseans have honored the birth of our state by hosting events and by creating parks and monuments.
Tennessee Centennial Exposition Poster
Nashville’s Centennial Park and the Parthenon came from our state’s 100th anniversary, or centennial, celebration. That celebration was called the Tennessee Centennial Exposition and International Fair. Many buildings were constructed to hold displays on technology, art, history, and other entertainments. The grounds were landscaped to be beautiful with several large “lakes” and gardens. In fact, the exposition was incorporated as its own city! The exposition grounds were called Centennial City and stretched over 200 acres of land.
View grounds and some buildings at the Centennial Exposition
Though it was for the state’s 100th birthday, it opened one year late in 1897. Expositions and World’s Fairs were very popular at the time. The purpose of expositions was to showcase progress. Inventors and manufacturers used the fairs to demonstrate new technology. Many exhibits at the Centennial Exposition placed examples of old technology beside new ones. This allowed viewers to compare and see how far technology had come. A display might show a hand loom next to an electric powered factory loom. There were many technologies on display that visitors had rarely had an opportunity to see before. For example, electric lights were used all over the fair grounds and decorated scenic views at night. This was very novel, or uncommon, at the time.
Souvenir Crystal Mug
The Exposition wasn’t just about technology. It was about an entire cultural experience. There were many other buildings dedicated to art, history, natural science, and entertainments. Different cities and states built display buildings and welcome centers for visitors. There were also buildings dedicated to women, children, and African Americans.
African American building at the Centennial
But not everything at the Fair was actually fair. The Centennial Exposition was segregated. While messages about the progress were exhibited, Black visitors weren’t allowed to take the same transportation, eat in the same places, or have the same access to shows as white visitors. There were also problems with the African American building. Black Tennesseans were involved in planning and organizing the building, but many other African Americans felt that having a separate building was supporting the concept of segregation. They were also concerned that the exhibits on progress were omitting the fact that Black Americans still faced violence and oppression because of the color of their skin. Despite this, several Black history events held during the Exposition were some of the highest attended. Many African American schools and universities also benefited by displaying the works of their students and teachers.
Directly across from the African American building was the signature building of the Exhibition, the Parthenon. The Parthenon was made to display the Exposition’s fine art collection. The original Parthenon in Greece was a temple for the goddess Athena, which has been in ruins for centuries. The Exposition’s Parthenon was built as a copy of what the original Parthenon in Athens, Greece would have looked like. The decorative designs for the outside of the building were drawn directly from the research of experts who studied the ruins of the Parthenon.
Ruins of the Parthenon
The committee that planned the Exposition thought it was the perfect building to represent Nashville. Nashville’s nickname was “the Athens of the South.” This was because there were so many schools and universities in Nashville. In Ancient Greece, Athens was known for learning and education. Many famous philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians held their schools in Athens. The planning committee decided the Parthenon was the perfect symbol of the Centennial Exposition.
Stereoscope card showing the Parthenon at the Centennial Exposition
The Parthenon was featured on souvenirs and pamphlets. It was so popular that after the Exposition was over no one wanted to take it down. Part of the main exposition grounds were made into what is now called Centennial Park. Most of the other buildings were torn down because they were made of unstable materials not meant to last.
The Parthenon was left in place. But by 1920 it was falling apart. It was important to the city, so they decided that it should be rebuilt with stronger materials. Not all of the original structure was destroyed. Several original columns that did not support the building were kept. The inside was also made to look like what the ancient Parthenon would have looked like on the inside.
Postcard of the Parthenon today
The builders and sculptors did even more research into what experts knew about the design. The new Parthenon was completed in 1931. It was the closest replica of the original Parthenon that has ever been made. However, it was missing one thing. The statue of Athena. For many years the Parthenon collected donations so that the statue could be commissioned. Finally, in 1982 the Parthenon chose Alan LeQuire to design and sculpt the Athena statue and it was completed in 1990. Now locals and tourists from all over come to the Parthenon to see a part of Ancient Greece.
Postcard of the Athena in the Parthenon
The Parthenon and Centennial Park are places that can tell us about how people have celebrated Tennessee’s history in the past. Celebrating anniversaries is an important thing to do. It marks how things have changed over time. Looking back on past anniversaries like the Centennial Exposition, we can even see how things have transformed between then and now. Looking back can also help us see what we can still do to improve. It can inspire us to find solutions for challenges we still face today. This year, we have an opportunity to do this with our state’s 225th anniversary. How do you think our state has changed over time and what events and successes are important to you to celebrate for the 225th anniversary this year?
Bicenquasqutennial – two-hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary
Manufacturers – People or companies that produce goods or products
Novel – New or uncommon
Segregation – To separate or divide groups of people based on the color of their skin
Ruins – Building or structure left to decay
Commissioned – To select an artist to make a piece of art
Where was the original Parthenon located?
List three things that were showcased at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.
What is another name for the 225th anniversary?
Why did some people see segregation as being against the theme of the Exposition?
Think about how daily life in Tennessee has changed over time. What important events have taken place in Tennessee? What are some products Tennesseans have produced? If you were to design an exposition today what do you think would be important to showcase? Imagine what an exposition today would look like. Using paper, markers, and/or crayons, design a plan for your own exposition.
Grace Allen is an Educator for the Tennessee State Museum.