Most of us remember the mandatory field trip to a local history museum. Grumbling, we piled on the bus and once there, unenthusiastically eyed a dusty collection of artifacts supposed to have some connection to what we were learning in school.
Prepare to turn that museum stereotype inside out.
When the reconceived Chattanooga History Center opens in the Tennessee Aquarium Plaza at the end of this year, it will be another crown jewel in downtown’s already glittering collection of top-notch attractions. And there is no doubt it will also raise a few eyebrows—which is just fine with the center’s best advocate, its young and fervent director, Dr. Daryl Black.
“The center will tell the stories of seven major turning points in Chattanooga’s history,” he says. “There has been reluctance in the past to fully deal with some parts of that history. History is acts of memory. Some of what the center will have to tell will move the community’s memories in different directions.”
From side street to front and center
The Chattanooga Regional History Museum was started in an elementary school by a group of grassroots volunteers. By 1978, it was housed at the corner of First and Chestnut Streets, where it stayed, with additional space at 401 Broad St., until 2006.
“At that point, the board of directors made a bold decision,” Black says. “Visitor numbers were way down. You could look out the windows and see people with small children making the decision not to brave the traffic to get to the museum.”
So the museum’s board began a visioning process that ultimately included getting community input into what people wanted in a history museum, raising $10 million from private sources and community foundations, and acquiring the space formerly housing the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, directly next to the aquarium.
The name was officially changed to Chattanooga History Center, Black was hired, became executive director in 2009, and a world-class design firm, New York’s Ralph Appelbaum Associates—whose commissions include the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville—was contracted to recreate the building from the inside out.
“The new center will tell compelling stories in a narrative way,” says Black, “Chattanooga has been the turning-point place several times in American history. There is so much story to tell.”
Referring to Hayden White’s influential essay “The Burden of History”, he explains, “Historians need to help us understand how people experienced their lives in specific times and specific places. So, we ask ‘What is history and how does it function in modern society?’”
In other words, dust is out and relevance is in.
The seven stories
Black’s major task was to identify both the most important Chattanooga stories to tell and work with the design team on how to tell them. The final list includes:
• The Trail of Tears. “We’ll show how it started, the connection with the railroads and gold,” Black says. The center’s galleries will include interviews with contemporary Cherokee recounting the stories of their ancestors and relating them to their lives today.
• Transportation. “Chattanooga was the center of the rail network, making it enormously important in that connection,” Black notes.
• The Civil War. In addition to the well-known battles, the center will focus on the divided loyalties of the region. “The farmers of East Tennessee had little in common with the plantation owners of the Deep South,” Black says. “However, Unionists here were not anti-slavery but did want to preserve the Union.” He explains that one of the reasons Chattanooga’s African-American population grew so rapidly is that when the city fell to the Union army, thousands of slaves fled to freedom behind Union lines. This laid the foundation for a city that is still, according to the most recent U.S. Census, nearly 35 percent African-American. Materials in the center’s press kit state: “In Chattanooga, self-emancipating slaves and their descendants created one of the nation’s most creative and cohesive African-American communities.”