Dr. Daryl Black - Chattanooga History CenterDr. Daryl Black - Chattanooga History Center
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.”
• Urban renewal projects of the 1950s and ’60s. Here Black expects what history recounts to be controversial. Government monies earmarked for “urban renewal” were used to push African-American populations out of areas they had traditionally occupied. Vibrant neighborhoods were destroyed and the “projects” were built. Black is convinced that Chattanooga must look at all aspects of its past in order to understand its present and future.
• The civil rights movement in Chattanooga. The actual voices and stories of those who participated in the lunch counter sit-ins will be used, telling the story of how Howard High students decided on their own to contest “whites only” rules.
• Chattanooga’s role as one of the U.S.’s major industrial centers. The city’s rail and river systems continue to make it pivotal. “Entrepreneurs and industrialists made Chattanooga one of the nation’s most diverse industrial economies through the 1950s, and, in the process, created the most successful marketing system in the world,” press materials state. This story will also include the downside of pollution and eventual industrial decay.
• The now world-famous process of revitalization, starting with Vision 2000, that continues today, and of which the center itself is an example. “It was not just about building pretty places,” Black says. “It was about making an economy work.”
“Lanterns” of information
During a recent “hard hat” tour of the emerging facility, Black explained that as the center was being re-imagined inside an existing building, one of the main challenges was “getting people from outside into and through the center while maintaining a good narrative flow.” Space was not the problem—there was plenty of that. But modernizing the idea of “museum”, and using all the tools that modern technology makes available were key.
An orientation theater will show a film describing the various ways visitors can experience the center.
Open space will co-exist with smaller, more concentrated areas called “lanterns”, which will serve as “memory installations”, in which visitors can hear recorded interviews and view more detailed artifacts about the stories of the Cherokee Nation, the Civil War and contemporary voices. QR codes in all 11 galleries will allow any smart phone user to immediately link to additional web sources of information related to what is on display.
Color bands, starting at the approach to the building, continuing through the front door and through the galleries will help guide visitors to and through the facility, but, Black emphasizes, each person can experience the center in their own way. Some will want all the high-tech bells and whistles—others will prefer to wander untethered through the galleries and lanterns, absorbing at a different rate.
Huge windows in selected areas allow natural light and a connection to the outdoors, further distancing the center from the enclosed, cloister-like atmosphere of older museums.
Another important concept from the very beginning, he adds, was creating mid-sized meeting rooms that could be used by the community for a variety of purposes. Two of those are included in the design.
And of course, there will be a museum store, which will feature a number of locally produced items related to the artifacts and exhibits in the galleries.
“History does not exist outside the stories we conjure for ourselves,” Black says. The Chattanooga History Center is being designed to both conjure those stories and add to them the stories of others, creating a living narrative. Far from being dusty, history emerges as a vivid link to a past that is always with us.
Chattanooga History Center
When the new history center opens at the end of 2012, Daryl Black says
he expects 69,000 visitors annually. The center will include:
• 20,000 square feet of floor space
• Eleven exhibition galleries
• Orientation Theater
• Three Memory Installations
• Crisis Theater
• Story Center
• Two class/meeting rooms
• Museum store
• Collection storage and archives
Visit the center’s website at chattanoogahistory.org