The South has many faces. Trying to piece together a complete picture of the region can seem impossible.
Museum tours can illustrate the cultural range of the South from acclaimed art collections to engaging tours about coal mining. These five intriguing museums reveal the history, heritage and heart of the South.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
The brainchild of Walmart heiress Alice Walton, the stunning Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is not only about offering visitors the chance to see works from American artists like Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock for free. Instead, said public relations director Beth Bobbitt, “I think what makes it so special is the intersection of art, nature and architecture. The architecture is really what embodies the mission to connect our visitors with art and nature. The architect, Moshe Safdie, was inspired by the natural landscape, and so the museum is actually built into a ravine, the walls are curved to mimic the Ozark hills, and Arkansas pine is used on the vaulted beams. It’s all meant to create this welcoming place that is also very respectful of the surroundings.”
Visitor favorites in the museum, which opened November, 11, 2011, and features a collection of 3,330 objects, include Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed.” But there’s more than visual art to experience on the 120-acre campus. Groups are welcome to wander the five miles of trails dotted with sculptures and visit the Frank Lloyd Wright house, opened on the grounds in 2015.
“We do some guided group experiences,” Bobbitt said. “If you have a group of more than 10 and up to 60 guests, we can include a seated lunch in Eleven — our restaurant — or a box lunch. We offer tours themed around subjects like architecture and women in art, and there are some tours that happen outside on our trails.”
Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice
In downtown Montgomery, the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice give groups a powerful look at the history of slavery, lynching and segregation perpetrated against black people in this country. Both the museum and memorial opened in April 2018, and since that time, some 650,000 people have visited them.
The museum is in an 11,000-square-foot facility on the footprint of a building that warehoused enslaved black people and near historic sites where they were trafficked. It contains state-of-the-art exhibits, including a re-creation of slave pens, using video, art and animation to tell the story of racial injustice in the United States, often using the victims’ own words.
“The National Memorial for Peace and Justice,” said a spokesperson for the Equal Justice Initiative, “is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
The outdoor memorial features a central square, sculptures that are dedicated to the women heroes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and that explore criminal justice system discrimination, and exhibits of writing from authors like Toni Morrison. The memorial is a little more than a 15-minute walk from the museum. Tours are self-guided.
Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine
Beckley, West Virginia
Although there are only a few coal mines in the United States that offer tours, according to Leslie Baker, director of operations for the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, the attraction’s mission is what really makes it special.
“Our country’s back was built on the efforts of its miners,” Baker said. “Without the coal that was extracted, we wouldn’t have the steel that built our skyscrapers, roads and battleships. And I don’t think most people know that. It’s just not explained in our history classes. So that’s what we do: We let people know that coal fueled our economic development.”
The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine educates and enlightens by offering a variety of singular experiences to visitors, showcasing what life was like for miners in the early 20th century. Groups can visit a coal camp with historical buildings, including a school, a miner’s shanty, a superintendent’s house and more, interpreted by women who grew up in similar camps. The attraction also features a museum with coal mining artifacts from the region. But the biggest crowd-pleaser is the punch mine, which operated as a small-scale family-owned enterprise until about 1910.
Today, groups are ferried some 1,500 feet into the mine in a “man car,” escorted by retired miners who provide firsthand perspective about working underground. Topics include mining equipment, dinner buckets and how canaries were used to warn workers of dangerous gas buildup in the tunnels.
“Each miner brings different stories to his interpretation, so that’s really what people love,” Baker said.
High Museum of Art
Founded in 1905 as the Atlanta Art Association, the High Museum of Art has endured more triumphs and tragedies than a Shakespearean drama. In 1962, 122 members and friends of the association perished while returning home from a tour of European art capitals when their plane went down near Paris. Just 20 years later, the institution had rebounded, opening a stunning new structure designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier, which tripled the High’s space. In 2005, in response to the museum’s ever-expanding acquisitions, the High debuted three new buildings by Renzo Piano, upping its size to 312,000 square feet.
Today, the museum boasts an encyclopedic collection of more than 17,000 objects, including major holdings of 19th- and 20th-century American fine and decorative art; photography; work from folk and self-taught artists, including the legendary Southern painter Howard Finster; and modern and contemporary art. In 2019, the museum acquired the stunning Doris and Shouky Shaheen Collection of 24 works from impressionist and postimpressionist artists, including Monet, Matisse and Renoir.
According to Marci Tate Davis, manager of public relations for the High Museum of Art, the institution is distinguished not only by this new collection but also by its very home.
“The buildings are works of art in and of themselves,” Davis said. “Groups can take a tour called Adventures in Architecture that looks at our building architecture. We also have what we call our Highlights Tour, which is sort of an overview of the collection galleries, our Discover African Art tour, as well as a Women in Art tour and also a tour that celebrates black history.”
National Blues Museum
St. Louis, Missouri
Seminal blues musician Willie Dixon once said of his chosen genre: “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits.”
Since its 2016 opening, the National Blues Museum has been doing just that through an engaging combination of interactive exhibits — including the chance to play in a jug band — entertaining short films and fascinating artifacts like a red, sparkly Chuck Berry stage costume with a threadbare spot worn down by the performer’s guitar strap.
The National Blues Museum highlights the history of the blues, including the piano-intensive St. Louis style, and traces its influence on other genres of music, like rock ’n’ roll, funk and soul. It even hosts concerts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday that are open to the public.
“A lot of people come to the museum,” said Erin Mahony, the institution’s deputy director. “They have a great time looking at the exhibits, and then they stay for the music.
“If you bring a group tour to the museum but it’s not possible for you to stay for a concert, we can book musicians to play. We’re right next door to a very popular barbecue restaurant called Sugarfire, so a lot of times groups will bring in lunch from it, and I’ll book some live music for them. Then they get to have the whole St. Louis blues and barbecue experience.”