Memphis museums highlight Bluff City history, culture, and art

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) – The Bluff City is home to more than two museums, each with its own draw.

Local history, culture, and art are enshrined in the halls and galleries of Bluff City museums, preserving treasures that give Memphis its identity.

And what better way to explore that uniqueness than to take a seat and let the conductor punch your ticket on a whistle stop tour through Memphis’ Railroad and Trolley Museum.

”Our whole focus is telling the Memphis railroad history story. We’re unique in that we focus locally because there’s so much detail,” said Mike Fleming, president of Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum.

Tucked inside Memphis’ Central Station on the Southwest Corner of South Main and G.E. Patterson is the little museum that could.

”We have artifacts that show the way the conductors operated, the way train people did their business,” said Joe Oliver, vice president of Memphis Railroad and Trolley. “The Frisco bridge or the Great Memphis bridge as it was originally, opened in 1892. It was the first railroad bridge south of St. Louis and it was in 1890, was one of the 7 Engineering Wonders of the World.”

That bridge and the subsequent expansion of Memphis’ first bit of track into the Norfolk Southern Rail Line put Memphis on the express line to become a transportation hub.

Get in gear and drive on down to Marshall Avenue in Memphis’ Edge District where the Edge Motor Museum takes visitors on a ride through the rise, plateau, and fall of the American sports car.

”Featuring cars from post-war to ’74 in an exhibit we call ‘American Speed,” said Richard Vining, Edge Motor Museum’s executive director.

Almost every inch of the 12,000 square-foot building is covered in rubber, steel, and fiberglass with more than a dozen cars, many in the 200 mile per hour club. They each tell a story, like the Memphis music connection to a Rocket 88.

“Right down the street is Sun Records and the first song they ever recorded was Rocket 88 by Ike Turner and the Delta Cats,” said Vining.

The cars are on loan, many of them from collectors who make up the museum’s exclusive membership.

From the racetrack to the Memphis museum that brings the races together is the National Civil Rights Museum, inside what was once the, Lorraine Motel, at 450 Mulberry Street in the South Main Historic Arts District.

For almost 30 years, the museum has inspired generations of people around the world with its poignant and personal presentation of the civil rights movement throughout history. The National Civil Rights Museum opened in September 1991, just a few years after a group of concerned citizens sounded the alarm in the mid-80s that the Lorraine Motel was headed for urban renewal annihilation.

”We found the community support to say, ‘You know what, this place has value. We want to keep it sacred.’ Yes, what happened here was tragic, but it’s our story and we deserve to have that story told here more than any place else,” said Noelle Trent, with the National Civil Rights Museum Interpretation, Collections, and Education.

Most know the story of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Room 306 is now a time capsule of April 4, 1968, but it’s so much more than a memorial.

”So, now when people come to visit, they expect to see the place where Dr. King was assassinated. What they walk away with it is an understanding of African American history in the United States and an understanding of the Lorraine Motel’s place in that story,” Trent said.

Outdoor listening posts guide guests through five centuries of history, from resistance of enslavement to seminal turning points of the late 20th century. Indoors, the museum’s complex of historic buildings holds 260 artifacts, more than 40 films, oral histories, and interactive media.

This priceless trove is located less than a mile from another museum with a single form of historic media: photographs.

At 333 Beale Street, the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery boasts 7,000 square-feet of Memphis and American history.

Born in 1922 in Memphis, Ernest Withers took his first photographs at Manassas High School. He later trained at the Army School of Photography during World War II.

Rosalind Withers says her father’s life was dedicated to capturing moments of black life in the South, in turn, creating a cultural archive like none other.

“Some of the history is painful and some of it is so beautiful. It really reveals a culture and a life of a race of people,” said Rosalind Withers.

The collection covers 60-plus years from the 1940s until Withers passed in 2007: Sports, civil rights, lifestyle, and music.

”1.8 million images is the low-ball estimate,” said Connor Scanlon, Withers Museum digital database manager.

The new “Pictures Tell the Story” virtual museum tour recently brought the museum online.

”It’s graphic. It’s direct. There are segments that are in your face. But most importantly, it’s the truth. It hurts, and it’ll do you good,” said Chuck O’Brannon, virtual tour producer and director.

Withers was meticulous in his note keeping, labeling each envelope with descriptions of the images inside. The museum is digitizing the collection and working hard to find resources needed to properly house the deteriorating archives.

”Having this pictorial, now digital content, to be able to teach from is amazing,” said Rosalind Withers.

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